It has now been a few articles that I attempt to describe how clothing has such an important role in the social interactions of bodies and their positioning toward the norm in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation etc. It is correct to assume that the various interpretations that are made of the public bodies through (or complemented by) their clothing is a subjective (and therefore under the influence) interpretation of society. However, this subjectivity can be the object of an investigation with an objective claim like in the case of judicial prosecution. This article is therefore a short and far too incomplete examination of clothes used as a piece of evidence in trials (if anyone knows some additional information, I would be very interested to hear about it!).
Often, clothes introduced in court rooms are not so much presented as evidence for what they incarnate, but rather, they are received as receptacle for an outside matter: DNA, blood, and other parts/products of the body can be thus collected to prove the interaction between two or more bodies. This is how, for example, one of Monica Lewinsky’s dresses was received as piece of evidence in the procedure of US Presidential impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, since this dress was still carrying Clinton’s sperm on it, and was thus proving the existence of sexual relation between them that he had been denying at first. Some other time, clothes are considered as judicial evidence as logical elements of the narrative of the crime. This is how we learned these last days that the clothes worn by Reeva Steenkamp when she was killed by her partner, Oscar Pistorius on February 14, 2013, will be introduced in the latter’s trial to deny the logic of his defending narrative. However, these cases do not tell us anything about the way clothing plays a tremendous role in the social interpretation of otherness to the point that it can actually be part of a sort of judicial fashion forensic in which this interpretation has to be unfolded.
One recent and illustrative example of the use of a piece of clothing as evidence of such an interpretation in a trial was presented during the prosecution of George Zimmerman in July 2013 (State of Florida v. George Zimmerman). The piece of clothing introduced then was the hoodie that Trayvon Martin was wearing when he got murdered by Zimmerman on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. The evidence was used to show where the clothe had been penetrated by the deadly bullet but, more importantly, it was presented to the jury for it to determine if the hoodie — implicitly complemented by Martin’s black body — could present sufficiently suspicious characteristics for Zimmerman to legitimately confront Martin in his claimed expectation that “he was up to no good” (for more on this topic and the underlying racism it reveals, you can listen to the conversation I had with Mimi Thi Nguyen for Archipelago). This evidence, presented by the prosecution was probably expected to illustrate how only a racist interpretation of this piece of clothe worn by a black body could justify Zimmerman’s behavior. but the almost unanimously white jury decided otherwise — and thus became complicit of this racist interpretation — since Zimmerman walked free from his trial.
Other cases of clothes introduces as pieces of evidence have been presented in trials for sexual offenses, in a disturbing attempt to prove that the clothing worn by the victims amounted to an implicit consent to any sexual intercourse. In an article entitled “Is Clothing Probative of Attitude or Intent? Implications for Rape and Sexual Harassment Cases,” Theresa L. Lennon, Sharron J. Lennon and Kim K P Johnson evoke judicial cases where clothes were thus introduced in court to decriminalize or present attenuating circumstances to the rapes committed. The fact that such evidences were received in the first place, whether they were indeed judged as attenuating or not, is already a form of acceptance that there can be attenuating circumstances to rape. As I wrote in a previous article however, “sexual assault can never have attenuating circumstances as it absolutely always enacts a despotic power of one body over another.” Receiving clothing worn by the victims of these assaults as a piece of evidence introduced by the defendants is therefore recognizing the notion of degree of culpability for the bodies who committed them, which is in contradiction with the very definition of the crime that can only be absolute. Legislation is however not always immune of this kind of contradiction and that is how the article quoted above informs us that the American states of Georgia and Alabama do include “mode of dress” in their understanding of “past sexual conduct. If we go further in this research, we also read that “general reputation for promiscuity, nonchastity, or sexual mores contrary to the community standards and opinion of character” are also included as such for these two states. This is where the norm explicitly (“contrary to the community standards”) forms the legal framework in which a crime is understood, and therefore how wearing a particular clothing, because of the normative interpretation made of it, can be legally reprehensible, since it can be introduced as an evidence introduced against the body wearing it in a trial where this same body is the victim.
By introducing clothes as pieces of evidence for what they socially incarnate, a court is therefore recognizing the hypothesis of a certain form of universal understanding of clothing’s semiotics. In other words, it needs to decide whether or not it assumes a common understanding to both the victim and the accused of what the clothe signifies in society. This common understanding is however always prejudicial in that no action could possibly be systematically associated to any clothe, thus preventing the idea of anticipation. What that means is that an expectation related to a clothe based on whatever claimed universal understanding of what it signifies such as “hoodie=delinquency” or “revealing clothe=implicit consent to intercourse” cannot possibly have any judicial value to justice because of the prejudicial nature of such claim. By introducing the hoodie worn by Martin, the prosecution against Zimmerman thus invited the jury to judge whether this piece of clothing could be associated or not with delinquency, thus allowing the jury to identify themselves with Zimmerman, rather than to take into account the fact that the clothe, as potential social signifier could not be received as evidence in the first place.