What NOT to Wear To Divorce and Custody Court

Posted on Feb 3, 2021 by Katie Carter


Going to court is intimidating. Especially in this day in age, when it’s not only a question of facing your husband and/or child’s father, but a pretty significant COVID-19 risk.

There are a lot of things about court – and contested cases – that we can’t control. But there are some things we can control and, to the extent that we can, we should do whatever we can to help make sure that your case proceeds successfully, and that you’re in the best position possible to get the results you want.

One of the things we can control, as superficial as it sounds, is what you wear on the day of your hearing. I know, I know – it’s gendered, it’s ridiculous, it’s a double standard. But judges are the people in the case who have the LEAST information, and they’re human. They sometimes make snap judgments. They can’t help forming first impressions. They hold biases, both conscious and unconscious, that shape the decisions that they make on a daily basis.

It’s not scientific. It is what it is, really. But what you wear, and how you present yourself, is something that is within our control, and I think it’s important to wield that control to put together as effective a case as possible.

How you should dress for court isn’t necessarily intuitive. Or maybe it is, but I’ve seen plenty of people get it wrong, and I think it bears mentioning what sartorial choices I believe to be among the best for women going to court in custody and visitation cases.

1. You should not wear a suit to court as a party in a divorce or custody case.

I know it’s counterintuitive; of all the rules, I think this is probably the least intuitive. Attorneys wear suits to court; it’s obviously appropriate attire. Right?

Well, it’s not so much a question of appropriate versus inappropriate. (In some cases, it is – pajamas, or a sequined top you might wear to a club, are not appropriate fashion choices on the day of your hearing or trial, no matter what.) A suit IS appropriate attire for court. It’s what I’ll be wearing.  But it’s not what I’d prefer my clients wear.

We’re trying to tell a story – of you as a wife or a mother – and you in a suit isn’t really telling that story. It may even obscure the story we’re trying to tell. You don’t want to look professional; you want to look wifely, motherly, or whatever the case may be, depending on your case. I can’t think of a scenario in which a suit would achieve the desired effect better than a different outfit would.

Of course, if it’s down to pajamas or a suit, by all means, wear the suit.  But, really, the suit is something that an attorney should wear, not something that a party to the case should wear.

2. You should not have brightly dyed hair, tattoos, or piercings overwhelmingly visible.

A small tattoo on a wrist, or a tiny nose piercing, is one thing. But anything overt or unusual is probably not the best choice.  As a society, we’ve accepted some of these things a lot more than even 10 years ago.  I don’t think there’s anything alarming about a small ankle or wrist tattoo, or similar.  Still, there’s also no question that there won’t be any prejudice applied against you for NOT having tattoos — or similar — visible in the courtroom.

Hair in colors that normally appear in nature is a better choice. I know, it’s unfair and it’s frustrating and it’s old fashioned and it’s conservative and it’s all of those things – but, again, this is about putting your best possible foot forward. Virginia is, generally, a fairly conservative state, and judges are often older men and women. They don’t always share the same values that younger people do.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with pink hair or a full sleeve of artistic, brightly colored tattoos. You should definitely feel free to be you in other arenas. But, to the extent that you can adjust your appearance on the day of court to look a little more wifely or motherly, I think that would be well worth the effort.

If you do have tattoos, you can cover them with makeup or wear sleeves or other clothing that provides you with enough coverage.

3. You should not wear clothes that you would wear for an evening out.

I mentioned a sequined club top being an inappropriate choice for the courtroom, but, in general, anything that you might wear out in the evening is probably not what you should wear to court.

What should you wear? Well, I think I’d probably describe it best as church clothes. Trousers and a sweater, cardigan, or blouse, or a dress. Pantyhose are optional, but a nice touch. (I know, I sound like a fossil right now – who, besides the Duchess of Cambridge, wears pantyhose anymore?) Dressy heels or flats.

You should make sure your skirt — if you’re wearing a skirt — is long enough, and your top isn’t too low.  Ideally, too, your clothes would be tailored or well fit to you.  Simple and classic is best.

We’re not going for “sexy”, obviously.

I know this sounds like something out of a 1950s handbook. Though I am suggesting that you dress wifely and motherly, that doesn’t require a floral twinset and pearls. (Though, if you had them and/or wanted to wear them, that would certainly be fine.) You don’t need to be June Cleaver, or even Kate Middleton, but you do want to show yourself in the best possible light.

I don’t know who your judge is. Obviously. This is a general article made to benefit any woman who may be facing going to court. But I do think you’d do well to dress simply, and to not attract too much attention to yourself. Comfortable, but put together, will help you ensure that you come off as well as possible, and avoid the judge making any unconscious judgments about you based off of what you’re wearing.

I know it’s prehistoric. I know it’s gendered. I know it’s a little unfair, because a man can just wear trousers and a shirt with a tie and be fine. There aren’t nearly as many ways that a man can be judged as there are for a woman. But, at the end of the day, it’s one day – well, potentially a couple if you have multiple hearings, but only one day at a time – and a couple of hours. It’s well worth the time and energy you put into your appearance to avoid running into any issues.

Talk to your attorney about your specific judge and your case as your hearing approaches; you may be able to get more insight about your case as things progress. But, in general, it’s a good idea to think about these things ahead of time, and behave strategically.
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