By Bobby Allyn, The Tennessean
MURFREESBORO - The wardrobe choices of some female attorneys who frequent Rutherford County's courts are causing a bit of a stir.
Attorneys in the county have groaned to their colleagues and judges that certain female attorneys are showing up in attire that pricks the sensibilities of a profession long known for its conservative dress code.
Some female lawyers, according to many in the local legal community, are appearing in court in revealing blouses, miniskirts and, in at least one instance, sweatpants.
The sartorial hubbub has made its way to Circuit Judge Royce Taylor, who said he has received a number of attire complaints from attorneys in the county. He has written a notice reminding female lawyers to keep their suggestive garments out of the courtroom.
Taylor said the matter became a major discussion point at last month's local Bar and Bench Committee.
"All you have to do is go to church and see what people used to wear - hats, gloves, long dresses - have long been gone away with," Taylor said. "But I found that county judges here weren't holding women to the same standard as men."
In the forthcoming newsletter to all members of the Rutherford County Bar, Taylor plans to offer specifics.
"I have advised some women attorneys that a jacket with sleeves below the elbow is appropriate or a professional dress equivalent," the letter reads. "Your personal appearance in court is a reflection upon the entire legal profession."
News of the soon-to-be-published letter spread quickly. Many female attorneys, including Nashville-based Karla Miller, who handles some Rutherford cases, heard chatter that Taylor's rules include mandatory pantyhose - an accusation Taylor denies.
By way of explanation, Taylor said: "They're usually behind the podium. I only see their upper bodies."
Miller said she was "slightly offended" by the judge's move but understood his motivation.
"The bigger picture is: Some ladies are dressing in a manner that should be bothersome to other lady lawyers who strive to be professional," she said.
Murfreesboro attorney Michelle Blaylock-Howser responded to the dustup with a shrug. If men are held to a standard, she said, women can be, too.
Blaylock-Howser often sees female attorneys sporting sleeveless shirts, which she said should be out of bounds in the courtroom. Once, a Nashville attorney came to court wearing a dressy blouse and sweatpants, she said.
"How we got off those standards is beyond me," Blaylock-Howser said.
According to image and brand consultant Mila Grigg, who works with more than 100 attorneys in Middle Tennessee, personal fashion choices clashing with professional decorum are especially pronounced with the millennial generation who, as she says, "have a different standard for what professional looks like."
"I've never met an attorney who has broke the rules on purpose," Grigg said. "They'll say, 'Oh, I can't wear that? What should I be wearing?' "
Singling out women, though, is unfair, Grigg said, since men violate professional fashion etiquette just are often as women.
"Well-fitted suits for men and women is one way to express your personal brand," she said. "And you can always showcase your personality through color."
Attorney Lisa Eischeid said Judge Taylor is an equal opportunity wardrobe conservative. She recalls one instance where he found a male attorney in contempt of court for appearing without a blazer. Taylor confirmed the story, adding that he also made the attorney donate to charity.
"Someone needs to tell women that sundresses are not proper in the courtroom," said Eischeid, who has worn a business suit throughout the 23 years she has been a lawyer. "But it can be a delicate issue."
The courtroom is in no rush to abandon its old-fashioned protocols, attorney Miller said, though perhaps it is a blessing in disguise.
"Here's the thing - we're girls, we like making fashion statements," Miller said. "It's about individualism. Maybe the courtroom is not a place to show your individualism via fashion."