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What Do I Wear to Court?: Courtroom Appearance and Decorum Standards

Periodically, we hear about news stories in which an attorney, a party in a legal case, or even a courtroom spectator, find themselves in hot water for not meeting certain courtroom attendance standards.  Apart from avoiding the wrath of judges, appearance can also apparently have an an effect on the outcome of a trial.  In fact, not only do attorneys strive to meet appearance standards, but also try to help their clients and witnesses to meet them as well.  These stories often lead to questions about how someone knows what can be considered “proper” courtroom attire, and whether there is any legal basis for such appearance standards.  Unfortunately, the answer to the latter question is not a simple one.[1]

Written Courtroom Appearance and Decorum Requirements

Historically, many of the courtroom appearance requirements were “unwritten,” largely depending on attorneys and other courtroom visitors to show respect for the court by wearing clothing that could be considered “conservative business attire.”  In light of differing views of what can be considered proper attire, however, many courts have chosen to explicitly state their appearance standards through written requirements.[2]

Illustration shows a country courtroom scene with a judge pronouncing a verdict based on testimony of the cowboy standing in front of the clerk's desk. Print by J. Ottmann Lith. Co. (July 2, 1902). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25649 .

Illustration shows a country courtroom scene with a judge pronouncing a verdict based on testimony of the cowboy standing in front of the clerk’s desk. Print by J. Ottmann Lith. Co. (July 2, 1902). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.25649 .

Written appearance requirements can be found in a wide array of places, including: (1) local court rules; (2) court handbooks and manuals; (3) court websites; and (4) court decisions, among others.  As many of these requirements have been made available online, someone who would like to determine whether a certain court has any decorum or appearance guidelines might be best served by visiting the court’s website.  In addition, the National Center for State Courts has collected dress code requirements for several state courts on its website for easy review.

General Guidance

Despite the rise in written decorum requirements, there can still be some confusion regarding what attire is appropriate for a court appearance.  For those attorneys, litigants, jurors, and other courtroom visitors who might need clearer guidance, many authors have addressed the “what to wear to court” issue, and have offered helpful information and advice.  Some examples of such articles include:


[1] We note that this is unlike the situation in the Supreme Court of China about a hundred years ago, where there was clearly prescribed clothing for judges, lawyers, and court reporters.

[2] For more information about the evolution of these requirements, we suggest reading the article “‘Order in the Court!’: Constitutional Issues in the Law of Courtroom Decorum,” by Jona Goldschmidt, in volume 31 of the Hamline Law Review.

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