In 1888, in a letter to her female colleagues in the Equity Club, Lelia Josephine Robinson commented, “One problem is not yet settled entirely to my satisfaction, and that is:
Shall the woman attorney wear her hat when arguing a case or making a motion in court, or shall she remove it?”
How frivolous the “bonnet question” seems, especially considering the fortitude of women who entered the legal profession in the late nineteenth century. It raised, however, a weightier concern — “how to be at once a lady and a lawyer.” Social convention dictated that ladies wear hats in public; professional convention dictated that lawyers remove their hats when entering the courtroom: What was the woman lawyer to do?
From 1895 through the 1960s (!!!), newspapers covered “the bonnet question,” reporting on how judges responded to (i.e., ignored, allowed, forbade) women’s “headgear” in the courtroom. Below is a news article, written by a fashion editor, about a confrontation between a woman lawyer and a male judge in 1963.
Des Moines, Register — 23 Nov. 1963
“Considering the often depressing qualities of courtrooms, no woman would suppose there lived a judge who wouldn’t welcome a brightening touch amidst the gloom.
But Judge Irving H. Saypol of New York State’s Supreme Court not only held attractive brunette lawyer Enid K. Gerling in contempt of court, he went on to give a written opinion unfavorable to her hats.
Referring to a hearing more than a year ago, he cited ‘a large picture hat, more appropriate for an afternoon tea, or a lawn party, or some such social.‘
Then he added, concerning the recent case in which he cited Miss Gerling for contempt:
‘This time we have another grotesque hat situation, some kind of flamboyant turban with the many colors of Joseph’s coat, misplaced in any courtroom . . . There has been, and I can conceive, no other woman lawyer so encountered.
‘However, conduct in the pattern of hats, bizarre and tending to courtroom disruption and perversion, is something no self-respecting judge can tolerate.‘
Alas, Judge Saypol was no legal eagle when it came to describing hats. Miss Gerling, a well-dressed but conservatively attired lady, brought forth the offending hats for my inspection and the judge lost his case.
The so-called picture hat was a Breton, which as any woman knows is a tailored hat with upturned brim, certainly nothing like a picture hat. The turban, actually a toque, was in several shades of one color, pink, not many colors, and hardly flamboyant.
‘I’m too small for exaggerated hats,’ said Miss Gerling, who was wearing a brown tweed suit and a gold velvet snap-brim hat with a crush crown and a small stitched brim that allowed her short, curly hair to show.
‘A professional woman should wear hats,’ she said firmly. ‘They lend an air of status. I have about 40, and I buy a new one every time I get mad at a judge.‘
She paused, reflected and said impishly, ‘If I get really mad, I buy six at once. Certainly none of the men lawyers mind my hats, nor the judges. Of course, I don’t wear one during jury trial. I want the jury to see my fact.’
Miss Gerling is a remarkable woman on several counts. In college she paid her way with a mail order business. Then she was an air traffic controller, one of those brains who talk planes down onto the field.
After getting her law degree she wanted to go into international air law but wound up in criminal law, which she has practiced for 11 years.
Judge Saypol declared that she was ‘baiting’ the court with her hats, but Miss Gerling has personal attributes that don’t need the help of hats. Her eyes, complexion and personality could do all the baiting she wanted to exercise.
‘The day I went to pay the fine for contempt I knew all the newspapers would be there, so I deliberately didn’t wear a hat,’ she said.
‘I love clothes, but I wouldn’t think of dressing for court in anything more startling than a suit or jacket costume. I do wear what I call sentence hats. They’re the ones a judge has complimented previously. When I have to come to court to hear a sentence given, I wear that one again.’
Judge Saypol’s hat judgment opens fascinating possibilities.
Will he take it on himself to say what hats Miss Gerling may not wear in his court? Does he just plain not like girl lawyers? Perhaps this courtroom drama has only seen its first chapter.
Florence de Santis, Editor of the Fashion League”
For much more on “the bonnet question,” see Virginia G. Drachman, Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America 23, 30, 127, 177-78, 260-261 (1993).