Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cultured Barrister: Sartorial Style, Part 1—The Overcoat

The Cultured Barrister is a SCOV Law Column that is an ongoing miscellany cataloguing the matters that young attorneys are likely to be confronting as they begin their professional ascent.  The CB is meant to begin a conversation and rarely will claim the final word.  If you agree or disagree, the Cultured Barrister and the other readers of this blog want to hear from you.

I distinctly remember that fall day as a first-year associate when I opened the closet for something to wear over the Brooks Brothers suit that I had purchased as a trophy of a successful job search.  In my hall closet, there were several fleece vests and pull overs, a windbreaker, and a barn coat.  I opted for the latter and left with the tails of my suit jacket peeping out from the bottom of a tan jacket originally purchased for and carrying the scars of a long-since abandoned career in landscaping.  I looked like a farmer going out to bury his mother.

The problem that many of us face at the beginning of our legal career is that we do not have the clothes.  Sure there are a few of us, who like Gay Talese, had tailors for parents who left us with racks of hand-tailored suits.  But the rest of us start at the bottom, slowly accumulating the shirts, suits, and matching ties or scarves and necklaces while ditching the crimson satin shirts and off-the-rack casual skirts that defined our undergraduate sense of elegance.  We adopt the uniform of the attorney: dark suits of conservative cut, white or blue shirts and ties for men, a simple blouse for women.  This is changing, but slowly.  When asked most judges and older attorneys will point to the dress code above as the model and the aspirational norm.

Because it is one of the more expensive items and because most associates start in the late summer, the overcoat is often the last item added to the wardrobe.  But two realities of practicing in Vermont always make this purchase inevitable: winter and rain.  The aforementioned Brooks Brothers suit was almost ruined a month before the barn coat fiasco when a late-afternoon rainstorm coincided with a hearing at the courthouse down the street.  Only the numerous alcoves along the way saved what is still a significant investment of wool and Canadian thread.

So what should we wear to not only cover ourselves and our suits, but to look less like a funereal farmer or soaked solicitor?

Let us start at the beginning.  The overcoat is intended as the outermost garment in formal dress.  A true overcoat extends past the knee.  By definition, a Peacoat is not an overcoat.  It is too short.  A good overcoat is made of heavy material, like fur or wool.  A good overcoat is a single color with black, blue, camel hair, and brown being the most common and traditionally acceptable.  Very few of us can carry the fur coat look without being mistaken for a FrenchCanadian Fur Trapper.  Although I have it on good authority from Middlebury that it can be done with panache.

Like most innovations, the overcoat owes a large debt to the military.  Napoleon popularized the overcoat during his 19th century winter campaigns and the tradition carried through Europe until World War II with the introduction of the field coat and Denison Smock.  This includes one of the few positive contributions of the first World War, the Trench Coat.  That coat is one of the more difficult looks to pull off.  Unless you occupy a smoky, black and white world or solve crime with batman, the trench coat may have to wait.  

The modern overcoat is the descendent of several variations that have held sway over the past two hundred years of fashion.  These including several caped versions known as the Great Coat, the Inverness Coat and the Ulster Coat.  None of which are appropriate for court unless your opponent is Moriarty.  Others include the Frock Overcoat, the Redingote, the Paletotcoat, the Paddockcoat, the Chesterfield Coat, and the Covert Coat.  Only the last of these is really still worn by people outside of Carnaby Street or PBS dramas.

What should you look for in an overcoat?  Fortunately, nearly every retailer of men and women's business wear carries a version of the modern overcoat.  The rule of thumb is conservative.  Dark colors are best, followed by the brown and tans.  Elegant, simple cuts of good fabric with quality stitching will serve you better than a two-for-one deal.  For everyone's sake, avoid tweed.  An overcoat should last for years and if cared for, it becomes an heirloom that your children will eventually give to a thrift store where some unknown future hipster will revive it in the most ironic manner possible.  But who cares? You will be dead by then.

The point is that an overcoat is an investment.  A classic cut will weather time and fickle fashion better than a more-stylish cut.  Just ask your mother to pull out her denim acid-washed jacket from her Def Leppard roadie days.  A good overcoat is a purchase that you should only make once, which is a long time to live with regret.

But what about rain?  A wool Overcoat is no greater protection from a downpour and highly impractical in a summer shower.  The conventional wisdom is that a lightweight, water-resistant version of the overcoat is the appropriate option.  But that is bunk.  Formal raincoats, like trenchcoats, are creatures of the pastexercises in kitsch that look dated and are impracticallike rubbers over wingtipsRod Stewart notwithstanding.  The success that outdoor gear companies have had wedding technology to design means that the most practical raincoatsi.e., coats with hoods, waterproofing, and effective, zipper closuresare found at North Face, EMS, or similar outfitters.  The comparison is not even close, and the culture reflects it.  While most lawyers have an overcoat for the winter, most of those same lawyers have a Lowe Alpine shell or Mountain Hardware parka for the other three seasons.  This is perfectly acceptable.  They are stylish, practical, and in Vermont, where one is never far from the trailhead, ubiquitous.

For these reasons, it is better for a young lawyer to sink the wad on the winter overcoat, and then splurge on a high-tech shell that she can use on the weekends as well as the commute.  Both are costly and both will last for years.  One offers more gravitas, but the other gives us spirit and hope, perhaps a sign that we are not lean solicitors who exist only to break seals in empty rooms.

the Cultured Barrister


  1. Not sure if it was your intention, but your post is strikingly similar in feel to the satire of Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" (excluding of course the murderous rampage embodied in that piece.

    I you have yet to sample Ellis' work, I would suggest it. The satire of material excess brought forth by the 1980's, while funny, is perhaps not what lawyers entering the profession are concerned with today. We are struggling to eat, to find jobs (even non-legal), and are saddled with hundreds of thousands in debt.

    Thus, while I can certainly appreciate your prose for comedic value, you might be surprised to find that newly admitted attorney's have greater concerns these days than which overcoat to buy or whether our business cards contain a watermark and subtle off-white coloring.

    Just a thought...

  2. The Cultured BarristerOctober 20, 2010 at 4:37 PM

    I am familiar with Ellis' oeuvre and congratulate you on identifying some of the elements at work here. Your point about struggling is valid, but we, as professionals, have the greatest opportunity to raise ourselves up, and while $100k of law school debt is daunting, it is at least not $100K of philosophy school debt or a degree in comparative lit. At some point, we will all have the chance to sip the rich ambrosia of success, the question then will be whether we use a dixie cup or a Simon Pearce goblet.

  3. This article from Slate made me wonder if I would in fact be any worse off with a philosophy degree:

  4. The Cultured BarristerOctober 28, 2010 at 10:44 AM

    A fair point, but considering that most of my fellow philosophy degree holders who went on to graduate school are doing something else---teaching elementary school above the arctic circle in Alaska, dealing blackjack at a casino, heading up an avant garde band on poverty row, or driving truck cross-country---I will stand by the legal profession as a good investment in the long run. While I am not a dogmatic free-marketer, I have to think that the imbalance between supply and demand will even out. People will always need lawyers. And lawyers will need overcoats! It is just a question of number.