When I was in high school, back in the days of payphones and phones that actually “dialed” because they were rotary, there was a book out that was quite popular called “Dress for Success.” I remember it being a major seller and my mother talking about how clothes make the man. The lesson I learned as a child was that it was important to dress properly because it affects the different ways in which our social standing and power are experienced, both internally and externally.

I experience shifting perceptions of my social standing in my profession as a divorce lawyer regularly, based solely on what I am wearing.

I recognize the difference in the way I feel, and in the manner I am treated by others, who are judging me by my clothing. When I’m at the courthouse dropping off a document at the clerk’s office, if I’m dressed in a polo and jeans, I am considered to be a messenger. I’m treated with a level of equality by the court clerks, and sheriff’s deputies as if I’m just a working stiff like the man or woman behind the counter trying to make it through the day.

My experience is as someone who is doing his job. It is a purely functional activity and serves no purpose and casts no light or shadow on my perception of my self-worth.

When I’m in a suit, I’m treated as a lawyer. I’m given deference and respect. I am called counsel. I feel powerful. I feel confident and my self esteem rises as I walk down the hallways looking at the parties who are waiting for their case to be called, I feel proud of myself, I “know” they are looking at me and saying, “he’s a lawyer, this is his arena.”   

In relation to the whole judicial system, I feel my place. As between me and the parties I feel empowered, and in relation to the judges I feel subservient. Which is as it should be, I suppose.

I did not fully comprehend the power of perception, both internally and externally, to my self esteem and to my future prospects until recently. It was while reading “The Working Poor,” where the author writes about a woman who is a model employee making just above minimum wage working in a warehouse. Her boss loves her work, she is reliable, honest and capable. He would like to give her a promotion to cashier and increase her pay, but he cannot because she lacks teeth. She lacks teeth because she doesn’t have insurance and can’t afford to see a dentist, which prevents her from making more money to take care of her teeth. It’s a vicious cycle.

When I read about that woman, I realized how many seemingly little things influence not only our chances of survival, but determine how well we are flourishing in this world.

I’ve been hired by men who were walking down the court hallway and they recognized me as a lawyer. The fact that I had on a sharply pressed suit, and a commanding presence, is like a neon sign. That sign has led me to greater financial income. It becomes a self-regenerating cycle. It allows me to dress the part in better style, which in turn attracts more and better clients.

Looking around me, as I drive passed the students at Santa Monica High School, dressed in their shabby chic way, with their boxers showing, I realize that kids are kids, but the lesson still needs to be taught. I see all around me a more casual attitude towards dress.

I note the many adults I see on the Third Street Promenade who are dressed down, even for workdays. I see it in the courtrooms where people are appearing in front of judges in jeans and ratty T-shirts and flip-flops. There’s almost no place these days where people get dressed up. I’ve been to the opera on a Saturday night and seen people in jeans and sneakers.

It’s a general trend in our society, to become more careless about our image. Today I have a greater awareness of how I am perceived, and more importantly, how I perceive others. I know that when I make judgments based on someone’s clothing, those judgments might be, and frequently are, wrong.

But I’d still like to see people dress better. And pull up their pants. They look like a baboon.

David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at dpisarra@pisarra.com or (310) 664-9969.

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