One day, Elizabeth Holmes’ three-month fraud trial will become fodder not only for the experts of the tech world, but also for historians looking back at how we got here. It will be a case study on the use of clothing to influence opinion (public and judicial) and, if not to make friends, then to influence people. Or try it.
When the verdict comes, the transformation of the child prodigy founder of Theranos from a black-clad genius to a fitting milquetoast will be an integral part of the story. Did it work, or was it a seemingly transparent attempt to play the recognizable card? Rarely has there been such a strong example of Before and After.
The reinvention began even before the trial officially began, when Ms. Holmes first appeared in court in San Jose, California, for her arraignment in April.
Gone were her signature black turtleneck sweaters and black pants; gone were the bright red lipstick and blond hair, straightened like a board or pulled into a bun. Gone, in other words, was the look immortalized on magazine covers from Fortune, Forbes, and Glamor (and, yes, T: DailyExpertNews Style Magazine). The look that inspired a large number of ironic imitators at the beginning of her trial. The look that famously referenced both Steve Jobs (but glamorous!) and Audrey Hepburn. The one that tapped into the Silicon Valley myth of the ghost loved by the tech world, where having a uniform means you have more time to think about content rather than clothing.
Instead, there was … sartorial neutrals, in the form of a light gray trouser suit and light blue button-down shirt, worn loose, with baby pink lipstick. She was more like the college girl trying out an adult interview than the mastermind of a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme.
By the time the opening arguments kicked in in September, the new look had been perfected: an unnamed dress suit (or dress and jacket or pantsuit) in a color so banal it almost faded into the background. Her hair was in loose waves around her face, like Christie Brinkley or a contestant on “The Bachelor.” Her face masks were light blue and green – the colors of nature. There was not a power heel or a power shoulder in sight. The only part of her outfit that was branded in any way was her diaper bag backpack (her son was born in July), which was from Freshly Picked and costs about $175.
That’s not cheap, but it looks nothing like the Hermès bag Martha Stewart carried during her 2004 insider trading trial, which sparked let-the-eat-cake comparisons and became a classic example of what not have to carry you to court – especially if you are charged with mishandling money. (On the other hand, when Cardi B showed up in court with her Hermès to dismiss a plea deal in a assault case, the luxury bag served as a symbolic response to the idea that the rapper was a street fighter.)
The net effect of Mrs. Holmes’ makeover was a middle manager or backup secretary on a streaming series about masters of the universe (but not her! uh-uh), with the diaper bag acting as an implicit reminder of her maternal status and family values . Just in case accessory wasn’t enough, she often entered the courthouse with an actual relative—her mother, her partner—in tow and a hand to cling to. It was code switching of the most skillful kind. It was recognizable.
After all, one of the stereotypes of Silicon Valley’s superstars is that they are different: talking in bits, more about machines than people; live, literally, in a different reality. If you want a jury to sympathize with your plight, get them to put themselves in your shoes. That means you have to look, if not like them, at least like someone they might know.
As an article in the American Bar Association magazine put it, “How you dress affects a jury’s or judge’s attitude toward you. The goal is to look appropriate and non-threatening without distracting from the case.”
The author, Brenda Swauger, advises her clients to avoid bright colors (check) and keep it simple (check) and conservative (check). Gloria Allred, the famed attorney whose clients have included Rachel Uchitel and Bill Cosby’s accusers, advises people to dress in court as if it were “church,” as she once told DailyExpertNews.
Such images make use of our lizard brains and evoke impressions of power (or lack thereof), threat (or not) and power. Simply put, if the image of Mrs. Holmes in her previous incarnation was made to suggest confidence, control and determined, perhaps relentless pursuit of a goal – and it clearly worked, made part of the business for investors – she now exudes softness and dependency, so unassertive that, as her defense argued, she would be a perfect target for a man to Svengali her.
(While Mrs. Holmes’s lawyers described the efforts of Ramesh Balwani, her former boyfriend and Theranos partner, to monitor what she ate and how she came across, and though they submitted a text as evidence that read “I formed you” , they did not say that it was Mr. Balwani who came up with the idea of the black turtleneck sweater, suggesting that at least the making of images was all her own.)
Herein is her makeover as a version 2.0 of the techniques Winona Ryder used during her shoplifting trial in 2002, when she wore a Marc Jacobs outfit that made her look like a polite schoolgirl, complete with a Peter Pan collar, as well as various discreet knee-length hemlines and headbands; or Anna Sorokin, the society swindler who, in the final days of her 2019 trial, wore sweet baby doll dresses that seemed practically “innocent.”
As interesting as they were to watch, those strategies ultimately proved ineffective. Both Mrs Ryder and Mrs Sorokin were found guilty. Perhaps Mrs. Holmes has more success. The jury is already out on this.