In court, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard dress to suggest
Since it began broadcasting live on Court TV in April, the libel trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, taking place in a courtroom in Fairfax, Va., has been the most riveting show on air. He has been the subject of countless ICT Tac clips, hashtags, passionate fan posts and a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
A captivated audience analyzed each testimonial excerpt, facial expression and unnecessary diversion (Depp’s doodles, for example) as an indication of innocence or guilt in a case involving detailed allegations of physical and sexual abuse. The word “performance” came up time and time again – as if it was somehow a surprise.
While Heard last spoke this week in a three-piece pinstripe suit, and Depp watched her in her own almost matching dark three-piece suit – as the trial ends May 27 – rarely had it was so clear that the courtroom is a theater and a trial the ultimate drama, with heightened emotions, props and, of course, suits.
It’s as if, for a world of viewers steeped in “American Crime Story” and “Inventing Anna,” source material for a future program was intentionally created in real time for all to see.
From their first entrance, Depp and Heard viewed their role: not as showy magnets, but as respectful members of society sensitive to the seriousness of the moment, to the traditions of the court and to the weight of truth. You’ve heard of dressing to impress? This is a dress to suggest.
Both seemed particularly… sober, at least judging by the clothes. In a lawsuit that deals in part with drug and alcohol abuse and related extreme behavior, including physical violenceIt is not a coincidence.
So in a corner: Depp, a man who tends to be rock star-meet-gypsy king, in navy blue, gray and black three-piece suits, waistcoats always fully buttoned, tie tucked in, silk pocket square on display in his left breast pocket. The silver skull jewelry this was his signature toned down; the desert scarves and boots left behind.
He’s not exactly a Wall Street functionary – the dark shirts and abstract printed ties speak to a different cinematic stereotype – but he’s pretty close to a wealthy bourgeois. Even her hair is neatly pulled back in a ponytailas if to emphasize that he has nothing to hide: neither his eyes, nor his face, nor his truth.
A rager, as the defense suggests, with an uncontrolled “monster” (as the text messages submitted as evidence call it) inside? As if.
In the other corner: Heard, similarly adapted in classic, understated shades of gray and navy blue. She wears trouser suits or skirts up to mid-calf; blouses buttoned all the way up, often with ties or bow ties; belts and pumps. Tasteful spending, but not telegraphic. Her makeup is subtle; her jewels, children. Her hair is styled in a series of complicated 1930s buns, braids and buns, with the occasional tendril escaping from her ties.
Her vibe is not victim or innocent naïve or madonna, often a tactic for defendants. (See Anna Sorokin, who sometimes wore white baby-doll dresses during her trial appearances, or Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who carried a diaper bag.) Instead, Heard suggested a demure and capable girl on Friday. , from a time when women had to fight to be heard – and when they nevertheless came to the aid of the home front and proved their worth.
Unstable, according to the terms of the prosecution? A fantasy? Clearly not.
Recognizing the role that image-making plays in human biases when it comes to justice, right or wrong, is simply to recognize all the ways each side tries to make its case – the way the evenings appeal not only to those in the room, those who actually decide the legal outcome, but to the court of public opinion.
We the people are also judge and jury when it comes to public redemption stories and career arcs. Fans of both actors have made their stance on social mediathough Depp’s are more abundant and vocal.
There’s a reason the Supreme Court wrote in Estelle v. Williams in 1976, that “the state cannot, pursuant to the 14th Amendment, compel a defendant to stand trial by jury while dressed in identifiable prison clothing”. the outfit alone was likely to influence the jury towards a presumption of guilt. (The court then ruled, however, that if the defendant did not object to being so dressed in a “convenient” manner, the trial could not later be declared unconstitutional.)
The right to bring what one wants in court is part of the right to a fair trial. And since clothing can affect perception in a negative way, it can also benefit an individual. It allows you to continue representing your position, even when you are not at the helm; when you’re just silently sitting in place. As a result, a whole sub-specialty of the styling profession has developed focusing on the courtroom.
Although there was a lot of speculation on social media at the start of the trial that Heard was stalking Depp while wearing clothes that reflected his fashion choice — he wore a bee tie, she wore a bee tie; he wore a gray suit, she wore a gray suit — and while that’s certainly possible, a more likely explanation is that both legal teams had come to the same conclusion.
Namely, that to counter star players’ preconceptions as hysterical celebrities bickering with skewed value systems and warped morals, they needed to don the camouflage of trust. The clothes we subliminally associate with adulthood, responsibility and reliability.
In a word: suits.
“Defense attorneys try to use appearances to their advantage,” Laurie L. Levenson wrote in a 2008 Missouri Law Review article that still stands today. “They adapt their own language, dress and general style of the courtroom to please the jury, and also try to change the appearance of their clients. Criminal defense guides encourage the client makeover — every defendant needs the right outfit, a perfect outfit hairdressing and lessons on appropriate behavior in the courtroom.
In court, like in Paramount wardrobe department. In the past, according to Lyn Paolo, the costume designer for “For the People,” “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Inventing Anna,” on-screen appearances have often responded to the heightened reality of fiction, but now this fact is also broadcast everywhere on the screens, the lines are increasingly blurred.
“We tell stories about how people are dressed, who they are and how they want to be treated,” Paolo said. “There are so many adjectives you can imply with the clothes you wear.”
Ultimately, it’s partly a trial of image, and how things look on the outside versus what happens behind closed doors. Natural prejudices — about celebrity and what it represents, of privilege, of sex roles – and how these preconceptions can be changed via appearance and affect.
Was Heard playing a role, as Depp’s lawyers have suggested? Sure. Just like Depp. (So were their lawyers.) Not just because they’re professional actors, but because that’s what testimony requires: a convincing portrayal of honesty, credibility, using all the tools available to create a character.
In every sense of that word.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.