Dressing for Court

Gun Rights

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The courtroom dress code for most witnesses and defendants is modest, quiet attire—clothing that no one will be talking about. But when celebrities and politicians are in the mix, it’s not that simple.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


Dressing the Part

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When Stormy Daniels walked into court for her first day of testimony in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial, she wore a subdued black jumpsuit. At first glance, the simple outfit was an unremarkable choice. But the garment told a story: As the fashion critic Vanessa Friedman noted in The New York Times, that jumpsuit was the same one Daniels wore for her cameo in a satirical 2021 film about Trump selling his soul to the devil.

For most people, appearing in court involves trying not to make a splash. Conventional wisdom says that those involved in trials, whether as a witness or as a defendant, should stick to a default of “sensible, down-to-earth attire—nothing too flashy, obviously expensive or overly sexy,” Richard T. Ford, a law professor at Stanford and the author of Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History, told me in an email. Suits, slacks, and blouses are common fare, as are dark colors. But for participants in high-profile cases, the courtroom can serve as a mini stage—a place to express one’s identity or values, or to send a winking message. Earlier this week, Ryan Salame, a former top FTX executive who was just sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, reportedly showed up in court wearing (not for the first time) socks emblazoned with the bitcoin logo—a pointed choice for someone heading to prison for crimes related to his work at a now-infamous cryptocurrency exchange.

Clothing can also shape jurors’ perceptions of a defendant—a truth that is both well documented and, to some extent, enshrined in the laws of the land. The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that a defendant cannot be forced to wear prison attire on the stand, because the clothing could lead jurors to presume that the person is guilty. Jurors’ biases related to race, class, and gender can play a real role in how they perceive the people on the stand, and defendants may use clothing and accessories to try to cut against those preconceptions. In 2012, The Washington Post reported on an instance of five Black male defendants wearing nonprescription glasses to court—a tactic recommended by some lawyers as part of what one called a “nerd defense.” The article mentioned a 2008 study that found that students considered fictitious Black male defendants who wore glasses to be more honest and intelligent than those who didn’t; the same did not prove true for white suspects.

Celebrities and politicians—masters of image formation—sometimes use courtroom clothing in more calculated ways, to highlight or paper over elements of their image. “A high-profile trial is a good way to promote a personal brand,” Ford told me. Trump, for example, stuck throughout the trial with his usual uniform of a suit and large, usually red tie, continuing to project his businessman image; the outfit also makes him look, as one writer put it, like the human equivalent of an American flag. Other well-known defendants use their days in court to pivot away from signature looks—when on trial for fraud charges, Elizabeth Holmes ditched her trademark black turtlenecks for collared shirts, and Sam Bankman-Fried traded in cargo shirts and shaggy hair for a suit and clean haircut in court last fall.

When it comes to the courtroom wardrobe, the line between making a statement and appearing inauthentic is thin. By going too far in the latter direction, defendants can actually undermine their credibility. In a setting where believability is paramount, a whiff of fakeness is a problem. Still, the courtroom is a site of performance. As Ford explained to me, “A trial attorney is telling a story.” Those who appear in court are “characters” in that story, “and the attorney wants those characters to dress the part.”

Related:


Today’s News

  1. The Supreme Court unanimously cleared the way for the National Rifle Association to continue to pursue its First Amendment lawsuit against a New York official who encouraged some companies to stop working with the NRA after the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.
  2. Chief Justice John Roberts declined to meet with Democratic senators about the issue of Supreme Court ethics and the scandal embroiling Justice Samuel Alito.
  3. In Hong Kong, 14 prodemocracy activists were convicted and face prison time for national-security charges. They are part of a group of 47 individuals who were charged in 2021 with conspiracy to commit subversion; 31 people pleaded guilty, and two others were acquitted.

Dispatches

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Evening Read

An illustration of Rodin's "The Thinker" statute perched on top of a fridge
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Stop Wasting Your Fridge Space

By Yasmin Tayag

My refrigerator has a chronic real-estate problem. The issue isn’t leftovers; it’s condiments. Jars and bottles have filled the door and taken over the main shelves. There’s so little room between the chili crisp, maple syrup, oyster sauce, gochujang, spicy mustard, several kinds of hot sauce, and numerous other condiments that I’ve started stacking containers. Squeezing in new items is like simultaneously playing Tetris and Jenga. And it’s all because of three little words on their labels: Refrigerate after opening.

But a lot of the time, these instructions seem confusing, if not just unnecessary … Ketchup bottles are a fixture of diner counters, and vessels of chili oil and soy sauce sit out on the tables at Chinese restaurants. So why must they take up valuable fridge space at home?

Read the full article.

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Culture Break

A masked figure holding a chain looks into the woods
Pierce Derks / IFC / Shudder

Watch. In a Violent Nature (out now in theaters) is a slasher film from the point of view of the silent predator. It might seem like a purely aesthetic exercise, but its experimentation elevates an all-too-familiar genre, David Sims writes.

Listen. The latest episode of Radio Atlantic features an interview with the drag queen Sasha Velour, who won RuPaul’s Drag Race and now stars in her own HBO reality show, We’re Here.

Play our daily crossword.


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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Lora Kelley is an associate editor at The Atlantic and an author of the Atlantic Daily newsletter.
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