After almost four decades on Bay Street, Patricia Olasker still wears the same thing pretty much every day: a skirt-suit, pantyhose and heels. The corporate partner at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP sometimes goes sleeveless on summer days, but only if she doesn’t have a client meeting. “Just as we expect doctors to look like doctors,” she says, “clients want lawyers to look the part.”
This message — that women need to dress the part at work — sounds a lot like the controversial tweet that Canada’s former Prime Minister Kim Campbell sent out last month. “I am struck by how many women on television news wear sleeveless dresses — often when sitting with suited men,” she wrote. “I have always felt it was demeaning to the women and this suggests that I am right. Bare arms undermine credibility and gravitas!” The tweet sparked a backlash, with her critics arguing that women should be able to wear whatever want in the workplace.
But to Olasker, fashion choices in the corporate world do matter. “We still see young female lawyers in meetings referred to as assistants,” she says. “You don’t want to be mistaken for the person picking up the coffee cups.”
Once you’ve practiced for a while, and have credibility, the rules loosen. When Cindy Kou, an associate at Gowling WLG, first started out, her work wardrobe was formal: she always wore a blazer or a full suit, so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a student. Now a sixth-year associate, she has relaxed her office attire. But above all, she caters what she wears to her client. Wearing a suit and heels at a tech firm, for example, would make her stand out. The better choice, she explains, would be jeans and a sweater.
Most of the time, however, the blazer is the best choice. That doesn’t mean there’s no way to have expressive outfits. “Women often play up their suits with interesting fabrics and colourful accessories,” says Rachel Fisher, co-owner of Hangar9, a high-end clothing store with locations in London and Toronto. “My lawyers are some of the funkiest clients I have.” Olasker, for her part, loves colour. “The senior women of the bar can get away with wearing a pink jacke, but when you’re 24, that’s tougher to pull off.”