Holding court in style

Image of Vanessa Friedman

Rebekah Brooks enters Westminster Magistrates’ Court this Wednesday – along with her husband Charlie Brooks, her PA, her chauffeur, and two more News International employees – for a hearing following charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in regards to the News International hacking scandal, aka the latest morality tale of Masters of the Universe brought low. Pens will be poised, judgments will be rendered (granted, not by the judge), portraits will be drawn – and all this before the most mediagenic of all the defendants even opens her mouth.

On what will they base their conclusions, the rabble, the media and the rest of us voyeurs? On how Brooks appears, of course.

Dressing for court is an art form – it’s the front line of image spin, the opening salvo of an argument. And though Brooks’ choice of shift-with-enormous-Peter Pan-collar for her Leveson Inquiry appearance last month sparked editorials that in turn sparked cries of “sexism”, not even the court itself is so naïve as to pretend that clothing doesn’t matter.

I speak from personal experience – and not just the experience of being an inveterate reader of legal thrillers by John Grisham and Scott Turow, who both devote copious verbiage to what their various courtroom protagonists wear. Not long ago I was called to jury service in New York and among the few instructions on the summons was the note to “dress appropriately” – an admonition also passed on by the judge to those actually chosen (not me).

What “appropriately” means in this context is, of course, open to interpretation: white collar defendants tend to wear dark suits, white shirts and simple ties (see, for example, the current Rajat Gupta case), while in my case (a domestic violence trial) the young-ish defendant was wearing a white button-down and an argyle tank top, which telegraphed “nice, wholesome lad”.

The problem for Brooks – indeed the challenge – is that while male defendants have many high-profile male examples to either emulate or avoid, from Conrad Black to Jerome Kerviel to Guy Hands, when it comes to female defendants, especially high-powered public figures, the same is not true.

In fact, aside from Martha Stewart, whose Hermès handbag and fur scarf caused quite a flurry when she appeared at her 2004 trial for charges of obstruction of justice and securities fraud – and suggested that perhaps toting widely identifiable luxury brand accessories is not optimal strategy – it’s hard to think of any.

Leona Helmsley, wife of hotel mogul Harry Helmsley, who was tried in 1989 for tax evasion, was known as “the queen of mean” and famous for her extravagance – not exactly the sort of reputation one would seek to cultivate. Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter jailed for refusing to reveal a source and who later testified at the Lewis Libby 2007 trial, took an “I’m-a-serious-reporter” approach to dressing (rumpled jackets and button-down shirts) that is simply too hack-on-the-street for Brooks, the first female chief executive of a media empire.

Celebrity defendants such as Lindsay Lohan, Naomi Campbell and Winona Ryder are simply too diffuse a bunch (in terms of age, and charges faced, though Brooks’ Peter Pan-collared dress did bear a startling resemblance to a Marc Jacobs frock Winona Ryder wore on the stand in 2002).

In short, none of this helps Brooks in any strategic way. You can see the confusion in what she has worn so far, a medley of dark jackets over button-down shirts – which tend to the male approach – and little girl dresses. The only thing she hasn’t touched is her hair, which she has kept in its trademark untamed mane.

On the one hand, this demonstrates consistency and the refusal to be cowed; on the other – well, it’s very in-your-face, and courts notoriously don’t like in-your-face defendants. Of course, it also is sort of out-of-control, which may well suit her stated position that she wasn’t aware of what was going on in some of her newspapers.

Either way she is setting a precedent that other female captains of the universe may well use as a how-to, or how-not-to, guide for trials to come. I am sure no one is as aware of that as the woman who used to run the News of the World and the Sun, and who understands the importance of the front page picture as much as anyone. That’s not sexism, it’s the reality of the public theatre that is the legal system. On Wednesday the curtain goes up and the costumes go on.


For more columns, see www.ft.com/friedman

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