What Not to Wear–and Why

This article by Kathleen Shelly was first published on April 13, 2012. It remains relevant today. Please enjoy and send your comments to tno_editor@najit.org or post it to our Facebook page.

No matter how high-minded we are, or pretend to be, I think all of us have a guilty secret when it comes to popular TV shows. For some it might be the latest crazy reality show or the hottest telenovela. For me it’s a show called “What Not to Wear.” I get a real kick out of the way the gorgeous experts take some cluelessly frumpy or flashy female and turn her into a confident, professional-looking woman. Love it.

So how does this relate to you? You probably dress just fine for the courtroom. But why is it so important? You might say “I want to look professional” or “I want to be taken seriously.” Yes, there is that, but there are some other important reasons as well.

When the subject of dressing for court comes up, the advice I often hear is “dress like an attorney.” Well, yes and no. I know a number of attorneys whose style of dress I wouldn’t want to emulate in a thousand years. There’s the sloppy old public defender who’s been around for as long as anyone can remember with the frayed corduroy jacket, the wrinkled khakis and the stained tie. Then there’s the Allie McBeal lookalike with the tight suit complete with mini-skirt and stiletto heels. One thing the interpreter has to remember is that the attorney has no reason to be unobtrusive; on the contrary, many high-profile attorneys make it part of their business to be as noticeable as possible. The interpreter? Not so much.

Part of our job is to be unobtrusive, and that includes our attire. Does that mean we must wear the same old black jacket and pants or skirt every day? Well, not that either. During the course of my 14-odd years (sometimes very odd indeed) as a court interpreter, I have seen almost every possible version of interpreter attire in the courts, from blue jeans and flannel shirt at traffic arraignments to chiffon ruffles and oodles of jewelry at child custody hearings. These interpreters will say that they need to be comfortable, or that that’s their “look.” They have their own way of dressing and want to be seen as individuals. Unfortunately, the courtroom interpreter simply cannot afford the luxury of being seen as different or special in this particular way. Strangely enough, I have observed that the more noticeable the clothes are, the less competent the interpreter seems to be. Interpreters who insist on their own particular way of dressing just don’t seem to hang around very long.

As with anything that contributes to your success as a self-employed free-lancer, clothes are an investment, albeit not one you can deduct from your taxes. They must fit well and look good. They must be clean and neat. When you’re just starting out you may not have a decent professional wardrobe; it’s not something you acquire overnight. Watch for sales. Save up your money for that special confidence-boosting jacket. Find a really good tailor who understands your body type.

Now, I’m not a person who is very good at matching up tops and pants and skirts and jackets. Having grown up wearing school uniforms, I just never got the hang of it. So what I have done over the years is to look out for sales and buy very good quality women’s suits at half the original price or even less. I have over 20 pant and skirt suits which I rotate and match up with different tops. I feel confident in what I wear. I have put a good deal of time and effort into looking just right, and I find it empowering. I wear low heels, because the profession often calls for a lot of standing or walking quickly from place to place.  Heck, sometimes we even have to run! 

Guys, of course, have it a lot easier. The suit and tie are, of course, de rigueur. But the suit must fit, the tie must be tasteful, the pants must break just right above the dress shoe. No Hush Puppies or Doc Martens, please.

And speaking of shoes, make sure yours are in good repair. I’ll never forget the time the heel fell off one of the well-worn (alright, decrepit) dress sandals I had worn that day; a resourceful bailiff glued it back on seconds before the judge got on the bench. I won’t make that mistake again.

So, this is what it boils down to. It doesn’t matter if you’re interpreting in a tiny podunk court in the boonies for a case involving a farm truck and a bicycle or a federal case involving international drug trafficking. You’ve got to dress the part. As always, you are our representative, you are the face of the interpreter community. Here’s looking at you, kid.

More about courtroom attire:






4 thoughts on “What Not to Wear–and Why”

  1. MCDLV says:

    When I started my business in 1973, I was 21 years old, newly married and did not have financial resources to speak of. I invested $12 to buy 3 jersey dresses (Yes 3!) and one clunky necklace for a nominal fee that I wore with everything. The dresses were such that I tossed them into the washer and recycled them. Not being very stylish back then, I never thought about it until a concerned court reporter asked me once if I only had one dress to my name. I was very embarrassed and thought to myself that he was almost right.

    Whereas I believe it is important to dress appropriately and I have evolved, we need to keep things in perspective.

    You know how sometimes we run out to the grocery store in a pair of old, grungy shorts without thinking twice about it and then we run into someone we wish had not seen us at our worst? I will never forget a time I did that and ran into a potential client who had seen me working in a professional setting and was hard put to conciliate the two images (LOL).

  2. Gio says:

    When I moved to the US the Salvation Army and Goodwill were my Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s :o) As freelancers we often find ourselves in a catch22 situation: we need the money to buy the clothes to make the money to buy the clothes – and on it goes.

    I was approached about this very subject during one of my marketing presentations and the individual who addressed me was just starting out and not sure what was the right attire or how many pieces were needed. We agreed that accessories can make our wardrobe grow fast at a low cost. For men, different ties and handkerchiefs; for women brooches, scarves and belts can change a piece of clothing.

    Thank you Kathleen.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Thanks, Dario! This is the NAJIT blog, and the layout is from WordPress.

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