Not Mourning the Morning Coat

I had the opportunity, in the fall of 2007, to hear oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the case of Medillin v. Texas.  As soon as Paul Clement, the Bush Administration’s Solicitor General (arguing in favor of Medillin), walked in the room I noticed his unusually dated frock: a morning coat, cum tails.

I turned to my friend and whispered something like, “Wow, I can’t believe they make the SG wear a morning coat.”

My friend looked at me incredulously and wondered how I knew it was a morning coat.  First, I said, there is room in my brain somehow for useless pieces of fashion information and yet no space for the sum of 10 and 15. Secondly, the coat had all of the usual, fancily unnecessary accoutrements.

If you’ve been following the presidential transition lately, you may have heard that Obama has asked the Dean of Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan, to serve as the next Solicitor General.  Kagan would be the first permanent female SG in the history of the United States.

The nagging question, of course, is: what to do about that morning coat?

Dahlia Lithwick covers the Supreme Court beat over at Slate, and asked the very same question, not just because Kagan would look silly in a morning coat, but because the frock is a completely ridiculous holdover from court days of old:

Because it’s easier to challenge state death-penalty protocols than a long-standing court tradition, the morning coat has continued on long after it transitioned from adorably antiquated to grotesquely silly—and long after the court stopped being a boys’ club. More than one woman has donned the unfortunate combination of striped trousers, gray ascot, black waistcoat, and cutaway morning coat, to about the same professional effect as Joan Collins’ shoulder pads and bow ties on Dynasty. It’s difficult to really hear the details of a habeas corpus petition when the person making the argument is in costume. The alternative isn’t much better. If my fashion research is accurate, the female equivalent to the morning coat is either an off-the-shoulder ball gown or a mother-of-the-bride pastel confection. Since neither option affords any real dignity, Kagan should resist the impulse to don anything that suggests she is either a woman doing a man’s job, or dashing off to a cotillion.

Lithwick continues, remarking on Kagan’s proud history of calling upon women to accept the powerful legal jobs they deserve, to finally end the morning coat tradition:

At a speech she delivered in 2006 about the status of women in the law, Kagan bemoaned the fact that women and minorities are still not advancing in the legal profession in proportion to their law-school graduation rates. Female lawyers continue to earn less, to advance slower, and to funnel themselves into service work and opt out of power positions.

In her remarks Kagan cited a study finding that only 20 percent of highly qualified female lawyers singled out “a powerful position” as a very important career goal. That’s why Kagan’s nomination to the SG position—despite a lack of traditional qualifications—is doubly inspiring. And that’s also why the solicitor general’s morning coat is more than just a cute old tradition that should live on during her tenure. It needs to be retired for the same reasons the House of Representatives finally decided yesterday to officially change to gender-neutral language. This isn’t about uppity women making trouble or rampant political correctness. It’s about women declining to be called men, to dress as men, or to accept that what they are doing is in fact a man’s job. Kagan is by any measure the best person for this position. She shouldn’t have to wear striped pants to prove it.

I’d like to think that for all of the good things domestically and internationally the Obama Administration hopes to accomplish, it will be appointments like Kagan’s that will end up doing the most of all. When you look at the makeup of Obama’s cabinet and other top appointments, you see a diverse group, real Americans who are uniquely qualified to perform the jobs they’ve been asked to do.

That should serve as inspiration for a generation of young people, and as a springboard for gender neutrality, fair pay, racial equality and the like, in the bright future.

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One response to “Not Mourning the Morning Coat

  1. The morning coat isn’t totally a creature of the late 19th, early 20th century — recall that President Reagan wore a morning coat (albeit without the customary top-hat) at his inauguration in 1980.

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