Dressing for the dock: the psychology of courtroom style

“Scammer’, “con artist”, “grifter”. All words used to describe Anna Sorokin, the fake heiress sentenced to four to 12 years’ imprisonment for swindling more than $200,000, although “style icon” is the label that has endured, at least in fashion circles.

Since attending trial at Manhattan state court wearing her oversized Celine spectacles, black choker, and a roll call of womenswear by Saint Laurent, Victoria Beckham, Michael Kors and Chloe, Sorokin’s demure wardrobe has been more talked about than her crimes. This was intentional. Sorokin’s lawyer raised “concerns” over the Rikers prison-issued uniform and enlisted the help of Anastasia Walker – Courtney Love’s stylist, no less – to help her guide the jury’s eyes and minds.

The clothes were borrowed, but Sorokin kept her specs for consistency. “It implies how deep this attachment to designer gear goes,” says Susanna Cordner, a fashion curator and senior research fellow at the London College of Fashion – because when it comes to image-management, it’s impossible to separate clothing from optics.

“We know Sorokin uses clothes as a code, as a power play to make people feel certain ways about her,” she continues. “So this is the next persona in that series,” says Cordner. “And, here, clothes can be used to convey two personality positions: to cement a character or to question one.”

Felicity Huffman

Felicity Huffman departs federal court in her “sensible mom” cardie. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

Courtroom fashion has a long and varied history, particularly when it comes to well-known defendants. Last week David Beckham made a brief but elegant appearance at Bromley magistrates court to hear charges of using a phone while driving, his charcoal grey suit and matching tie (possibly Dior) suggesting sober deference to the law. Meanwhile, in Boston, the actor Felicity Huffman wore a “sensible mom” oatmeal cardigan over a grey dress for her tearful guilty plea. Two different approaches to courtroom fashion, although neither was successful; Beckham lost his licence for six months, and Huffman can expect prison or electronic monitoring.

Sometimes, Cordner says, clothing is even used to “emote something beyond the evidence”. By the time the alleged Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes made it to trial, she had ditched her red lipstick and Steve Jobs-style black turtleneck for a largely cream wardrobe as if to say: “I couldn’t possibly have.” Ditto Naomi Campbell, testifying at former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s war crime trial in 2012 – because who would handle “dirty diamonds” in a cream Alaïa cardigan. Remember, too, Winona Ryder wearing Marc Jacobs after having allegedly shoplifted Marc Jacobs in 2002 (in a neat twist, the designer later cast her in his spring/summer 2003 ad campaign), and Ted Bundy’s comically sized bowtie, because what serial killer would dress like a clown?

Styling does not work for everyone, though. Take Harvey Weinstein, whose arraignment look last year seemed a bid to shift the focus from power to pity, turning up to court in the avuncular twinset of V-neck jumper and white shirt with a button hanging off. If he was gunning for sympathy as a man visibly reduced by his crimes, it may not have washed. “Obviously, in some cases this is sincere, and in others it is choreographed,” says Cordner.

Celebrities are virtually conditioned to dress up for any public appearance, and courtrooms are places of justice but also judgment. These days, high-profile trials are often televised and the celebrity car-to-courtroom pap shot has become as iconic as the hotel-to-car pap shot – and many A-listers use stylists for the latter. The inescapable point is: in this social media age, you are dressing for Instagram, but almost always to influence too.


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