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Courtroom Fashion Through the Ages

From Joan of Arc to Lindsay Lohan, an incomplete timeline of famous women's courtroom apparel.

by Monica Heisey
Aug 18 2015, 5:10pm

Image by Kat Aileen

We've all seen The Jinx. If not, you've probably seen Chicago. Or The Hunger Games. Or any of the myriad films and television programs that make the point that the legal system is basically a massive theater in which the accused must do a very impressive song and dance in order to avoid being found guilty of crimes they may or may not have committed.

For celebrities, this is even truer, since charged famouses are often competing as much against their public image as the facts of the case at hand. Since famous women are accustomed to having their appearances scrutinized constantly, they don't need a law degree to know clothing can form part of the case for or against them, whether the charge is arson or not losing the baby weight fast enough. Some stars exploit this focus on their attire to their advantage, others ignore it totally, and still others spiral massively, beautifully out of control and show up to court wearing sheer white pants. Presented below is an incomplete timeline of some of the most famous female courtroom attire in history. It's messy.

1431: Joan of Arc, heresy

The young Frenchwoman who famously led armies into battle at the behest of personal visions from God had what might be one of Western history's earliest celebrity trials. The process--which involved 15 interrogation sessions, a "virginity test" administered by the Duchess of Bedford, and the testimony of 115 character witnesses--lasted months and was meticulously recorded by French notaries. The charges against Joan were deeply vague, ranging from "heresy" to "impropriety" to treason; as these were increasingly found baseless, the trial shifted focus to her apparel.

Joan had been handed over to the magistrates of Rouen wearing the masculine garb of a contemporary French soldier--hose, a tunic, and tall boots, meant to be worn under armor--and stayed in them during her trial and while in prison. Documents from the period show that she did this to protect herself from the repeated rape attempts of her prison guards, since hose (leggings, basically, attached tightly to the shirt with cords) are more difficult to remove than a dress. After being brought to a scaffold and told she'd be burned on the spot unless she changed her clothes and admitted heresy, Joan signed a confession renouncing her visions from the Lord and put on a dress. Later, she recanted her confession and was forced back into men's clothing, which was used as justification to burn her publicly on May 30, 1431. For what it's worth (nothing, she was already dead), Joan was completely exonerated by the Inquisitor-General a mere 34 years after her trial and is now a Catholic saint.

1612: Mary Frith, indecency

Nothing pissed off judicious men from the olden times like a lady wearing men's clothes. Almost two centuries after the Joan of Arc situation in France, Moll Flanders (a 17th century gadabout née Mary Frith) found herself in court for walking around London in a doublet and breeches, smoking a pipe, and, okay, probably being a low-grade pimp and pickpocket. Apparently she felt her look so hard that she frequently paraded through the city singing and dancing (v. risqué for a woman at the time) and had a house full of mirrors so she could check herself out at all times. Though never formally charged, Frith was forced to do penance at St. Paul's Cross for her "evil living." She showed up dressed like a handsome man and apparently drunk, made a big scene of crying and screaming all over the place, then went back to her house of mirrors. Perfect.

1793: Marie Antoinette, treason and "moral turpitude"

I don't have to explain who Marie Antoinette is to you; you've all either read about her or at least gleaned the bare minimum set to discordant music via Sofia Coppola. By the time the former Queen of France appeared in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal, she had apparently been reduced to a single gown: the black mourning dress she'd worn since the execution of her husband Louis XVI by guillotine nine months earlier. Now ragged and patchily mended, the dress was a sartorial act of defiance: Revolutionary forces had banned black clothing as a symbol of sympathy with the grieving monarchy. Plus, it was a far cry from her infamously elaborate and expensive get-ups of happier times.

M.A. knew what she was doing with courtroom fashion--when she was inevitably sentenced to be executed, l'Autrichienne somehow rustled up a pristine all-white decapitation ensemble, complete with a hat, around which she tied a black ribbon.

1872: Susan B. Anthony, voting illegally

Another classic and important legal case of "was this woman wearing men's clothes, Y/N," Susan B. Anthony's trial hinged on whether or not she had presented herself to illegally vote while dressed as a woman or disguised as a man. In court, where she failed to convince the judge to extend the 14th Amendment to allow women to vote, Anthony wore a plain silk dress with a white lace collar and kept her hair in a modest bun. Although she didn't win the case, she also never paid the $100 fine she'd been given.

1927: Alice de Janzé, attempted murder

There's no way around it: "Scorned murderess" is a very good look. Alice de Janzé, an American socialite, shot her lover in the middle of a crowded train station in Paris after he declined to marry her on religious grounds. De Janzé failed to actually kill him, which is just as well--after her trial, the two married briefly, before a less violent divorce three months later. During her trial, the famously flamboyant heiress toned down her look significantly (girl used to wear a monkey on her shoulder), wearing muted jackets with long skirts and cloche hats.

1960s: Various rockstars' girlfriends, marijuana stuff, mostly

Many rockstars' girlfriends ended up in court during the 60s and 70s on low-grade drug charges and other misdemeanors. Marianne Faithful wore a fur coat in 1969 to accompany Mick Jagger being charged for cannabis possession; Pattie Boyd and George Harrison styled the shit out of themselves for the same reason in the same year.

1976: Patty Hearst, bank robbery

Hearst--not the first and certainly not the last heiress and convicted felon on this timeline--used fashion as part of her defense strategy. The kidnapping victim/alleged bank robber apparently dressed in suits a size or two too large throughout her trial to emphasize her diminutive size and make her appear frail and harmless to jurors. It didn't work, and she was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison, although she served less than two of these before being pardoned in 1978.

1997: Monica Lewinsky, giving evidence

Sporting a modified Rachel, a literal string of pearls, and a black pantsuit even Hillary might describe as "a bit matronly," the then-24 year-old testified via video against her ex-lover and President of the United States Bill Clinton. It's unsurprising that Lewinsky wore something so modest, given the nature of the trial and the salaciousness of the evidence she was giving (THE CIGAR!). It makes sense, too, with the jury and media's intense focus on "The Dress," that she avoided navy, although can you imagine?

2000s: Naomi Campbell, assault

Naomi Campbell, like many of this history's more recent examples, has appeared in court on numerous occasions. The terrifying and beautiful supermodel's court dates have almost always been the result of assault charges, almost always with her weapon of choice: a Blackberry. During a slew of cases in the mid-2000s, Campbell tended to wear slim, professional silhouettes in all black, paired with big sunglasses and bigger heels--a kind of high-glam black widow look that didn't particularly scream "I threw my phone but the fact that it hit my assistant was an accident."

In 2010, when called to give evidence about a blood diamond she allegedly received from war criminal and president of Liberia Charles Taylor, Campbell went full Wiccan First Lady in a demure beige dress and cardigan set, tidy beehive, and choker with an evil eye on it. If that outfit doesn't say "this is a big inconvenience for me," what does?

2002: Winona Ryder, grand theft, shoplifting, and vandalism

Winona Ryder is the hands-down, all-time winner of celebrity court dressing. During the six-day legal proceedings that let her off with a fine, community service, and probation on charges of grand left and vandalism, her entire wardrobe was a model of bad-girl propriety. Extensively photographed entering and leaving the Los Angeles court house in twinsets, demure headbands, cute little coats, and at one point, a straight-up newsboy cap, Ryder looked both fashionable and sad, enviable and contrite. Sure, some of the dainty black blouses she wore were completely sheer under camera flashes, and sure, she accessorized with a sling in a limp attempt to justify her claim that the seven different kinds of prescription pain killers police found in her purse were justified, but overall she looked great and only gratuitously brought up her dead children charity work once. Winona also started a vogue for Marc Jacobs courtwear later carried on by Courtney Love and Lil Kim. In the immortal words of Johnny Depp's amended tattoo: Wino forever.

2004: Martha Stewart, conspiracy, obstruction of an agency proceeding, and making false statements to federal investigators

Martha, babe, if you're being accused of securities fraud, it's probably best to leave the Birkin at home.

2005: Lil' Kim, perjury and conspiracy

I have a theory that Lil' Kim's outfits during her 2005 legal troubles were the beginnings of Olivia Pope, or at least her wardrobe. Look at this fucking outfit.

While on trial for perjury and conspiracy (following a botched earlier trial around a shooting, during which prosecutors allege that Kim lied about who was in her entourage), the rapper made efforts to distance herself from her wealthy bad bitch image and mermaid-catsuit-with-matching-pasty lifestyle. And so Lil' Kim became Kimberley Jones, a woman who would never even think the words "jeweled bib with nothing underneath." Ms. Jones favored impeccably put together coat-and-skirt combos with good girl makeup and styled but simple hair. She legitimately wore a lot of tweed. But all the buttoned-up blouses and matching belts and, at one point, an actual little bow tie couldn't save her from the angry, robed arm of the law: Kim was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $50,000.

2010: Paris Hilton, cocaine possession and obstructing a public officer

Hilton, a woman already guilty of reviving baguette purses as a trend, further pled guilty in 2010 to having cocaine in her purse after her then-boyfriend, nightclub owner Cy Waits, was pulled over on suspicion of impaired driving. While Waits failed a roadside sobriety test, Hilton said she had to go to the bathroom, then opened her purse and dropped a bag of coke in front of the investigating officers. The heiress, who has previously faced numerous drug possession and impaired driving charges, among others, tends to dress for these appearances like a lawyer who shops exclusively at Wet Seal. The vibe is very "Your honor, I object... to your pants being on," and honestly, why not.

2010, etc.: Lindsay Lohan, multiple charges

Lindsay Lohan is... not very good at dressing for court. A violated probation hearing is a good time for a lot of things: the right attorney, a somber attitude, and seriously reconsidering the presence of your destructive parents in your life, certainly. Sheer pants, not so much. Another courthouse regular, Lohan generally favors an ill-fitted, bell-bottomed pant suit and extravagant heels, although she's been known to rock an aggressively short, tight dress as well.

The Parent Trap star is perhaps most notable for her 2010 controversial court manicure: a fun summer tie-dyed pattern with the words "fuck u" on her middle fingernails. It's unclear whether the middle fingers look was part of the original manicure, which features more subtle, random stenciled lettering, or if, in the hardest bitch move of our time, Lohan did it herself while actually in court. Bless.

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