Trial Style

Cate Edwards’s Courtroom Style Strategy

His daughter’s dressed-down courtroom style reflects a savvy trial strategy for John Edwards.

Sara D. Davis / Getty Images

Each day that John Edwards walks into the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., his daughter Cate marches by his side—her eyes sometimes shielded by sunglasses and her dark hair typically hanging loose. Cate Edwards has been her father’s most stalwart supporter, and when it comes to painting a public tableau, her presence is a pinpoint of light in the darkness.

The two are a study in contrasts despite substantial similarities. Most notably, the daughter followed in the father’s footsteps and entered the legal profession. He became a marquee trial lawyer with a degree from the University of North Carolina. She graduated from Harvard Law School and is a former associate at the D.C. firm Sanford, Wittels & Heisler, where she focused on civil-rights law.

Inside the courtroom, Cate sits in the front row just behind her father, and has been observed passing notes to the defense table. While she is not part of her father’s legal team, Cate’s familiarity with the law informs her interactions with him. And her particular understanding of the legal transgressions of which he is accused is intertwined with whatever PR benefit there is in having her by his side. To wit: her support of him is informed, not ignorant.

When they arrive at the courthouse together, he invariably is in a dark suit and sober tie. His business shirt is crisp. He is surrounded by attorneys all dressed in their conservatively tailored uniforms.

But Cate has been resolutely less formal. On Tuesday, for example, she strode into the courthouse wearing a short fuchsia skirt, a loose-fitting taupe sweater, and beige flats. Another day, she arrived in a black skirt and bright pink blouse —untucked—topped with a black sweater. Most days, she carries her essentials in a pale blue nylon Longchamp-style shoulder bag.

As this courtroom saga unfolds over her father’s admitted infidelity and some $925,000 in alleged coverup funds, Cate has eschewed any hint of the slick and polished façade typical of attorneys. At times, it’s almost as though she has aggressively swung in the opposite direction. She looks as though she’s just returned from a parent-teacher conference for her younger siblings, Jack and Emma Claire—a responsibility that could indeed fall to her if her father is found guilty.

Cate has chosen not to dress the part of the savvy confidante, someone whom the public could easily imagine sitting in on strategy sessions, someone complicit in the technicalities of his defense. And at only 30 years old, she isn’t dressing with youthful swagger or confidence.

Her courthouse style, with its droopy layers and colors that veer from searing hues to stolid shades of taupe and ivory, seems self-consciously suburban and anti-fashion. Her little nylon sack is not cheap, but it nonetheless resembles something that one might use as a carry-on travel bag or a secondary day bag for hauling around gym clothes.

Yet history shows Cate Edwards to be a polished dresser. Images of her in a 2007 Harper’s Bazaar story have her perched on a ladder wearing a long yellow mermaid ball-skirt and a crisp white blouse and espousing her love for Marc Jacobs and Vera Wang. She was on the campaign trail with her family in trim sheath dresses.

But now, in court, she serves as the visual rejoinder to any argument that her father is slick, narcissistic, and cold. Her presence wraps him in the bourgeois and the homey. He can’t make use of the working-class wardrobe he relied on as a presidential candidate in 2007. That year, he posed on the cover of Men’s Vogue in jeans and a Carhartt canvas jacket underscoring his blue-collar bona fides, but the courtroom requires more formality from a defendant. If protocol demands that John Edwards look like a banker, his daughter dresses as though she could be going to a Piggly-Wiggly.

The contrast of Cate Edwards’s easy, oversized sweaters with the tailored smoothness of her father calls to mind the portrait of opposites that her parents so often put before the country—to great effect. He was the youthful-looking lawyer with the perfect hair and the fancy suits; Elizabeth Edwards cultivated the more mature image of a soft and round maternal partner with clothes that were often indifferent to her figure. This is the aesthetic role Cate Edwards has stepped into.

She looks like her mother.

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And as she stands alongside her father, she is a haunting reminder of his betrayal, a keeper of family secrets and silent rebuttal to those would judge him without compassion.