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King of Pop as Court Jester

Message to Michael: This Time, Wear Clothes That Are Easier to Defend

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2003; Page C01

There are a handful of aesthetic flourishes that Michael Jackson would do well to avoid the next time he shows up in a courtroom. Steer clear of epaulettes and gold braid. Make sure that all clothes are free of rhinestones, sequins and paillettes. Quash the urge to wear good luck armbands, surgical masks, distracting bandages and the sort of wispy 5 o'clock shadow that teenage boys would proudly describe as a beard.

Jackson is scheduled to be arraigned in a Santa Maria, Calif., courtroom on Jan. 16 on nine counts of abuse related to a minor. Conventional wisdom holds that when one appears in court, particularly on such serious charges, the proper attire is a good navy suit, a crisp dress shirt and a somber tie. The only function style should serve is to help the accused look as respectable and trustworthy as possible.

A CBS cameraman tapes the activities of three participants in the network's series on the island of Pulau Tiga. (AP)

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Jackson needs a cloak of banal good taste more than most people. He has managed to build an international reputation as an eccentric with a distressing commitment to plastic surgery. His appearance is distracting, puzzling and unsettling. At the very least, he is a man who would do well to tone down the rouge, stop arching his eyebrows into an expression of wonder and resist the urge to fluff his hair like an Afghan competing for best in show.

Common sense should tell Jackson that a courthouse is not the place for tomfoolery. But history has shown that the entertainer is deaf to such admonishments. The last time Jackson appeared on the witness stand was in 2002, when he testified in a breach-of-contract suit. A German concert promoter claimed that Jackson had failed to perform at two millennium concerts -- one in Australia, the other in Hawaii. At the time, Jackson had a difficult time drawing a distinction between outfits that were appropriate for the courtroom and those better suited for the stage. Indeed, it seemed as though the only gewgaws from Jackson's costume closet that he failed to wear on the witness stand were rhinestone gloves and codpieces. The jury ultimately ruled against the entertainer, who was ordered to pay $5.3 million.

For one day of testimony, Jackson wore a black suit and a white shirt. But he could not resist accessorizing them with a navy tie that bore an enormous golden crest. The metallic embellishment looked vaguely royal, like something that might be found in the Las Vegas version of Buckingham Palace. Jackson has long had a penchant for clothes that make glancing references to grand uniforms and princely raiment -- at least the way they might have been visualized by Walt Disney or Donald Trump. One supposes Jackson deems his cartoonish imperial style appropriate given his self-declared status as the King of Pop. It wouldn't do for his fans to see him in only modest black wool.

One hopes that Jackson will avoid resurrecting his silver tie and white shirt combination. That was his choice for another day of testimony last year. He wore the shirt and tie with a dove-gray waistcoat, gray trousers and a midnight jacket. Jackson was dressed as though he were headed to the courthouse for a wedding rather than to testify. He looked like a bewildered plastic groomsman that had tumbled from atop a wedding cake.

There were moments during that previous trial when it seemed as if Jackson had tried -- in vain -- to keep his clothes simple. He had reached into his wardrobe and pulled out the most basic garment he could find and even it had been touched by the hand of Elvis. One day he wore a red shirt. It was trimmed in rhinestones.

When other celebrities have found themselves in a courtroom, they have done everything possible so as not to appear privileged, indulged, famous. In 2001, when Sean "P. Diddy" Combs sat at the defendant's table on charges of illegal gun possession and bribery, he wore a sober suit and left his jewels at home. His attire and his demeanor announced his recognition that serious matters were at hand. He was acquitted.

Winona Ryder may have been one of the best-dressed defendants ever on trial for shoplifting, but her attire, mostly by Marc Jacobs, was never inappropriate. It may have been too self-consciously contrite, but it was never dismissive. Ryder was found guilty.

In the past, Jackson has walked into a courtroom as though he was just passing through on his way to the stage door. He was always in a get-up that blithely mocked the proceedings. In watching him parade about under parasols and behind surgical masks, one wishes that he would pull the hair back and out of his face and dress with some gravitas. A makeover may not sway public opinion but at least it would suggest that he is aware the public is watching.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company