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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!)
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:
- Look neat,
- Be clean, and
- 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.)
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.
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!)
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
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.)
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?
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!)
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.)
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.
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.