Some day, the three-month-long Elizabeth Holmes fraud trial will become fodder not just for the pundits of the tech world, or for historians looking back on how we got to here, but for anyone considering how we shape the perceptions and subconscious prejudices of others. It has been a case study in the use of clothing and styling to affect opinion (public and judicial) and, if not to make friends, at least to influence people. Or try to.
When the verdict comes down, the transformation of the wunderkind founder of Theranos from black-clad genius to besuited milquetoast will be an integral part of the story. Did it work, or was it a seemingly transparent effort to play the relatable card? Rarely has there been as stark an example of Before and After.
The reinvention started even before the trial officially began, when Ms. Holmes made her first court appearance in San Jose, Calif., for her arraignment in April.
Gone were her signature black turtlenecks and black slacks; gone the bright red lipstick and blond hair ironed straight as a board or pulled into a chignon. Gone, in other words, was the look immortalized on magazine covers of Fortune, Forbes and Glamour (and, yes, T: The New York Times Style Magazine). The look that inspired a host 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 mind beloved of the tech world, in which having a uniform means having more time to think about substantive things rather than clothes.
Instead there was … sartorial neutrality, in the form of a light gray pantsuit and light blue button-down shirt, worn untucked, with baby pink lipstick. She looked more like the college student trying on a grown-up interview look than the mastermind of a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme.
By the time opening arguments began in September, the new look had been perfected: a no-name skirt suit (or dress and jacket or pantsuit) in a color so banal as to practically fade into the background. Her hair was set 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 around $175.
That’s not cheap, but it’s nothing like the Hermès bag Martha Stewart carried during her 2004 trial for insider trading, which prompted let-them-eat-cake comparisons and became a classic example of what not to wear to court — especially when you are charged with mishandling funds. (On the other hand, when Cardi B appeared in court with her Hermès to reject a plea deal in a misdemeanor assault case, the high-end bag served as a symbolic riposte to the idea that the rapper was a street brawler.)
The net effect of Ms. Holmes’s makeover was middle manager or backup secretarial character in a streaming series about masters of the universe (but not her! uh-uh), with the diaper bag functioning as an implicit reminder of her maternal status and family values. In case that accessory wasn’t enough, she often entered the courthouse with an actual family member — her mother, her partner — in tow, and a hand to cling to. It was code-switching of the most skillful kind. It was relatable.
One of the stereotypes of Silicon Valley’s superstars, after all, is that they are other: speaking in bits, relating to machines more than people; living, literally, in a different reality. When you want a jury to sympathize with your plight, you have to make them imagine themselves in your shoes. Which means, you need to look, if not like them, at least like someone they might know.
As an article in the journal of the American Bar Association put it: “How you dress makes an impact on a jury or judge’s attitude about you. The goal is to look appropriate and nonthreatening while not 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 celebrity lawyer whose clients have included Rachel Uchitel and Bill Cosby’s accusers, advises people to dress for court as if it were “church,” as she once told The New York Times.
Such images tap into our lizard brain, calling up impressions of power (or lack of it), threat (or not) and agency. Put simply: If in her previous incarnation Ms. Holmes’s image was crafted to suggest confidence, control and single-minded, maybe ruthless, pursuit of a goal — and it clearly worked, part of the case made for investors — she is now conveying softness and dependency, so unassertive that, as her defense argued, she would make a perfect target for a man to Svengali her.
(While Ms. Holmes’s lawyers described the efforts of Ramesh Balwani, her former boyfriend and Theranos partner, to control what she ate and how she came across, and though they submitted into evidence a text that read “I have molded you,” they did not say it was Mr. Balwani who came up with the idea of the black turtleneck. Which suggests that the image-making, at least, was all her own.)
In this, her makeover is like a version 2.0 of the techniques employed by Winona Ryder in her 2002 shoplifting trial, when she wore a Marc Jacobs outfit that made her look like a polite schoolgirl, complete with a Peter Pan collar, as well as assorted discrete knee-length hemlines and headbands; or Anna Sorokin, the society grifter who, in the final days of her 2019 trial, wore sweet baby-doll dresses that practically blared “innocent.”
Interesting as they were to watch, however, those strategies didn’t prove effective in the end. Both Ms. Ryder and Ms. Sorokin were found guilty. Perhaps Ms. Holmes will have more success. On this, the jury is already out.