In the pageantry of court, clothes matter. The point is to counteract with visual imagery whatever picture the other side is painting of a person.
Anna Sorokin, the fake heiress accused of being a society scammer, wore a little black dress to state Supreme Court in Manhattan Thursday evening as she was found guilty of second-degree grand larceny, theft of services, and one count of attempted grand larceny. Did she have an inkling of what was going to happen? Perhaps.
After all, the black dress appeared after Sorokin made back-to-back trial appearances in virginal white: a white long-sleeve V-neck mini with a sweet sheer overlay, a short white lace frock with a youthful drop waist.
Those dresses, more fit for communion than the courtroom, followed weeks of carefully crafted, mostly black, white and beige outfits — sweaters and trousers, yes, but mostly short baby-doll dresses with ruffles and ties — that had been chosen for Sorokin by a professional stylist and borrowed on her behalf via a secret benefactor, according to her lawyer Todd Spodek. Her legal team was concerned that an appearance in Rikers Island prison garb would make her look guilty and prejudice the jury against her.
There was a lot of hue and cry about the idea of using a formal stylist for a criminal proceeding. But the truth is that dress and public image are impossible to separate, especially when motivations are in question.
It’s one way we pass judgment, and not just when it comes to women: Earlier this year, after the political operative and self-described dirty trickster Roger Stone was indicted on seven counts of obstruction, witness tampering and making false statements, he made a video that was posted on the YouTube channel of the conservative website The Daily Caller talking about the importance of thinking long and hard about “what you wear to your arraignment.” (In his case, he said, he didn’t want to look too rich, so he went for a classic navy suit.)
Indeed, in the pageantry of court, clothes matter, as a fashion show of sorts that occurred this past week in a variety of cases across the country demonstrated. Sorokin was just one model of how to approach the issue.
Her appearance in the halls of justice came just days after that of Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of the blood-testing company Theranos, who is charged with multiple counts of wire fraud. Holmes, best known for the Steve Jobsian black turtleneck and trousers she monotonously wore during the years she played the role of visionary founder, made her entrance in a San Jose, California, courtroom wearing the light gray pantsuit and light blue button-down shirt of a white-collar penitent.
She had changed! Literally. Gone from the dark side toward the light.
And a few days earlier, rapper Cardi B appeared in a Queens courtroom to reject a plea deal in a misdemeanor assault case (she is accused of involvement in a brawl) in a state of high polish, wearing a white Christian Siriano sleeveless turtleneck dress over wide white trousers, carrying a taupe Hermès Birkin bag, with her hair smoothed back perfectly into a low ponytail, not a strand out of place.
It was about as far from her recent Coachella look — fringed hot pants and a floral leather corset — as you could get.
In each case the defendants had undergone something of a makeover for the courtroom, one that tapped into different archetypes of femininity that in turn function as vessels of association: part of a shared social mythology about innocence, youth, purity, hard work, good manners, respect for the court and the seriousness of the situation.
As far as the latter goes, see Sorokin’s nerdy thick-rimmed glasses, which have been a constant in every look. Also the horn-rimmed glasses worn by Lori Loughlin, another case in point (no pun intended), during her appearance in a Boston court earlier this month. Along with the glasses, the actress embroiled in the college admissions scandal also sported an equally studious tan trouser suit with a gray T-shirt. As far as accessories go, there’s an implicit connection between hard work and horn rims. Not to mention neutral shades and — well, remaining neutral. Just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it less effective.
The point is to counteract with visual imagery whatever picture the other side is painting of a person: How could someone who looks like this act like that?
This strategy can backfire, of course. According to the New York Post, Sorokin became upset with her court outfit one day and refused to appear, much to the irritation of the judge in her case, who said, “This is a trial. She is a defendant in a criminal case. I am sorry if her clothing is not up to her standards, but she’s got to be here,” and ordered her to show up.
Indeed, there’s something fascinating about the calculus, which is in part why, in each case, the makeovers were so closely tracked on social media. Sorokin had an entire Instagram account (@Annadelveycourtlooks) devoted to her style, with over 3,800 followers. Cardi B shared her own look on Instagram with the caption “COURT FLOW,” garnering more than 3 million likes.
That’s a new development, and one that is likely to spread as social media allows a public ruling on every photo op, and reality TV casts every drama as something to watch. But the obsessive attention to celebrity defendants, and the ways in which their clothes may affect the scales of justice, has long been a factor in forming opinions.
In 2002, for example, Winona Ryder attended her shoplifting trial in Los Angeles in what The New York Times called “conservative but very chic outfits,” including a Marc Jacobs black dress with a trompe l’oeil Peter Pan collar that evoked a child’s school uniform.
In 2004, Martha Stewart came to court in Manhattan for her trial on insider trading charges toting a Birkin bag, which did not go over well. While for Cardi B, the choice may have suggested the social niceties associated with the French brand, for Stewart it served to emphasize her (allegedly ill-gotten) wealth.
And in 2011, during her trial for felony grand theft in Los Angeles, Lindsay Lohan garnered more attention for what she wore on her way to court — very short, clingy dresses, often in white or beige — than for the reasons she was in court, which may not have helped with her legal troubles, but made a different kind of case for her own fame in the public eye. “She walks into court like a movie star,” lawyer Gloria Allred told The Times during the trial. “Apparently she hopes to be one.”
Allred also said then that her own general approach was to advise clients to dress for court as though they were dressing for church.
It’s a precedent, of a sort.