The New IMF Leader And The Leather Pants

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Christine Lagarde, France’s finance minister, is taking over the International Monetary Fund as its first female director and could quickly set a new tone for the place. That’s exactly what she did years ago -- when she walked into a law firm’s cocktail party wearing leather pants.

To be sure, many rightly say that women are judged too much by appearance, and Lagarde has plenty of other qualities to discuss. That said, her clothes have consistently showcased her confidence, the kind she needs to tackle issues like the European debt crisis.

“Here is a woman who can wear black leather thigh-length boots and a leather jacket to a finance summit, is unafraid of shortish skirts, colour, and even when she is in a trouser suit manages to invigorate it with a Birkin bag and Hermès scarf," wrote a Financial Times reporter last December. A blogger recently called her a “feminist fashion icon.”

Yes but Lagarde is French, said one of my editors. Oui oui, but also consider that Lagarde comes from law, where she was chairman of global firm Baker & McKenzie, and the legal industry seems to have just recently noticed that the 1950s are over. When reporting to court in Chicago, women should wear a conservative suit, conservative hair, and classic jewelry like small diamond earrings or pearls, says Maria Vathis, president of the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association. That usually means skirts “of appropriate length” and stockings, or a pantsuit if it’s cold. Vathis says formality is needed to show respect to the judges, and to convey the right message about your client, your firm, and yourself.

If there’s any question about what to wear, there are legal fashion shows to instruct you. The Chicago Bar Association has fashion shows complete with judges (this is law, after all). At a show in March, law students and young lawyers walked a runway, while fashion and branding experts and a law professor judged their outfits. Fear not, there was restrictive fashion advice for men as well.

So in this environment, imagine the surprise of some when Lagarde, around the time she became chairman of Baker & McKenzie, showed up at a cocktail party at the firm’s Chicago office wearing leather pants. “I had never seen or have seen since another woman lawyer wearing leather pants at the office,” says Wamaid Mestey-Borges, a civil rights attorney who was there. They "told me that she was comfortable in her own skin, confident in her skills and not dressing for an audience.

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