A judge once asked me, in a magistrates’ court, why I wasn’t wearing a shirt and tie. I was wearing a dark, high-neck blouse, with a matching three-piece suit. I said, ‘Madam, it’s a blouse.’

She responded, ‘A what?’

I looked around at the women in the room, all wearing blouses. I repeated myself. ‘A blouse.’

Refusing to glance down at her own blouse, the judge said, ‘I don’t know what that is.’

At that point, a member of the court staff took the initiative to step in and whisper to the judge what gender non-conformity was. The judge left the topic alone, apparently disgruntled. It was a bizarre outlier to my general experiences at the Bar, so it lingers in my memory.

In life at the Bar, being gender non-conforming remains new, but awareness about it is growing. It brings with it challenges, especially for barristers whose practice means that they appear in court every day. Like, perhaps, that District Judge, some people resist change. The system has developed based on two boxes for everyone: man or woman. Conventional modes of address and court dress, for example, impose obvious constraints. In this article, I want to think about these aspects of the Bar. I want to be frank about being gender non-conforming and offer some uncomplicated, practical guidance, both for those already at the Bar and for those who aspire to join us.

That first decision

The start – as empty as it may sound – is to back yourself. It is daunting to stand up in a court if you have never done so before. Being gender non-conforming adds another layer. To dress in a way that doesn’t slot into an assigned, gendered box. To use terms that judges and magistrates may have never come across. There is a pressure to represent yourself that bit better, in case one encounter colours the other person’s perception of gender non-conforming people as a whole.

Before coming to the Bar, I thought about the gender binary for a long time. Like others, I have now concluded that it lacks sense. I can’t understand the need to assign ourselves to two, limiting categories, and then allocate our dress, titles and manner according to those categories. Still, for me, there have been moments of hesitation. The Bar is, traditionally, a place where you are supposed to go beneath the radar, not to say anything too political or give people too much detail about your beliefs or do anything that would distract from your case.

In a way, that reasoning has always been misleading. In most contexts, barristers – stereotypically, upper-class men speaking in heightened Received Pronunciation – barely go beneath the radar. But, maybe, it is what we have come to expect from the Bar, so that it is hard to notice these characteristics as anything other than the ‘norm’.

Nevertheless, my hesitation about being gender non-conforming fell away when I thought about other characteristics that make us stand out as advocates. Class, race, sexuality, disability, age – these are things that, many times, will mark us out from others. Some may be more noticeable. Some we can’t alter, unless we go to extreme lengths. Yet we practise with those characteristics and we win cases, occasionally, with the help of experiences we gained through having them. At other times, though we might not like to admit it, we lose cases because of those same experiences. We make guesses that don’t work with certain juries or judges. Once I accepted the extent to which barristers’ success rests on what makes them distinctive, I realised that I shouldn’t cram myself into a gendered box. The answer was to do something else.

Mode of address: ‘Mx’

The next step was about mode of address. I use the title, ‘Mx’. My reason for choosing it was really one of necessity. I have my own views about whether titles should ever be used – but I knew I had to pick one for a career at the Bar. I had to register membership with Lincoln’s Inn in late 2018 and I needed to choose how to go forward.

That was when I came across ‘Mx’. Pronounced ‘mux’ or ‘mix’, it originated in the 1970s as a reaction to the gendered boxes of ‘Mr’, ‘Ms’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’. In recent years, it has become better known. Many of the major banks recognise it, as well as many supermarkets, universities and voting organisations. ‘Mx’ is for anyone who: (a) does not want to use a title that is traditionally gendered, such as ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’; and/or (b) wants to use a title that indicates gender in a more open way, such as being non-binary.

Like the traditionally gendered titles, ‘Mx’ does not come from a piece of legislation. It is customary. Unlike them, it traces its origins to a more recent point in history. It does, however, feature in the Equal Treatment Bench Book (though only some judges seem to realise that). Because of these features, it can easily slot into the existing court process. Unhelpfully, the Crown Court has a sign-in system that doesn’t specify the title of the advocate, so a judge only receives a list of full names and usually makes assumptions based on them. I have tried to mitigate this by adding a short line about using ‘Mx’ to my comments on the Crown Court Digital Case System before hearings. If we’re thinking about practical steps in this area, an easy one would be for courts to add the advocate’s title to the list that the judge receives.


Perhaps the most discussed aspect of gender in recent years has been that of pronouns. While it is an important aspect, it can be over-emphasised.

For some people, pronouns are vital to who they are and how they are understood. In a sense, pronouns have always been. Many women have raised eyebrows at accidentally being called ‘he’ by a judge or an opponent in court. For other people, pronouns are not so central. For instance, I’m not particularly attached to a set of pronouns; for me, one purpose of being gender non-conforming is to reject ideas of fixed gender, including in our language. People sometimes find that difficult to navigate because they want me to choose one set only.

Put simply, pronouns are a matter for each person. A sensible starting point for everyone, though, is the use of gender-open pronouns: ‘they’ and ‘them’. To take this starting point helps us to monitor our assumptions and avoid unintentionally discriminatory language. Something as simple as email signatures can help with this, borrowing from the charitable and corporate worlds, identifying your pronouns in brackets. These steps are small; they aren’t transformative. But, small though they are, they aim to challenge our assumption of pronouns because we have grown up relying on uncritical rote learning. They encourage us to pay a little more attention, a useful lesson for a profession often all about the detail.

Dress in court

The question then moved from how to describe myself to how to appear at work. For those barristers who wear full court dress, it is almost easier to buck the binary. I wear a flat collar in court, without the winged tips commonly associated with barristers who are men. That said, many women at the Bar favour winged tips. Others have always worn collarettes with the simple, band collar. As often happens with gendered clothing, the form traditionally associated with women has never become widespread for men. That is despite the most obvious benefit of a velcroing collar or a collarette: the ease of putting it on. Whether that failure to catch on is because of a desire to stick to the gendered box for ‘men’ or because of a stigma that femininity is secondary or lesser, I don’t know. However, the idea that a person of a particular gender must wear a particular type of court dress is, clearly, irrational.

For those practising in courts where the form of dress is business attire, it can be trickier. When in a magistrates’ court, I wear a high-neck, plain blouse with a three-piece suit. I’ve never been able to understand why a piece of fabric tied around the neck is considered the height of formality. I’ve also spoken with barristers who, because they are not ‘men’, have been chastised or mocked for deciding to wear a shirt and tie. We can’t win, apparently.

When deciding what to wear, I had a great conversation with Karlia Lykourgou, founder of the legal outfitter, Ivy and Normanton, which specialises in women’s courtwear. Karlia and I discussed different types of suits and blouses, wondering if there was something useful about a high-neck blouse or a blouse with a particular detail where a tie would be. Karlia thought that a design like a pussy-bow blouse might work or a suit jacket with a higher cut, giving a sense of conventional formality around the neck area while preserving gender-openness. I like those ideas. I share them in the hope of giving anyone else a hint of inspiration about how they might make the Bar their own, even in a tiny way.

Mentors and champions

Taking a step back from these discrete, practical issues, it seems odd to praise something that should be unremarkable. At the same time, having encountered something entirely new to you and something that you may not understand, there is the option to become combative. It is heart-warming, then, when people embrace it and adapt to it. I have encountered judges and other barristers who may have never come across gender non-conforming people or counsel who use ‘Mx’. Yet those judges and barristers have, despite the occasional falter, made a consistent and committed effort to get it right. Whether or not I should expect this as the norm, the reality is: I appreciate it.

That is because I know the contrast. Thankfully, the what-is-a-blouse exchange with the District Judge has been an absurd exception. There are many people I could mention – Joanna Hardy-Susskind, Felicia Davy, the deeply missed Georgia Lassoff, a range of District and Circuit Judges – who have been firmly supportive. They have realised that advocates being ourselves will, usually, help us to do our job better.

One example sticks in my mind. When it came to choosing my title on the Crown Court Digital Case System, I remember hesitating. It was my first supervisor, Joanna, who said to me, ‘Alex, think ahead 20 years. I don’t want you looking back and wishing that you had just gone for it.’ Those words gave me the nudge I needed. Here was someone who would never have professed to be an expert on the issue of gender, but who was perceptive and caring enough to encourage me to back myself.

On this topic, though, I would be idealistic to ignore those members of the Bar who express misunderstanding (or worse) of what they call ‘gender ideology’. To them, I make two basic points. First, a level of respect should apply to anyone in this profession, whether or not you understand them. That includes addressing them properly. Second, this approach to gender is the most intelligent approach that we have.

Rather than regurgitating ideas and labels that we have always been allocated, we are thinking about the concepts and finding the language for ourselves. In a profession like the Bar, which prides itself on its critical rigour, that kind of intelligent consideration is a good thing. 

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Pronounced ‘mux’ or ‘mix’, ‘Mx’ originated in the 1970s as a reaction to the gendered boxes of ‘Mr’, ‘Ms’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ and now features in the Equal Treatment Bench Book.