The feminization of the SCOTUS Robe
Over the course of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s career as a Supreme Court Justice, her fashion choices on the bench have been much discussed and lauded. In a 2014 interview with Katie Couric, Justice Ginsberg explained the origin, memories, and meanings behind many of her signature ornamental jabots. However, it is little discussed why this became Justice Ginsberg’s preferred form of accessorizing.
In a 2009 Washington Post article, Justice Ginsberg revealed that it was a joint decision between her and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. Justice O’Connor was criticized when she first donned a plain black robe to a Supreme Court function because she looked “washed out”. O’Connor later told the Smithsonian that the black judicial robe signified “that all of us judges are engaged in upholding the Constitution and the rule of law.” In that interview, she also explained that she chose to accessorize her robes with a white judicial collar, which she described as a “modest addition”, to individualize her look. Justice Ginsberg added to the Washington Post that the typical robe was designed to show a man’s collar and tie. She noted that she and Justice O’Connor decided they would feminize the standard judicial robe with accessories fit for a woman - the lace jabot favored by O’Connor and the array of collars sported by Ginsburg.
The newest women appointed to the highest court have not yet made strong fashion statements from the bench. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed in 2009, is frequently seen in portraits without any embellishments or with a plain, turtleneck-looking collar. Similarly, Justice Elena Kagan, appointed in 2010, has been photographed without a collar or with only a collar that slightly peeks out above her robe.
The women of the Supreme Court aren’t the only ones to add embellishments to their robes. Chief Justice William Rehnquist added gold stripes to the arm of his robe after seeing a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in which the lord chief justice wore gold stripes on his robe. But his successor, John Roberts, reverted back to the traditional black robe.
Only time will tell what Justice Ginsberg’s sartorial choices will be, whether that successor is Amy Coney Barrett or a Biden nominee. Yet Justices O’Connor and Ginsberg will certainly be remembered as trailblazers - in fashion, yes, but more importantly for gender equality.