‘Sometimes the clothes do not make the man,’ the late, great George Michael told us. But does the Bar agree? Some people seem to hold very strong views about clothing – from the colour of shoes to the amount of shirt one may show. In January 2020’s Counsel, Lucy Reed shared some thoughts, of her own and others, on how we should dress. In the spirit of the adversarial tradition, I’m going to take issue with some of what Lucy wrote.

Lucy wrote from a female perspective. I have enough experience of my wife rummaging through her handbag to look for keys to happily accept Lucy’s statement that pockets are a feminist issue. And I was appalled to be told, only a relatively short time ago, by a then-pupil that her BPTC provider marked down female students who didn’t wear heels for advocacy assessments. But this piece will deal with male dress. (Note bene: although I may say, ‘oh, that looks nice’ if I’m friendly enough with a female colleague, I take the view that what women wear is none of my business. My fellow male Counsel readers, so should you.)

Brown shoes are, Lucy (or others whose views she merely reported) tells us, a ‘big no’, as they ‘say solicitor’. Readers may remember the outcry that followed a mercifully unnamed partner at a City firm last year advising ‘unsuitably dressed trainees’ not to wear brown shoes with a blue suit. No doubt the anonymous partner’s legal advice is worth heeding, but his sartorial advice got an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the legal Twitterati. There is, of course, the old ‘no brown in town’ saying, elevated by some to the status of rule. Pupils need to be aware that some so regard it – pupillage is not the time for such radical statements of individualism as wearing brown shoes – but my own experience is that it is one that can be safely and stylishly disregarded once you’ve reached tenancy (unless your instructing solicitors are attached to this supposed ‘rule’ – mine aren’t). I regularly wear brown shoes to court (with a blue suit). And any notions of superiority – sartorially or otherwise – over solicitors should be jettisoned.

Brown suits are similarly dissed. I doubt many of us want to pay Tom Ford prices for workwear, but that a brown suit can work very well is proven to the criminal standard by the one James Bond wears when downing six vespers en route to Bolivia in Quantum of Solace. The larger man might also gain some inspiration from another brown suit, the thing of beauty that Dave Bautista sports on the train in Spectre – made by my fellow Welshman Timothy Everest.

Coloured shirts were also in Lucy’s bad books – or those who shared their thoughts with her. I risk showing my age if I say that striped shirts with plain collars always make me think ‘David Steel’, but I’d hesitate before making an injunction against them, and a plain pink or light blue can work very well.

There are some rules to dress. Someone’s got to tell you them, but if – like me – you come from a family in which men didn’t wear suits to work, that someone may not have come around yet. In my own case, I was well past pupillage before I learned some of the conventions of business dress! Not doing up the bottom button of a jacket is indeed a rule – men’s jackets aren’t cut for it to be done up. And your belt should match your trousers. If just one Bar student learns that from this article, I’ll consider it a success.

For those wanting to take an interest in men’s clothing, it can be tricky to know where to start. Style magazines are often just a series of adverts. Matt Spaiser’s excellent ‘Suits of James Bond’ blog is definitely worth a look (www.bondsuits.com). Matt’s tastes are sometimes a bit more conservative than my own, but his blog is informative and very interesting, and his descriptions of what makes up a suit that works are very good. He writes well, and his blog will help you form your own ideas.

Legal dress in other jurisdictions

I started my legal career in Gibraltar, where I practised for many years and am still a consultant to a law firm. I’ve also been called in Northern Ireland. Perhaps because of this – and a summer spent with a law firm in Iowa – I’ve long been interested in dress in other jurisdictions, and what we might learn from them.

In Gibraltar, a minority (of which I was part) would wear chinos and a blazer or sports jacket to court. My arguments may have occasionally caused a judicial eyebrow to raise, but my clothes never did. And in a hot climate, trousers you can bung in the washing machine make a lot of sense. I only occasionally appear there these days – in a suit – and my colleagues at Phillips Barristers & Solicitors are determined suit-wearers. Gibraltar’s courts have been renovated since my time on the Rock. The courtrooms look familiar to members of the Anglo-Welsh Bar, but distinct – a bit like Gibraltar law. I still feel that separates would be in keeping with that, and with Gibraltar’s serious but unstuffy approach to legal practice.

A few years ahead of me at the Gibraltar Bar was John Restano, now Restano J. A nice man and a very formidable opponent, he introduced me to the junior’s court coat. The South Wales criminal Bar frowns upon these garments – ‘they wear them up in Birmingham’, I’m told – but they are very practical, and as I practise in the civil courts, I allow myself this little exoticism. I understand they’re also popular in Trinidad.

It was in Gibraltar that I acquired the ultimate sartorial convenience for the male barrister – men’s bib bands! Advertised in, I believe, a single issue of Counsel in about 2004, I bought a set, even if no-one else did, and haven’t bought a detachable collar since. Plainer than the bibs that female counsel wear, and with little triangles to look like a wing collar, I’ve worn them in courts right up to the Privy Council. Quite why they didn’t catch on is beyond me.

If Gibraltar took a more relaxed approach to dress, Northern Ireland is more formal. The Northern Irish Bar’s Code of Conduct specifies (para 24.4) that counsel in robes must wear a ‘dark suit, white shirt, collar, neck band and black shoes’. Wigs are to be worn straight, and in 2015 the Northern Irish Bar told an Assembly Committee that it was ‘not acceptable for male counsel to appear without a waistcoat unless the jacket is double breasted’. Junior’s court coats went unmentioned… I seem to recall similarly strict rules when I looked up the position in the Republic a few years ago, but my research for this piece revealed no such provision in the Irish Bar’s current rules. And an Irish barrister did recently lament to me the rise of brown shoes and the growing scarcity of waistcoats.

If the Northern Irish Bar is more prescriptive about what is worn under robes, it doesn’t engage in some Anglo-Welsh silliness. Northern Irish silks wear normal court collars and bands for their ceremony, and forego knee breeches, sticking with conventional trousers and (black) shoes.

At the Anglo-Welsh Bar, criminal colleagues appear to be under the impression that court dress requires a waistcoat or double-breasted suit, as it does in Northern Ireland. My own research hasn’t uncovered such a rule. Non-robed attire is to be a dark-coloured business suit. But, is it really necessary to go even that far?

Barrier to entry? Bespoke an aspiration for many

Some may recall the furore when the government’s Social Mobility Commission reported in 2016 that investment banks were less likely to hire those who wore loud ties, or ill-fitting suits, or even brown shoes. But is the Bar any better? Could our insistence on suits even be a barrier to entry?

Think of the price of a suit – and add in the price of a second pair of trousers (a tip for students looking to buy suits for pupillage: always buy two pairs of trousers). Multiply it a few times, and you still have only two pairs to go with each jacket. People would get far better value if that money were spent on a couple of dark jackets and four or five pairs of trousers, each of which could be worn with either jacket, with little loss of formality. It may not seem that important to the section of the Bar that represents investment bankers, but for many pupils and junior practitioners, this would be helpful.

Stuck as we are with suits, the scope for colour variation is minimal – pretty much limited to dark greys and blues. (I’ve got away with dark green – and of course there’s brown.) Try which works for you – I’ve found that grey makes me look even older than I am. Off the rack suits are quite likely to need some alteration. The Iconic Alternatives website has a good entry on which alterations are easily and cheaply done. Bespoke is a fine aspiration, but in the real world most of us are buying off the rack. And while wool is the most common material, a linen mix can be more comfortable and work well.

Ties offer some scope for individuality and colour – a silk friend likes loud ones and is eminent enough to get away with them. I’ve found that plain, dark colours work best for me, if I want to push the boundaries I’ll wear a knitted one. And I confess to a possibly disproportionate dislike of spotted ties, the legacy of an article in a legal journal circa 2001.

‘How to dress the court—and yourself’ by Lucy Reed appeared in the January 2020 issue of Counsel. Read it here.