How you dress to go to court is important. Courtrooms are one of the most formal workplaces in the country. Judges are very strict about attire from their staff to lawyers to parties to witnesses to spectators. Only jurors can sometimes get away with more relaxed attire. The last thing you want to do is get kicked out of a courtroom or have the judge postpone your appearance due to your clothes. Your appearance will definitely tell the judge a lot about you and sometimes those small cues the judge picks up can make a difference. In general, you want to have a conservative, professional appearance.
You will not impress the judge with flashy jewelry or trendy outfits. Even if your attorney comes to court wearing something you feel violates the rules below, keep in mind that your attorney appears in court regularly and knows the judges better than you. Your attorney might even dress a particular way to influence witnesses or juries. Your presence at court might be the only time the judge ever sees you. Your short time at court may affect the way the judge views your entire case. If there is a jury then the jurors are almost certainly judging you based on your appearance. The basic rule: dress for success.
General rule on what to wear to court
Courthouses traditionally are built to impress. By building large impressive monuments to justice the courthouse commands respect. As a person who is going to enter the courthouse you should also impress with an appearance that commands respect but also shows respect to the business conducted within its doors. By appearing as a serious person in a serious place you are more likely to be taken as a serious person who takes their presence at court seriously.
What your parents told you about first impressions is very true at court: you only get one chance to make a first impression. For many people appearing in court you may only see the judge once or twice and you may speak very little or not at all. Your appearance will speak more than your voice ever will at court. Judges are notorious for believing they have a high level ability to read people with a glance and they tend to invest their impression of people into their decision-making on cases. If you will spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on an attorney to present the best case possible then you should do your part with your appearance at court. I have had clients with good cases sink themselves by coming to court with an appearance that turned off the judge.
What to wear to court for men
With men the biggest problem is often not dressing up enough. Men have few clothing options so their job is easier than women with what to wear to court. Men generally do not have to worry about clothing appearing too revealing or inappropriate for the circumstances beyond underdressing. Men deal in cutting edge fashion trends far less than women so men tend to dress for court in less flashy colors or overly trendy styles.
Men’s clothing generally breaks down like this:
- Formal: tuxedo, black suit
- Business professional: grey, blue, brown, tan suits (with tie) and in some cases slacks with dress shirt, tie and sports coat (suit jacket) and always dress shoes
- Traditional business casual: slacks plus tucked-in dress shirt and dress shoes, with or without tie, with or without sports coat
- Modern business casual: slacks or khakis plus dress shirt or polo shirt (either may not always be tucked in) and dress shoes or upscale casual shoes, suit without tie
- Everything else
Men will be safe wearing business professional attire to court. A nice grey or blue suit is generally always a safe bet to wear to court. For brief hearings traditional business casual is usually an acceptable option and in somewhat more relaxed settings even modern business casual may be acceptable. It’s always better to overdress (up to business professional) than underdress. If you don’t own a suit then a dress shirt, slacks and dress shoes are usually a good starting point for what to wear to court. I usually advise men not to run out and buy a suit for court that they may never wear for years. It is usually better to arrive well groomed and appear to have made an honest effort.
Too often men appear at court wearing casual attire or very relaxed business casual attire. These are not the best options. Remember, the judge will pay attention to your appearance. If you arrive with a casual look the judge may not believe you take this seriously. That is a potential risk to your case you can easily avoid.
Here are some things men should not wear to court:
- Jeans (no matter how expensive or nice)
- Anything denim
- Tennis or sports shoes (no matter how expensive, nice, or rare)
- Excessive jewelry
- Loud watches
- Baggy clothing
- Ripped or dirty clothing
- Brightly colored suits
- Work boots
- Anything with a large logo
- Anything with a slogan
- Collarless shirts
Here are some general rules men should follow when deciding what to wear to court:
- Shave and groom facial hair. This is a low cost way to look nice and professional. Make sure you shave the morning of court and that any facial hair is trimmed and shaped as appropriate. If you normally sport a wild beard it might be best to groom it into something more tame for the day.
- Conceal piercings and tattoos as much as possible. I know tattoos and piercings are increasingly more acceptable but your judge may not share that acceptance, especially in the courtroom. If you have sleeves then cover them with shirtsleeves. If you still have visible ink or piercings maybe go an extra mile and throw on a tie.
- Overly baggy or tight clothes. Trends swing back and forth between baggy clothes and tight clothes for men. Judges are usually not especially trendy and are likely to find anything too far to one extreme or the other less appropriate.
- Opt for a business color scheme. Safe options for colors, styles, patterns and fabrics include conservative business clothing. This is especially true for color. Grey or blue suits are good. Grey or blue slacks are also safe options. Black or brown dress shoes are great as appropriate for the color of slacks. White or blue dress shirts with no pattern or a tame pattern are safe bets. Avoid loud patterns, loud colors, bright shoes.
An easy way to figure out what to wear is to watch business news (or news clips on Youtube) and see what the reporters and executives wear. You may not need to wear a suit but those men tend to dress in business professional attire within contemporary styles. You can adopt their suit color choice for slacks.
What to wear to court for women
Women have a tougher time meeting a judge’s expectations for several reasons. Judges, both men and women, often have conservative views of how women should dress that might be decades old. Women also have far more clothing options than men for any given situation and colors, fabrics and patterns that would be too bold for court for men can be fine for women. Men have a single option for business attire–suits–but women have many options that are suitable business professional attire. Even business casual for men is a small set of options; however, for women business casual spans an enormous range of styles, components and fit. It is far easier for women to dress for court in less than ideal attire for these and other reasons.
The rules for what women should wear to court are more about what to avoid than what is best to wear. A safe option would be a knee length skirt or dress pants with a sleeved top in conservative colors and patterns. Suits of any kind are fine options for women to wear to court but not necessary under most circumstances. Traditional business colors are safe options–grey, navy, white.
Let’s talk about some basic rules about the style of what you may wear to court and what to avoid:
- Skirt or dress length. Women attorneys on legal shows often wear shorter skirts than what you typically see in court. Knee length or longer is the appropriate length.
- Pants. Women’s fashion includes a lot of pants lengths from barely more than shorts to all the way to the floor. Traditional pants length at or just above the ankle are appropriate for court. No capris or mid-calf pants. Tights, leggings and jeans are not appropriate choices.
- Sleeves. You will at times find women wearing sleeveless dresses or tops at court but a safe option is to opt for a sleeve at the elbow or longer. You never know if the judge will find exposed shoulders too racy.
- Neckline. Like sleeves a conservative option is the safer option here. You don’t need a collared shirt but cleavage is not necessary and more likely to hurt your cause than help. Generally any neckline without cleavage is ok. If you wear a button up shirt button above cleavage.
- Fit. Regardless of current trends or your body shape you should avoid clothing which is too tight or too baggy. This is tough because a lot of women’s clothing is designed for a tighter fit. This is ok but anything that is too tight or body contouring is probably too tight. It is a good idea to select clothing with a little give to the fit.
- Shoes. A low to mid heeled shoe is a good height although flats can be acceptable if they are not too casual. Dress boots are fine in most courts during cooler months. Anything with a heel higher than 3-3.5″ is too much. A closed toe shoe is the safest option but strappy shoes should be avoided. No athletic shoes, sandals or thigh-high boots.
- Tights/hose. Older judges sometimes find bare legs inappropriate at court but this view is quickly phasing out so it is not necessary. If you decide to wear them then the same rules will apply to anything else. Traditional colors are fine but patterns are usually too casual for courtrooms.
- Jewelry. Jewelry is fine within reason. Avoid excessive amounts of jewelry, large pieces and anything that makes noise.
- Makeup. Like jewelry, makeup is fine within reason. Avoid wearing too much or too bold makeup.
- Hair. The more traditional the cut, style and color the safer but practically there is only so much you can do with your hair if you need to go to court for a single hearing. It would be best to avoid getting a bold color or less traditional cut beforehand. Most important is that your hair is clean and groomed or styled for court.
Like with men you should come to court in clean clothes in good shape. No torn or ripped clothes–even if that is a current fashion trend. No slogans or large logos. If you have visible tattoos or body pierces it would be best to conceal them for court if possible.
It’s tough to point to examples in the media for women because women in the media are often encouraged to dress more stylishly or slightly more provocative than appropriate for court. A good option is to look at what women wear on your local television news programming and opt for some of their more conservative looks.
What to wear to court for teenage girl
The group that violates these recommendations more than anybody are teenage girls. They tend not to have business type attire and no reason to have it in their closet. Their views on dressing professionally are almost always shaped by media and what seems to be a motivation to dress up usually means wearing clothes that are too tight and too revealing. The rules what a teenage girl should wear to court are essentially the same as women:
- knee length dress with a conservative neckline
- knee length skirt with a top with a conservative neckline
- dress pants with a top with a conservative neckline
- Shoes can be heels, boots, or flats. Nothing with a heel more than three inches, strappy, or too casual. No sandals or athletic shoes.
- Moderate jewelry, makeup and hair style.
- Avoid clothing that is too tight or baggy. Avoid anything ripped, torn, or cut off.
- No jeans, tights, or leggings as pants.
Ask your attorney what to wear to court
When in doubt ask your attorney what you should wear to court. Your attorney may have insight on what the judge prefers or what might be appropriate for your case. For example, if you are in a custody proceeding and claim you don’t have a lot of money then you should not show up to court with expensive clothes and an expensive hair style. For most people following the above suggestions will set you up for success at court but you are paying your attorney for their expertise. Don’t be afraid to ask your attorney for help.