September 9

What to Wear to Court: Practical Courtroom Attire Tips for Everyone

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divorce blog, divorce court, divorce litigation, divorce tips


Going to court is stressful. You want to make a good impression. You want the judge to listen to you. (Okay, let’s be honest. You want to win.) Knowing what to wear to court, and dressing appropriately, is an important first step both in getting your voice heard AND persuading the judge to rule in your favor.

Why Does What You Wear to Court Matter?

Lots of people believe that their courtroom apparel should be a non-issue. They think that what they say in court should be more important than what they wear to court.

In the big picture, of course, they’re right. What you wear to court theoretically shouldn’t make a difference. … but it does.

Now, just to be clear, most judges go out of their way to be fair. They do their best to focus on the evidence, not the appearance of the person who presented it.

But, one of the factors a judge can (and should!) use in weighing evidence is the credibility of the witness who is providing the evidence. 

While credibility is influenced by a lot of different factors, one of the biggest factors that influences your credibility is your appearance. 

A judge is much more likely to believe what you are saying at your divorce hearing if you show up in court wearing a business suit than if you show up wearing a ripped T-shirt and dirty sweat pants. (… just sayin’.)

That is not to say that your judge won’t listen to you if you don’t look good. It doesn’t mean that the judge won’t carefully consider the facts and the law before making a decision.  It also doesn’t mean that the judge won’t do everything within his/her power to be objective and unbiased.

But judges are human too. To think that they won’t pay attention to what you look like in court is unrealistic. What’s more, since it is their JOB to assess your credibility, if you come to court dressed like a slob or a slut, you may not do as well as you would if you had dressed neatly and with respect.

Like it or not, what you wear to court matters.

Stern looking older judge looking down from the bench with a law book in front of her.

Case Studies in Wearing the WRONG Thing to Court

A few years ago, a New Jersey man showed up in court wearing a Nazi uniform.  He was trying to regain visitation rights with his two-year-old son. (The man and his wife had previously lost custody of their three children when an Appellate Court ruled that they posed a risk of serious injury to the kids.)

When someone asked the man if he thought that his Nazi uniform might negatively influence his case, the guy reportedly said, “If they’re good judges and they’re good people, they’ll look within, not what’s on the outside.”

Seriously?!!!

In another case, a man who was on trial for domestic violence showed up for his preliminary hearing wearing a T-shirt. Apparently his lawyer didn’t pay too much attention to it. When the lawyer and his client walked up to the bench the judge asked if the lawyer had instructed his client in proper courtroom attire. The lawyer then looked over in horror to see that his client’s T-shirt said, “I have the dick, so I make the rules.”

Needless to say, the man’s domestic violence hearing did not go well.

To think that any judge will ignore what you wear to court when it is wildly inappropriate and downright disrespectful is crazy! What’s more, judges are going to be even more sensitive to your appearance when they’re dealing with custody and/or safety issues rather than just financial issues.

Man in blue jeans, but with crisp white shirt and business jacket.

What Science Says

Research shows that human beings form impressions of others in 1/10 of a second.

In the primal world, we had to do that. Our survival depended upon it.

Research also shows that attractive people get better outcomes in almost all areas of life.

In one study, people judged a man wearing a well-tailored suit as more confident, successful, and flexible than a man wearing a suit off the rack — in 3 seconds!

That doesn’t mean that if your spouse is better looking than you are, or can afford to wear more expensive clothes than you can, that you are going to lose. But, that having been said, making sure you put your best foot forward in court certainly can’t hurt.

Handsome young man in a business suit demonstrating what to wear to court.

The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias in which our overall impression about a person affects our judgment about his/her character. In other words, if you think someone looks nice, upstanding, or attractive, you are more likely to believe s/he is also smart, well-intentioned, and honest.

Is that fair? Maybe not.

But it is human.

To pretend that human beings don’t operate the way they do just because you don’t like how they operate is foolish.

What’s more, research has consistently shown that the more positive your visual impression is, the more persuasive people are likely to find you. In other words, people are more likely to believe what you say if the overall impression you make is good.

That, alone, is a big enough reason to look your best when you go to court.

All in all, if you care about the outcome of your case, you need to care about what you look like when you’re presenting it in court. (NOTE: That’s true whether you have a lawyer or not!)

Close up of unbalanced scales of justice with a court room in the background

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Judges are officers of the court. They respect the court. They want to know that you do too.

Just by looking at you, a judge can immediately determine whether you respect the court or not.

While the days when you would be thrown out of court if you were not wearing a suit and tie are gone, that doesn’t mean that wearing a suit and tie (if you are a man) is a bad idea. (For women, wearing a dress or skirt is helpful.)

Respecting the court is not hard. You don’t need a lot of money.  You don’t need to run out and buy a designer business suit just to make a good impression.  But you DO need to do these three things:

  1. Look neat,
  2. Be clean, and
  3. Dress appropriately for court.

(By the way, in case you’re wondering these rules – and everything else in this article – apply to EVERYONE who walks into a courtroom! It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, a litigant, a witness, or a bystander. You need to look neat, be clean, and dress properly.)

 Woman with half-shaved head, pink hair, big ear loops, a nose ring and piercings.

Body Art, Tattoos, and Piercings Should Be Toned Down in Court

A lot of people these days have tattoos.  Some people have a lot of tattoos. Everywhere.

There is nothing wrong with tattoos. But the courtroom is not a proper place to flaunt your tattoos, body piercings, and multi-colored hair.

If wild is your style, great! You can look as unusual as you want … when you are not in court! When you’re in court you need to dial it down a few notches.

Take out the nose ring. Cover up the tattoos. (Or at least cover up as many of them as you can!) And consider changing your hair color back to something normally found in nature. (You can dye it blue again when your case is over.)

I’m not saying you have to pretend to be someone you are not when you are in front of the judge.  Doing that will only make you seem shady and dishonest.

But you do have to show the judge that you respect the court enough to tone down your “look,” at least while you’re in the courtroom.

Young woman in a tank top, blue jean shorts, and a leather jacket showing a shoulder and chest full of tattoos.

Won’t My Lawyer Protect Me?

Many people think that, if they have a lawyer with them in court, their own appearance doesn’t matter. 

They’re wrong. It does.

Your lawyer will obviously influence the outcome of your case. But so will you. What’s more, the evidence your lawyer presents is going to come, in large part, from you and your spouse. That means that the judge will be sizing you up to try to determine the truth.

Your lawyer can argue your case better than Johnnie Cochran or Clarence Darrow. But if you walk into court dressed like someone from Hell’s Angels, the judge is probably going to hesitate before granting you sole custody of your two-year-old.

Is that fair? Probably not. But it’s reality.

(HINT: If you DON’T have a lawyer, then what you look like becomes even more important!)

Woman with dirty hair and no makeup wearing a hoodie.

What NOT to Wear to Court

Given how casual everything has become in our society these days, the list of what NOT to wear to court is definitely longer than the list of what TO wear to court. But it’s not hard to figure out which clothes belong on which list.

Anything dirty, grungy, flashy, sexy, hippie, or weird should not be worn to court.

Anything clean, pressed, well-fitting, conservative, respectful, and business-like, is generally going to be fine.

While we’re talking about clean and neat, don’t forget about your hair too. Your hair should be clean, combed, and out of your face.

If you’ve shaved a design into your hair you might want to consider either growing it out or shaving your whole head so that you look a little more conservative. (Sorry! But the courtroom is no place to flash your cutting-edge style!)

Guys, if you have a beard, make sure it’s trimmed and well-groomed.

Still having trouble figuring out whether what you WANT to wear to court is something you SHOULD wear to court? Here’s the test.

If your grandparents would be okay with you wearing your outfit to THEIR church on Sunday “back in the day”, you can wear it to court now.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Still unclear about what you should wear to court? Here are some guidelines to help you decide how to dress.

10 Things You Shouldn’t Wear to Court

Woman in a tie-dyed shirt and torn blue jeans.

What SHOULDN’T You Wear to Court?

1. Blue jeans (especially old, dirty, or torn blue jeans).
2. Skintight clothing.
3. Low cut blouses or anything that shows a lot of cleavage.
4. Miniskirts, fishnet stockings, or anything sexy or provocative.
5. Shorts of any kind – especially cut-offs!
6. Hats (unless you wear a specific head covering for religious reasons.)
7. Sunglasses.
8. Sneakers, flip flops, or stilettos.
9. Sundresses, halter tops, or anything that shows a lot of skin.
10. Dirty clothes, exercise clothes, and super-baggy clothes.

What You Should Wear to Court

Now that we’ve eliminated a substantial portion of the modern American wardrobe, you may be wondering: Okay. What CAN I wear to court?

Young man in a business suit.

What to wear to court if you are a man:

1. A dress shirt (i.e. a shirt with a collar);
2. Dress pants;
3. A tie;
4. A sports jacket; or
5. A business suit

(NOTE FOR MEN: You can’t go wrong if you wear a dark blue, black or grey suit with a dress shirt and a tie. Do your best to make sure your clothes fit you well. And don’t forget to wear nice shoes!)

Chubby young woman in a dress.

What to wear to court if you are a woman:

1. A simple dress;
2. A skirt and a nice blouse;
3. Dress pants and a dressy top;
4. Any kind of suit jacket over pants, a dress or a skirt; or
5. A business suit.

(NOTE: The bottom line for women is: Don’t dress to distract! Remember, you’re going to court. You’re not in a fashion show, and you’re not going on a date! You won’t go wrong if you dress in conservative, well-fitting clothes.)

Beautiful woman in lowcut red dress and dangling earrings showing what not to wear to court.

You Want to Dress Well … But Not TOO Well!

While it’s (hopefully) obvious that dressing really badly can hurt you in court, what might not be so obvious is that dressing too well can be just as bad.

Showing up to court in designer clothes and flashing lots of gold jewelry when you’re trying to get more money will work against you. Think about it. If you’re in court asking the judge to increase the amount of support you or your kids receive, are you more likely to get more money if you come to court looking like an average person, or one of the Kardashians?

Dressing and acting appropriately in court will go a long way towards helping you really get your voice heard by the judge.

Close up of a hand holding a cell phone with the "Play" button on the screen

Bonus Tips: How to Act in Court

Knowing what to wear to court isn’t the only thing that will give you an edge in your divorce. Knowing how to act is important, too.

Here’s a quick list of tips about proper courtroom behavior:

  • Be on time. Be early.
  • TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE!
  • Don’t use other electronic devices in court. (i.e. no laptops or tablets.)
  • Don’t read while you’re in court.
  • Be polite to everyone. If you aggravate the judge’s clerk, you will aggravate the judge. (And if you aggravate the courtroom Sheriff, you can end up in jail!)
  • Don’t chew gum.
  • Don’t talk while the judge is talking.
  • If you do have to talk to someone when the judge isn’t around, talk quietly!
  • Don’t argue with your ex while you’re waiting for your case to be called. (If you and your ex don’t get along, don’t even sit near each other!)
  • Do your best to keep your emotions in check – especially your anger! While a judge will certainly understand if you start to cry, s/he will not be so understanding if you start to scream!

Finally, when you go to court, be courteous. Check in with your lawyer – or check in with the clerk if you don’t have a lawyer. Then sit quietly, listen to the judge, and wait your turn.

While that may be a little bit boring, it will also go along way in helping you make the best impression you can with the judge.

______

This article was originally published in 2016 and updated on September 9, 2020.

 

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        • It’s not optimal, but it’s understandable. You’ll probably be fine. If you have an attorney I would ask him/her. Otherwise, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do. (Although if you could bring a change of clothes with you to work, that would be great!)

    • And if you’re a man fighting for custody more important , I was in court 11 times over the course of a year and always appeared in a suit or sport jacket, arrived early and did everything possible to show my respect for the court. In contrast my wife showed up late, intoxicated,looking like a streetwalker and wearing sunglasses, several times she had to leave because she was too intoxicated and even screamed at my 70 plus year old mother in the waiting area. The judge consistently gave access orders that contravened letters from CAS , my wifes therapist and other professionals recommending only supervised access . Had she not been so entirely and obviously a flail I would not have had the outcome I did and my kids would be at risk , I also would have likely lost my home to her even though I paid every penny of downpayment ,mortgage and taxes and utilities over the course of our short 4 year marriage. Family court in Ontario Canada is momcentric and if I pulled 10 percent of the antics she did I would have lost all access to my kids, had s restraining order and likely bee jailed for contempt. I’m certain that how I presented made the difference for me

  • Thank you for this blog. I’m anxious about the divorce and finding somewhere to turn for answers to the little questions that pop up is really helpful. I can’t afford to ask my attorney everything because in the legal world it shows up on a bill.

  • I’m on disability. My husband cheated on me and has bipolar and I’d mentally abusive. He I’d trying to make sure I do not get anything. We had a good income between us. He made lot more than me. 10Year marriage. I need alimony and s good part of hid pension to survive. He blew through our retirement money claiming house expense. Its all a front. I know him well
    I need to dress like I’m smart but at at huge disadvantage. I have a back issue that prevents me from working.
    Do I wear make up. Do I wear nice clothes. What will help them see I deficient but in need ?

    • I’m so sorry to hear your problems!

      Even though you are on disability, it’s still important to make a good impression. You need to wear nice clothes. I wouldn’t wear anything too flashy, but definitely wear something nice.

      As for the make up, again, you want to be presentable. I would avoid trying to be too glamorous though. So, if you normally wear make up, go ahead and use it. Just don’t go overboard.

      Hope that helps.

      Karen

  • I am back in court this week regarding our PSA (divorced 9/2015) but homes were still on the market until we lost them in 2017 to short sale. I cannot afford an attorney after paying for one for the divorce. My ex husband has lied to the courts about his income since day 1 (he gets paid some of his income off the books) and made it look like I made all the money in the marriage and should pay him. In the divorce my Atty said I couldn’t prove his income and I got shafted with paying him a settlement 17k and I get no child support. His 17k was supposed to come from the equity in the home but it was lost to a short sale a year and a half after the divorce PSA was signed and now is taking me to court saying I still owe it. He takes lavish trips and says his parents pay for them. He lies about everything and I am at a loss. He is represented and I am not now due to my financial situation taking care of the kids no child support etc. Any advice how to handle this in front of the judge would greatly appreciated.

    • I don’t recommend going to court without a lawyer, especially if your spouse has a lawyer. I can tell you from experience, that rarely goes well for the person who is without a lawyer.

      I can’t comment on the legal status of your case, but I would STRONGLY recommend that you consult with a lawyer in your area to get a complete legal evaluation of the strength of your case, as well as advice about how you can present your case in court. It will be well worth the money you pay for an hour or two consultation.

      Also, if you can get a local lawyer to coach you through your court case, that would be helpful do. It’s sometimes tough to find a lawyer who will do that. It depends a lot on where you live. But, if you can get some legal advice about how you should put together and present your case, that can help you out enormously. That way, even if you can’t afford full-on representation, you’re not walking into the court clueless either.

      Finally, if you do have to go to court alone, you might want to check out this article, “DIY Divorce: What to Do If You Have to Go to Court Without a Lawyer.”

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

      Karen

      PS You should also ask a lawyer why you’re getting no child support, and whether that can be changed. Again, I can’t comment on that situation, but it seems odd to me. It would definitely be worth consulting with a local attorney about.

  • Thank you for your advice I go to court soon I could have got me a lawyer and got him for cheating on me I had pictures friends and family that knew at first he was trying to see me and his girlfriend now but it’s not worth it to me I’ll be happy to sign as long as if he pays for my last name to be changed back since he done all this they were going to our church putting pictures of them on Facebook etc.. but if he will pay for my last name I’ll be more and glad to sign and let him go don’t need anyone that cheats cause he will do it again! Did I want a divorce no but I’m not going to stay with anyone that cheats! The first time we went to court he and his witness his sister lied to the judge about him seeing me after I moved out so the judge told him to get his dates right and he was throwing this one out now he redone the papers right and we go the 1st of June and I’m happy feel a lot better about it all it took me a while cause I don’t believe in divorce and thought we could work things out but sad we couldn’t I put it all in God hands!! Life goes on and he will have to answer to the man above!!! Thank you for some advice I needed to help me!!!????????♥️

    • Goingnto Court on Monday Aug 5, “x” is trying to reduce alimony bye got everything else, incl my son, who wants to b q me, & has special needs. X gets. Lot of S S. benefits from son. Also, x us bipolar, & sociopath, +. His father was an Attrn. In the area. I can’t afford a. At ten., but he has one very expensive
      I need the $ , because I’m not working, because he sabotaged everything I have tried. Were married 30 yrs. Hey to save marriage to no avail. He kept his mental problems hidden from me
      Any advise will be welcome

      • I’m not sure what to tell you. You have so much going on here I couldn’t possibly cover it all in one website comment. I’m sorry.

        Really, the best advice I could give you right now is to get an attorney. It sounds like you really need legal advice.

        Sorry I can’t be of more help.

        Karen

  • This is my first court date. Im going to appear in court with nice fiited black dress pants, black plain blazer, and a white button up collar shirt. The black dress pants is a bit long as it covers up down to my ankles. What kind of belt is appropriate? And as for shoes would black ballet shoes be appropriate? Or are heels more suggested?

    • I think you’re overthinking this. If you’re in nice black dress pants, a button up collar and a shirt, you should be fine. As long as your belt is normal looking, it will be fine, too. As for the shoes, wear what’s comfortable for you. Heels are more dressy, but flats work nicely too.

  • OK…I think I need to dress down a bit. I am retired, but most of my attire is business orientated. My spouse is trying to claim I am capable of working even at 69 years of age. I don’t want to dress in my business attire as it looks like I am either working or looking for work. My non business attire consist of shorts, and t-shirts! Just for the record, I am a man, and I am seeking spousal support based upon a huge disparity in income and the marital standard of living.
    What do you suggest as the correct attire, one that does not necessarily show that I am affluent (which I am not any longer!) but that shows the correct decorum for the court?

    • You can’t go wrong with nice pants and a dress shirt (ie one with a collar). You don’t have to wear a suit and tie, but shorts and a t-shirt would be a bad choice.

      Hope that helps.

      Karen

  • Karen,
    My divorce is final, but I have to go to court on November 27, 2018 for our final settlement case. In my divorce I have to pay my husband $9000.00/$300.00 a month in a year. I don’t have that kind of money laying around, so I have been paying the $300.00 a month for the last 9 months to my husband. I was making $65,000 a year when the divorce was finalized. I’m now unemployed due to being my 84 year old mothers caregiver. I have been unemployed for the last four months. I don’t even have a bank account now. I’m currently on food stamps and Medicaid. My mom has been paying the $300.00 to my ex for the last three months. I don’t have the money for a lawyer now. I’m cared and don’t know what to do or what to expect at this hearing. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks,,
    Sandra

    • Oh my! I’m not sure what to tell you. Without knowing a whole lot more about the facts and circumstances of your case (and the law of your state!), I’m also not sure what you can or can’t present at your hearing.

      What I can tell you is that if you’ve settled your case but your circumstances have changed, you may be able to tell that to the judge. Or, you can always talk to your spouse and see if you can re-negotiate your deal. (Again, I don’t know that that will work, but you can always try.) Even if your husband agreed to stretch out your payments over a longer period of time, or to postpone the payments until you’re working again, that would probably help you a lot.

      I strongly suggest you talk to a lawyer in your area and see what your options may be. I know you don’t have the money to pay a lawyer to represent you, but if you could buy even an hour of an attorney’s time, s/he could let you know what you can expect at your hearing. The money you pay for that consultation could be the best money you ever spent, especially if it saves you thousands in teh long run. Alternatively, you could check with your local Legal Aid office and see if they could squeeze you in for a consultation. Or, if you have any friends who know lawyers and could find someone who would be willing to do you a favor and talk to you for an hour, that would be helpful.

      If all else fails, you can try telling the judge your plight. If s/he still makes you pay the same amount anyway, at least you will have tried.

      I wish you the best.

      Karen

  • Could you please tell me is it ok for a man to go court in these:
    Classic black leather shoes,
    Classic black pants,
    Classic black belt,
    Solid Black slim shirt (not formal) without buttons
    Black matte leather coat (not long – ends 6″ lower from pant’s belt), which I want to keep on me in the courtroom
    I hate wearing white that’s why it’s not in the list, so what you think? Thanks

  • I’m worried about appearing sloppy in my wheelchair. I’m leggy, so finding pants that are appropriately long is an issue for me, let alone sitting down. But I worry about a dress or skirt getting caught in my wheels.

    I don’t know what kind of shoes to wear either, if halfway up my shin is going to be visible!

    • I see your challenge.

      It’s probably better to “show a little leg” then it is to create a scene by getting your dress or skirt caught in your wheels. If your lower leg is showing in pants high boots could work. Or you could try a pencil skirt – ie a skirt that isn’t wide enough to get caught in anything.

      Honestly, though, as long as what you’re wearing is neat and respectful, you should be fine.

      Karen

  • I’m at a serious disadvantage because I’ve just moved out of a Domestic Violence shelter and have not allocated the funds towards a wardrobe as I’m living on a very fixed income for me and my children. Terrified I won’t have anything to wear in a couple of weeks, but ex has all of my old clothes. I’ve survived with literally a uniforms of leggings and long cardigan and a couple of jeans since leaving 3 months ago. Any advice?

    • There are organizations that provide women with free business clothes. I don’t know where you’re at, but if you check online you should be able to find organizations in your area that provide disadvantaged women with all kinds of different clothing. You can also check with the Domestic Violence shelter. They often have lists of resources and other local organizations that might be able to help you.

      If all else fails, go to your local Goodwill or thrift store. You’d be surprised what you kind find there for cheap money.

      Remember, you don’t need to have the latest fashion. You just need something that is neat, clean, conservative, and relatively business-like.

      Hope this helps.

      Karen

  • Thanks for your insightful piece. The court notices all the details. Having clerked in family court I can tell you that, not just the judge, but the court staff is paying attention to you–not only your words–but body language as well. Dress appropriately and mind your gestures. Refrain from bringing the new boyfriend or girlfriend to court. And retain a lawyer that won’t bring you down with unreasonable positions and uncivil demeanor. You can get through this with the right help and attitude.

  • Great article! For a woman, any particular colors recommended? Also, are sophisticated patterns acceptable (understated and professional). Thank you.

    • Color isn’t as important, as long as it’s professional and subdued. I definitely wouldn’t do neon yellow or bright pink. There is a psychology to color, though. So red will attract attention and be more powerful. Navy blue promotes trust. etc.

      Understated and professional patterns should be okay too.

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