Celebs turn to stylists, designers to craft courtroom couture

Felicia Pearson,right, an actress who played "Snoop" on the HBO television series "The Wire" stands outside the courthouse west building with her attorney, Benjamin Sutley, left, after pleading guilty to drug charges.
Felicia Pearson,right, an actress who played "Snoop" on the HBO television series "The Wire" stands outside the courthouse west building with her attorney, Benjamin Sutley, left, after pleading guilty to drug charges. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

The button-down gingham shirt was accented by a maroon paisley bow tie. Her loose-fitting black jeans slightly covered her black-and-white squared leather shoes. Felicia "Snoop" Pearson's nerd-chic ensemble, accented by geeky glasses, seemed almost red-carpet-ready when she exited Baltimore Circuit Court on Monday.

But "The Wire" actress' duds were more likely a calculated legal move than a fashion statement. In fact, Pearson is among a growing list of celebrities who turn to stylists or high-end designers for spiffed-up makeovers when they land in court.

Rapper Lil Kim, rocker Courtney Love and actress Winona Ryder all turned to famed designer Marc Jacobs for tamed, classy clothes when they appeared in court for various infractions. Michael Jackson ditched his usual flashy garb for Louis Farrakhan's suit maker, Willie Scott, when he faced legal trouble.

More recently, when Paris Hilton appeared last September in a Las Vegas court for drug charges, she was dressed in black platform pumps and a black and cream wrap shirt dress that rested at the knee. It was a far cry from the numerous times she flashed the paparazzi while exiting a limo. And who could forget Lindsay Lohan's attempted turnaround from sex-kitten bad girl to angelic ingenue during her appearance before a Los Angeles judge in February? You'd better believe that these stars turned to a trusted eye when crafting their courtroom couture.

"Stylists are very important for the celebrities, especially when they get into legal trouble," said George Simonton, a fashion designer and full-time professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "They know they will be on 'Access Hollywood' or TMZ."

"They know that the photographers are going to be there," he said. "When Casey Anthony was released, she was given cosmetics. They glamorized her. In the past, celebrities would disappear through the back door and get into cars with dark windows. … Today, bad publicity is good publicity."

He added: "When celebrities go to court, they really take their time to put their outfit together."

Defendants also put on their Sunday best as an overall sign of respect for the court, according to Simonton.

"They want to be taken seriously," he said. "When the judge looks at you, they are looking at your appearance."

Celebrities should strike a balance when dressing for court, Simonton said.

"If I was a stylist, I would dress my celebrity in smart, understated clothes, but not matronly," he said. "I would pick clothes that were not extremely tight. You want to be thought of as intelligent. I'd pick very beautifully, softly tailored clothes. I'd want my client to be taken seriously. When you come in neat and well-groomed, that makes the difference."

Fancy fashions could backfire, Simonton warned.

During one of Lohan's court appearances — there have been so many — Simonton recalled her receiving some flak from onlookers who noticed the red soles of her high heels — a telltale indicator of high-end Christian Louboutin shoes.

"Some of the people resented it," he said. "They see celebs as being treated specially."

Pearson, who overcame a murder conviction to launch an acting career as a drug-gang assassin on HBO's "The Wire," turned to Vashon "Shawnny" Smith for styling assistance this week. Smith, who said she is one of Pearson's best friends, said Pearson is "very particular" about her clothing.

Pearson's ensemble was almost as much talked about Monday as her guilty plea to conspiracy to sell heroin. Pearson definitely stood out and struck the appropriate balance, according to her lawyer, Benjamin Sutley.

"Let's put it this way: Not too many of my clients go into court with a bow tie," he said from his Baltimore law office. "She was comfortable with it. It wasn't like she was wearing cut-off shorts or a T-shirt to her knees. I had no problem with it."

Sutley said that he informs all his clients to arrive at court in proper attire.

"I tell them in passing," he said. "I tell them all to look nice. I want them to dress like they are going to church. They should dress nice and show respect for the court."

Who can say whether Pearson's attire affected her legal fate? But it certainly couldn't have hurt. The Baltimore actress was sentenced to seven years in prison, with all of the time suspended except for the five months she had served while awaiting trial.