Winona's accessories on trial.

Winona's accessories on trial.

Winona's accessories on trial.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 8 2002 5:12 PM

Winona Scissorhands

Why were her accessories the biggest issue?

No wonder the girl steals things.

This week, a jury convicted Winona Ryder of felony theft for having ... self-discounted more than $5,500 worth of clothing and accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue last December. As a rule, for every paragraph the media have devoted to the legal developments in the trial, two were devoted to what she was wearing and how she wore her hair.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

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This wasn't a person on trial, it was Felony Barbie.

Serious legal commentators discussed her wardrobe and makeup on television with serious legal faces. CNN's legal analyst questioned a reporter about her wardrobe, urging that "Winona's wardrobe" was "a big part of the case." The New York Post carefully described her as "heavily made up and demurely dressed in a virginal, cream-colored suit with a matching pleated skirt." The Los Angeles Times (and virtually everyone else) reported that Ryder received the verdict while "wearing a plum-colored dress."

The media were by no means the only offender when it came to putting Winona's clothes on trial. In one of the oddest tactics in an altogether perplexing defense strategy, Ryder's attorney, Mark Geragos, deployed the "this old thing?" defense throughout the trial. At one point Geragos actually waved an ugly stolen hair clippie over Ryder's head as he defied the jury to imagine her—her, icon and arbiter of taste—accessorizing so clumsily. "Can you see her wearing this thing?" he asked, with all the disgust of Cindy Crawford on MTV's House of Style.

Trust me, Johnnie Cochran is furious he didn't think of this defense first: "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, can you really imagine my client, O.J. Simpson, wearing anything as hopelessly last year as these Bruno Maglis? And this shapeless—and, might I add, bloody—glove? Please. The defense rests."

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Geragos' other defense tactic was to argue that while regular mortals might tolerate clothing torn by ripped-out security tags, Ryder was far too glamorous to be seen in public wearing frocks with holes. Why would she be ripping up clothes? he argued. She was Winona Ryder, for heaven's sake.

There is a wonderful symmetry here: Both the crime and the trial were about looking like a celebrity. The movie star had already dropped $3,000 that day on clothing and accessories, yet still shoplifted a $140 hair band and a $750 thermal shirt (because God knows, she couldn't go pay $16 for them at Target). So her attorney trotted out the people-who-look-like-her-don't-take-stuff defense, alternating it with the people-who-don't-look-like-her-persecute-people-who-look-like-her-because-they're-jealous defense.

Geragos, so blinded by Ryder's celebrity, never managed to make this trial about anything other than Ryder's celebrity. She was either too famous to have done this or she was being framed for being famous. Either way, her only defense was her celebrity. Meanwhile, the columnists and reporters and TV commentators—tastefully decked out in designer suits (not quite the Marc Jacobs, both worn and apparently stolen by Ryder this year)—also fell into the celebrity trap. For most of us watching at home, the whole trial might as well have been about the spring collection.

But there is nothing more real than a courtroom, even in Los Angeles. A thousand glamorous headshots melt into dust when you're at a defense table with a judge, a gavel and some bailiffs. In the eyes of the jury, the larger-than-life defense probably came too late for Winona Ryder. By simply walking into a courtroom, she'd already proved that she was life-size to the only people who really counted: the jury.