Who says looks don't count?

Mark Barrowcliffe charts the progress of fashion for lawyers and discovers the de riguer dress code for the 90s

Fashion consultant Ruth Davis takes two lawyers in hand to help polish up their professional image

Mark Barrowcliffe charts the progress of fashion for lawyers and discovers the de riguer dress code for the 90s

The courtroom and the catwalk seem to have little in common. Law-yers are a sober bunch who reflect their personalities in their businesslike dress.

Those who step out of line can expect to be reprimanded by colleagues, clients or judges.

However things are changing. The profession has come a long way from the days of 1973, when a judge told one barrister, who prefers to remain anonymous, that he was never again to appear before him dressed in an outrageous and disrespectful manner. The barrister's crime was to wear a purple shirt with a modest white stripe, the cuff of which was visible beneath his robes.

In those days it was not unusual for a judge to pull up a lawyer for wearing a double breasted suit without a waistcoat underneath. Now, lawyers have more freedom to express themselves through their clothes. Even some of the traditional City firms like Linklaters & Paines have announced its women lawyers are allowed to wear trousers.

But most lawyers still prefer to dress modestly.

Criminal barrister Jim Sturman from 3 Hare Court says his clients expect their barrister to look the part. They want to see that they are being represented by someone who is a member of the establishment, and is capable of being taken seriously by it.

“Most criminals are deeply conservative, innocent people too if it comes to that matter. The client is often reassured from it.”

Individuality, he says, is best expressed through the tie in the case of male barristers.

“I am notorious for wearing revolting ties. l get them from the US, all over the place; I have a couple of Paul Smith ones, basically anything that's revolting. My only moment of glory was when I was on the front page of The Times when Colin Stagg was acquitted – the tie I'm wearing in that photograph is pretty vile. But really that's all you can do because obviously you don't wear your tie in court, you're wearing collar and bands.”

Sturman's taste in ties can perhaps be explained by his colourful past, which included a spell as a punk rocker. Nowadays, he restricts himself to the odd t-shirt sporting the name of a band at weekends.

“I don't think it would go down very well if I turned up in bondage trousers and something through my nose in the Central Criminal Court.”

The influence of Messrs Rotten and Co does not extend to Leon Morgan, senior partner at media firm Davenport Lyons, even though he runs a firm which handles business for pop stars. Even the wilder musicians prefer a lawyer in a sober suit and tie, he says.

“Some of our partners do have slightly longer hair than might be allowed in more general business firms, and some have very short hair, but on the whole pop stars don't want their lawyer to look like an A&R man. They want to see some-one who looks businesslike.”

He too, however, has a taste for slightly exotic ties. “I have some with swirling patterns, particularly by a woman called Georgina von Ecktorf.

He notes that the Savile Row suit is seen less and less among lawyers. “I have several tailor-made suits, but I tend not to put them on. I think part of it is down to the fact that you can get good hard-wearing suits off-the-peg. Most of our staff would wear things from Next and Marks & Spencer; mainly the dark blue and grey ones.”

But, says Morgan, bearing out Evelyn Waugh's assertion as to the colours acceptable for gentlemen, “You could not get away with brown.”

Solicitors, unlike barristers, he says, are generally expected to be smart. “The eccentric professorial approach, the mad intellectual or the donnish look is easier for barristers to get away with. I think it is because they are briefed by solicitors, and if we think they are good we will use them.”

However, barrister Christian Du Cann feels his colleagues are coming more and more to dress like solicitors, particularly since they are in competition with them.

“There has definitely been a phasing out of the rolled umbrella and penguin suit. Cheaper double-breasted suits are now considered appropriate for the courts. However, most would keep the suit done up, I don't think it's considered right to show the stomach.”

He says that you can always spot a barrister travelling on the London Underground, however. Apart from the pilot case and hold-all or red and blue robe bag, the barrister wears good lace-up shoes. “It's a purely cultural thing. There's no rule about it at all,” he says.

One cultural phenomenon that annoys partner Eileen Pembridge of London firm Fisher Meredith is the tyranny of the black stocking over women lawyers.

“What I can't stand is dark black stockings among solicitors. I'm always asking my staff here: 'Who's died?' I think it's unnecessary. If I have to wear tights I wear the very fine 10 denier black gloss ones. They say they ladder easily so most women wear the thick stuff on the basis of cost, but I think it's depressing.

“You don't have to look as if you're dressed for a party but you don't have to wear black

all the time. I work in family law and people are depressed enough without their lawyers looking like they got on the wrong bus.

“You have to be smart but there's no reason why you can't look cheerful.”

Solicitor Denis Whalley of St Helens firm J Kieth Park & Co recalls that one judge, who now sits in St Helens and Liverpool, had his own way of brightening up the court room.

“He always made a point of wearing violently coloured socks. Now, while he was in court no one could really see.his socks – they'd only get the odd glimpse. So it was a small rebellion but it made me smile.”