Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan set off a lively controversy by alleging that the “grandpa” sweater Bill Cosby wore to court was a calculated and manipulative ploy to gain public sympathy. “Bill Cosby’s perp walk was striking for its overwhelming lack of grace and power. It was an exploitation of our assumptions of fragile old age,” she wrote. “It was the explicit manipulation of a studiously unattractive sweater.”
Was it? Lawyers often micro-manage a clients’ appearance in court; when it amounts to deception, I have written that it is unethical. Cosby’s attire seems hardly deceptive; after all, he is famous for his sweaters. There is even a pop song called Cosby’s Sweater. Ann Althouse agrees with Givhan that it was “a con,” but suggests that it’s an ethical con because “everybody does it.”
I don’t understand either Givhan’s logic or Althouse’s, and if Cosby’s lawyers talked him into this costume, they did him no favors. Cosby’s best armor against the verdict of public opinion is that Cliff Huxtable would never do the horrible things he’s being accused of. There is no better, more benign, more appealing image of Bill Cosby than “TV Bill Cosby” as we fondly remember him. In court, he looked like a dirty old man, which is what he apparently is. Cliff Huxtable wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a sweater like that to court. (Bill would have also been well-advised to shave.)
I recently had an opportunity to watch a day of arraignments and sentencing in Fairfax, Virginia, and was shocked and depressed to see that virtually all of the African American defendants, and most of the white defendants too, showed up at court looking like slobs—you know, like Bill Cosby. Not only did this show disrespect to to the judge, the court, the justice system, the state and society, it is stupid beyond belief. This deportment plays into the hands of cognitive dissonance with a vengeance. A defendant wants, or should want, a judge to look at him as a remorseful, justice-respecting, flawed but honest citizen who made a mistake, but who takes the law seriously. Dressing like a central casting extra in a street gang movie is not the way to accomplish that objective. Never mind the tactical advantages of looking respectful, it is a civic obligation to be respectful.
Was it an accident that the one defendant who received what appeared to be the most lenient and compassionate sentence of all those I saw stand before the judge was the one who was clean-shaven and wearing a suit and tie? Maybe. And maybe not. For decades, Bill Cosby has held himself out to African American men as a role model, and when the role model had to appear in court, he dressed like a homeless person.
That’s what was wrong with Cosby’s sweater.