Judging by Appearance

Judges and juries can be swayed by more than just a pretty face: clothing and jewelry choices can sometimes mean the difference between doing time and dodging jail.

By Annie Murphy Paul, published November 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Blindfolded, balancing her scales, Justice issues her subjects a solemn promise: No peeking. Her real life representatives, however, are not always quite so scrupulous. Psychologists have persuasively demonstrated that attractive defendants are perceived as more credible, are acquitted more often, and receive lighter sentences than their less appealing counterparts. But judges and juries can be swayed by more than just a pretty face: the clothing defendants wear, the jewelry they display, the way they style their hair, can sometimes mean the difference between doing time and dodging jail.

The influence of appearance in the courtroom is so great, in fact, that an entire industry has emerged to advise lawyers, plaintiffs, and defendants on their aesthetic choices. Jury consultants, often trained in both psychology and law, counsel their clients on how to speak, when to gesture—and not least, what to wear. "The jury is going to form impressions of you based on subtle characteristics of personality and attitude, and dress is one important element," says Robert Gordon, a Dallas-based psychologist and jury consultant. "Whether you dress casually or formally, wear a tie or a dress, choose bright or dark colors, all make a difference in terms of how you are perceived." Although consultants are called in only on high-profile, high-stakes cases, their strategies also apply to more mundane matters—the shoplifting charge, the bankruptcy claim, the speeding ticket.

Wear to court what you would wear to church, went the old advice, but in a more secular age the word is: wear what you would wear to a business meeting. The tailored suit, the crisp shirt or soft blouse, the subdued tie for men and low heels for women, have become the courtroom version of dress-for-success. There's a good reason for that: executive attire is like a round Rorschach blot, replete with associations that are at best positive and at worst blandly neutral. The brisk air of a business suit suggests that the defendant is neither a rich layabout nor a welfare cheat, but someone who works for a living. The corporate uniform is a token of belonging, to a company and to a middle-class community. And even if the defendant has just emerged from a maximum-security prison, wearing a suit he looks as if he could stride right out of the courthouse and join the innocent throng on the sidewalk.

The suit also acts as a disguise, a cover for complicated individuality. "You want the defendant to look as much like everybody else as possible," says Gordon. "You don't want the clothes to make a statement." Although consultants often try to "humanize" their clients, making them appear more appealing and accessible, they also seek a certain anonymity. The generic-looking defendant becomes a blank screen upon which jurors can project their own fears: that could be my neighbor, they may think, or that could be me. Anything idiosyncratic suggests personal needs and desires that are better left hidden. After all, it was those powerful and particular wants—to own a gold bracelet, to vent anger at a girlfriend, to drink and drive fast—that brought the accused to court in the first place.

But being aware of the courtroom's dress code, and obeying it, may itself convey the crucial message to the jury. Those who wear what's expected to court enact the drama of crime and punishment in miniature: they are demonstrating in the most visible and literal way that they recognize society's laws, and submit to them. When the gavel falls, that's the message that Justice's deputies are looking to see.