Carroll, Clothes and Credibility

Carroll, Clothes and Credibility

It was unclear, to the end, which way the jury would go in the E. Jean Carroll v. Donald J. Trump trial. Would members believe the 79-year-old woman alleging rape by the former president and current presidential candidate? Or would they believe the accused, who never appeared in court and never called a single witness — and whose lawyers held that the trial was a sham cooked up by a vengeful woman to take down a powerful man?

Ultimately they found Mr. Trump liable in the civil suit — both for sexual assault and for defaming Ms. Carroll — and awarded Ms. Carroll $5 million in damages. It’s hard not to think that what they saw, not just what they heard, played a part.

As she sat there in Manhattan federal court every day, Ms. Carroll presented the very opposite of the “wack job” Mr. Trump had described in his video deposition. She did not look “mentally sick.” She did not look like the money- and fame-grubber Mr. Trump’s lawyers described. She was an almost perfectly calibrated study in neutrality, calm and composure, both in the way she spoke during her testimony and in the way her appearance spoke for her.

It was almost as if she were offering an answer to a question she might once have been asked as Elle magazine’s advice columnist, E. Jean: “I am about to testify in a rape trial. I am a private citizen, and the accused is a man who once sat in the Oval Office. What should I wear to help amplify my voice and make people take it seriously?”

After all, this was in part a case about appearance. Mr. Trump made it so when he announced “She’s not my type” as part of his defense after Ms. Carroll’s allegations first appeared in a 2019 New York magazine excerpt from her memoir. How Ms. Carroll looked was always going to be a factor in the calculations — even 30 years after the incident she alleged occurred. Her lawyers reminded the jury of her presence — of her sheer physical self — in their closing arguments, when they pointed out that Mr. Trump had not been there to look jurors in the eye. Like all victims of sexual assault who take their cases to trial, her body was at the heart of the case. What she put on that body, how she presented it, mattered.

“Optics are critically important in cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment because you have people looking for anything that suggests a victim asked for it or wants attention,” said Debra Katz, a founding partner of Katz Banks Kumin and a civil rights attorney who represented Christine Blasey Ford, among others, and who attended part of the Carroll trial but has no relationship with her team. Indeed, clothes have been deemed a legitimate subject in sexual harassment cases since 1986, when the Supreme Court heard Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson and ruled that “provocative dress” could be considered as evidence.

“You have to overcome gender bias and preconceptions about who gets assaulted,” Ms. Katz said. “And that means presenting a plaintiff in a serious way that does not distract from the testimony.”

Indeed, said Molly Levinson, communications adviser to Ms. Carroll and her lawyers, “We wanted to make sure everyone heard her voice and her testimony loud and clear,” in part by having her present as neutral an image as possible.

Ms. Carroll arrived for the first day of the trial in a cream-colored coat over a chocolate shirtdress and crisp white shirt with an almost priestly collar. She wore small pearl earrings and carried a leather briefcase. On Day 2, she wore a navy suit and another pristine white shirt, buttoned to the throat. Then she appeared in a boxy cream jacket and skirt and a matching turtleneck. Then a navy jacket with brass buttons and a military collar. A white coat and black turtleneck. A pearl gray jacket belted over another black turtleneck and a matching skirt.

Her clothes were simple and tailored, with no visible logos. Neat. Respectful but not frumpy. Definitely not showy. Her hair was done in a controlled bob. She wore pantyhose, a generational tell. Her collars were often high and protective.

Out of such details, impressions are made. Out of such details, credibility is built. Do you believe her? She looked consistent and reliable, day in and day out. She did not waver — not in her style or her story. Relating the lurid details of what she said had happened to her in the gilded world of Bergdorf Goodman, a store so much a part of Manhattan myth that it has its own movie, she looked plausibly as if she could have shopped there — but not indulgently. Not so often that it would be impossible to relate to.

It was so effective that people began to wonder if someone was stage-managing her style. Well, her lawyers, duh. It has long been understood that appearance is part of any courtroom drama.

“Any one of us who does this work understands these issues,” Ms. Katz said. Every accessory, every stray thread, is a potential trigger to the watching world.

That is not to say that Ms. Carroll’s team employed a professional stylist. Ms. Carroll didn’t re-wardrobe herself, as did Anna Sorokin, the high society con woman who had Anastasia Walker, a former Glamour magazine staffer turned stylist, select clothes for her courtroom appearances. (Lawyers generally eschew “stylists” for “consultants,” though the subtle differences between those terms are debatable.) Ms. Carroll does, however, have a past in fashion. That is not an immaterial fact. She had access to a brain trust of women who have always taken fashion seriously. They could help her analyze her closet.

That was a point of difference at Elle, back in Ms. Carroll’s day: fashion for the thinking woman. (Full disclosure: I worked there in late 1995 and 1996, but Ms. Carroll and I did not know each other.)

Ms. Carroll would have known not to dismiss fashion as a frivolous concern, unworthy of consideration in such a potentially explosive and public trial. She would have known that the images that came out of the event would be part of how a jury saw her — literally — and how her story was told and retold for the world. She would have known that it is impossible not to glance at people and dismiss them or judge them credible because of how they look — that rendering such quicksilver assessments is part of human nature, even if we aren’t even aware of what we are doing.

She did wear a black tie, white shirt and black skirt and tights on the cover of her book “A Dog in Heat Is a Hot Dog and Other Rules to Live By” all the way back in 1996.

Ultimately, the solutions she and her team came up with for court may be as lasting a part of the historical record of this time as any words she dispensed in the pages of the magazine where she once worked or the books she wrote.

From this point on, she is going to be known not as the author of “What Do We Need Men For?” or even a well-received biography of Hunter S. Thompson, but as the woman who sued a former president for rape and was awarded $5 million for sexual abuse and defamation. She is forever part of the story of Mr. Trump’s unprecedented legal quagmire and the long tail of #MeToo.

Part of the picture.

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