March 18, 2011 10:03 pm

How to court the courtroom

Basic intelligence dictates that when it comes to a courthouse appearance, style is a part of strategy

What is the best dress for a courtroom appearance? This is not to be confused with best-dressed, and is something I’ve been wondering about a lot recently, thanks to the number of celebrity cases that seem to be reaching trial – not to mention that extremely well-publicised fashion incident that recently occurred in Paris, and which is going to be heard at the French high court in May.

I notice it every time I open a newspaper or check out a website: Lindsay Lohan, appearing in an LA courthouse accused of filching a necklace! Raj Rajaratnam walking into a courthouse in lower Manhattan before jury selection at the start of his trial! Even Jacques Chirac, on his way to a French courthouse, waving from the window of his car. We may never have such an interesting cross-section of sartorial examples again. After four weeks spent in the la-la land of women’s ready-to-wear shows, where the more outrageous and eye-catching the outfit the better, it’s been something of a palate cleanser to focus on the clothing choices of the above defendants.

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Vanessa Friedman

Because basic intelligence dictates that when it comes to court, style is a part of strategy, and hence honesty in dress is not always the best policy. You want to look calm, in control, and also entirely appropriate. No matter how you feel, you don’t, in any way, want your dress to become a topic of conversation. All of which sounds pretty straightforward in theory, but in practice seems to be a much more complicated proposition.

Consider, for example, Lindsay Lohan’s decision to wear a beige leather (at least it looked like leather, it might have been PVC) mini-dress to reject an offer for a plea bargain in a case in which she is accused of stealing a necklace. Beige is a logical choice, but you’d think courtroom decorum would suggest a skirt at least to the knee, and maybe some nice ... cotton? Granted, given some of Lohan’s past behaviour – she has been in and out of rehab – she may not be the best judge of convention, but presumably, someone (an agent? a publicist?) is advising her, and it’s hard not to wonder what they were thinking. After all, interesting recent tutorials are available.

Take Naomi Campbell testifying at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague during Charles Taylor’s trial. The ex-supermodel, known for her anger-management issues, put her hair up in a chignon and chose a knee-length Azzedine Alaia dress with matching cardigan that managed at once to be very lady-like and a little sexy. Come to think of it, maybe this is where Lohan got the beige idea: Campbell’s dress was cream.

Meanwhile, both Martha Stewart (during her 2004 obstruction of justice trial) and Barbara Amiel (during the 2007 trial of her husband Conrad Black) arrived for their respective court cases toting Hermès bags. Perhaps they saw the accessory as symbolising: 1) the ultimate in establishment accoutrements; and 2) their understanding of value. The tactic backfired, as the bags were widely seen as indicating both women’s willingness to spend lots of money on themselves. If you want to cultivate sympathy, showing off something you have that others don’t is probably not the best idea, so perhaps this is what prompted Lohan to wear a relatively unidentifiable style. Still, she did reveal a lot of leg.

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As for the men, so far Rajaratnam, the hedge-fund manager accused of insider trading, has been very discreet, in perfectly starched white shirts, dark blazers and trousers, and subtly patterned ties. This is probably a good idea, although his recent choice of a charcoal suit was questionable.

Last year Guy Hands also took the stand during his civil fraud suit against Citigroup in slate suits, and that didn’t go so well for him. Shades of grey, after all, may not send the best signals when you are trying to convince a jury that you are right and the other side is wrong, or that the particular question they are facing is one that comes in black and white.

Wiser, perhaps, is the decision of the former French president, Jacques Chirac, to wear to court pretty much exactly what he wore while in power, a direct appeal to most people’s desire to believe in authority. Look convincing, and maybe you will be.

It will be interesting, thus, to see what John Galliano wears when he appears at the high court for the beginning of his trial for alleged anti-Semitic comments. Galliano, of course, is famous for dressing up – having variously appeared on the runway as a pirate, Napoleon, an astronaut, the artist René Gruau and a hobo – depending on whatever he was researching each season. Presumably, most people are aware of this tendency, so if Galliano suddenly appears dressed like – well, a banker, it could go one of two ways: either the court will think he has changed his former wild ways and reformed, or that he is a big faker.

The first impression works to his advantage, of course; the second, not so much. Lawyers employ jury consultants to help them strategise about what background or type of person will be most sympathetic to their case. It seems to me, however, given the increasing importance of appearance in the modern world, a wardrobe consultant might be equally useful.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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