Scott Holmes, a Quaker lawyer from Durham North Carolina, felt led to stop wearing a tie in the courtroom. This is his story of exploring that leading and its implications.
- Read this more of Scott’s story in this essay: “Taking off My Tie: The Adventures in Fashion of a Quaker/Lawyer”
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I’m Scott Holmes. I’m a member of Durham Friends Meeting. When I describe who I am, I guess it’s parent, spouse, Quaker, lawyer. I don’t know in what order, but I am a trial lawyer and that’s a very peculiar group of people to be. It means in my work, I had to wear a suit, and for many years I had to wear a tie. That always felt uncomfortable in a sense of my yearning to connect with folks. Immediately I was shutting myself off to most of the people in the world.
Not Clear With the Tie
There came a point in my spiritual journey where I had been to North Carolina Yearly Meeting and I had hung out with some old-time Quakers who were doing plain-dress. It planted a seed in my mind that I was not clear with the tie.
The first few days at work I had this kind of nauseous feeling when I put on the tie, like, “this isn’t resting easy with me.” I thought maybe I should start thinking about asking for a clearness committee and talking to people who know more about this and making sure this is really a spiritual thing and not just some kind of a bug or a stubborn, bone-headed idea I’ve got.
So I put the tie on, wore it, but it was kind of heavy, and then the next day it came time to put on the tie and it was kind of heavier. By the third day, I was like, “You know what, I don’t have time for a clearness committee. I’m just not going to put on a tie today, I’ll just experiment with it and see how it goes.”
Leaving the Tie at Home
And it went great! It was awesome. I was in State Court. I was in some lower courts where I’ve been pretty much all my professional life. All the lawyers knew me, all the judges knew me. “Oh, he forgot his tie,” or I don’t know what they thought. But no one asked me any questions. I got a complete free pass, not having a tie in court. I was like, “this is good. This is great! Maybe I can pull this off and nobody will notice! That would be so cool!”
But then I had Federal Court the next day and that judge, he stopped court immediately and called me up and said, “Have you EVER been in Federal Court?”
He took a recess to give me time to think about this and he said, “We’ll see what you really think and we’ll come back on the record here after lunch. We’ll take it up at that time.” And the impression was, “You need to go get a tie on.”
I had another encounter with a judge who made some kind of comment when we were arguing about it that, “Well if you were wearing a dress I wouldn’t let you appear in this court,” and I was like, “Well why not?” And he didn’t understand that. I said, “Well if I’m qualified and I’m licensed, if I’ve done everything I need to do to be a lawyer and my client wants me to, how can you not let me practice in a dress?”
And so what I started learning really quickly was that it wasn’t about simplicity, it was more about equality. That the tie is this symbol of male power and I started learning from my female attorney friends as they were laughing at my experiment—how women attorneys have to think about their dress everyday. There’s no standard costume that they can just put on and not have anyone question them about their appearance in court. Is the dress too low? Is it too high? Is it the right color? Is it this or that? Is it the right place for the right court?
And there’s this second guessing that happens with their dress that is oppressive, which is inherent in being a woman. They have to live up to this standard and the guys have the free pass because the guys make the rules. And so I started really learning more about oppression and what its like to be treated unfairly because of something completely arbitrary because of something like a tie.
So what I learned was the tie had more to do with the power and privilege of male patriarchy than it did simplicity.
“This Wonderful Sense of Peace”
That whole time I was experiencing what I imagine many folks feel who are spiritually led to do things that aren’t normal. It was this wonderful sense of peace. This wonderful sense of untouchability. It was like I was in the Matrix and none of the bullets could hit me. “The rules suddenly don’t apply to me, judge. I’ve got this other power that’s higher, and do what you’ve got to do, but I’m good.”
I came back without a tie and the judge said, “You may appear as you are,” which seemed kind of presumptuous of him to tell me that I can appear as I am but let me know that I was off the hook and I wasn’t going to go to jail. Meanwhile my poor client is sweating bullets, like, “what the hell lawyer did I get that can’t show up with a tie on?”
Of all the things that are wrong with my costume, somehow the tie ended up being it. Another is I wear hats all the time, but I had no problem taking my hat off in court. That’s another tradition, of removing hats. That’s a more clear, historic Quaker problem with removing the hat than it is with the tie, so I’m hoping that I never get the leading to keep my hat on, because that would be a quick way to go to jail.