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At trial, Gwyneth Paltrow is dressing for where she’d rather be

The Goop founder’s clothes have telegraphed two messages at once: She was just a regular mom on a ski vacation, and she is too famous to waste her time on this.

Actor Gwyneth Paltrow leaves a courthouse Tuesday in Park City, Utah, where she is accused in a lawsuit of crashing into a skier. (Alex Goodlett/AP)
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When famous people have to go on trial, one of many crucial choices they face is how to dress. Should they bring the aura and the trappings of their outsize fame with them, or shrink down to their distinctly only-as-large-as-life civilian selves?

Showing up styled as the entity known to the public can assert power — yet it risks absurdity, under unflattering fluorescent lights, juxtaposed with lawyers, judges and courthouse personnel in their everyday work uniforms. Assuming a more pedestrian, scaled-down, appropriate-for-the-setting look, by contrast, can communicate seriousness — but can also remind jurors and other observers, perhaps inconveniently, that megacelebrities are, after all, just frail and fallible humans like everyone else.

This week, actress and Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow has appeared before a Utah court where she is accused of crashing into a fellow skier, 76-year-old retired optometrist Terry Sanderson, while vacationing in Park City in 2016. Sanderson alleges that Paltrow fled afterward and that the collision left him with broken ribs and permanent brain damage, and after initially seeking $3 million, Sanderson is now suing Paltrow for $300,000. Paltrow, in turn, is countersuing Sanderson for $1 and the cost of her legal fees, claiming it was actually Sanderson who crashed into her.

The most uncomfortable moments from Gwyneth Paltrow’s testimony

Baked into Paltrow’s defense is the belief that Sanderson’s suit aims to exploit Paltrow’s wealth and celebrity, and this week, Paltrow’s courtroom style choices seem to silently address that sentiment. In gold jewelry and luxe-looking riffs on traditional businesslike silhouettes like the suit, cardigan and turtleneck sweater, her hair loose and makeup modest, Paltrow has effectively split the difference between demure propriety and power glam. She has simultaneously telegraphed two messages that very well could have been at odds: “Look, I’m just a mom who tried to take her teenagers on a nice ski vacation,” and “Yes I am wealthy and famous, and I shan’t be wasting my time on this.”

You don’t have to have Billy Flynn as your lawyer to know that when you’re a defendant, it behooves you to give the impression you couldn’t possibly have committed the act in question. Many famous defendants have aimed for respectability, maturity, wide-eyed innocence or even pitiful decrepitude on their days in court.

In 2005, Lil’ Kim set aside the candy-colored, eye-popping ensembles she was famous for in favor of a crisp white blouse, conventionally pretty makeup and a tan suit with subtle pinstripes — Midtown business executive chic — to appear in federal court on a charge of perjury related to a shooting outside a New York radio station. When Winona Ryder was on trial for shoplifting charges in 2002, The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan took note of her girlish headbands and her prim, elegant knee-length skirts and dresses — but wondered after Ryder was convicted, “Did they sense in her an attempt at manipulative wardrobing so slick that it backfired?”

More recently, Harvey Weinstein arrived for his 2020 trial in New York unshaven and leaning on an orthopedic walker with tennis balls affixed to the feet. “The decrepit-looking Mr. Weinstein, body hunched as he slowly rolls forward,” the New York Times’s Jasmine E. Harris observed, “contrasts sharply with his former image as a domineering Hollywood power broker now accused of rape and predatory sexual assault.” And Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, in court last year suing each other for defamation, wore sharp, tidy suits and clean-looking, off-the-face hairstyles while they traded allegations of drunken, drug-addled abuses.

Harvey Weinstein looks sloppy and weak. Do you believe him?

So far, Paltrow’s wardrobe selections have actually emphasized that she is, in fact, someone who goes skiing and could feasibly be involved in a freak accident on the slopes; in particular, the cozy white turtleneck sweater and aviator-frame glasses she wore Tuesday invoked ’80s apres-ski in all its glory, as depicted in 2021′s “House of Gucci.”

But other style decisions of Paltrow’s seemed more deliberately calibrated to the moment. On Tuesday, the opening day of the trial, and again on Wednesday (when she wore a belted, chunky cardigan), Paltrow took part in the long tradition of famous ladies wearing white to appear as defendants — the color of lambs, lilies, snow, doves and other notable symbols of peace, purity and innocence — like Ryder, Cardi B and Naomi Campbell before her.

Paltrow’s soft, gentle silhouettes also presented a subtle contrast to the allegation that she had crashed into another skier and then bolted away. On Thursday, Paltrow wore a soft-looking relaxed-fit gray double-breasted suit over a thin scoop-neck shirt of the same color. Friday, when Paltrow sat listening to witness testimony in a collared, dark long-sleeved top with slight puff sleeves, lips pursed and cheekbones jutting, she looked pleasant and non-threatening — if also mildly annoyed to be missing a Goop staff meeting, or a farm-to-table vegan lunch reservation, or a crystal sound bath.

All of which, one might note, she was also dressed appropriately for. As though this court appearance was being squeezed in, obligingly, between other appointments.

Terry Sanderson's attorney Kristin VanOrman questioned Gwyneth Paltrow on March 24 in Park City, Utah, during her trial over a 2016 skiing incident. (Video: The Washington Post)

When Paltrow took the stand Friday afternoon, her serene disposition was punctuated by occasional tight, benevolent smiles and sips from a green glass Mountain Valley Spring Water bottle. Listening attentively and speaking carefully, but sometimes looking up at her questioner with the same expression as a mother hearing a real whopper from her eight-year-old, Paltrow conveyed with her face and voice what she’d already conveyed with her clothes: respect and compliance, but only as far as was necessary. Like she was eager to get all this unpleasantness squared away and get on with the rest of her day.