The XX Factor

Is It Appropriate To Judge Cate Edwards’ Courtroom Fashion Style? 

Former Senator John Edwards follows his daughter Cate Edwards Upham into the US Federal Courthouse in Greensboro, NC. 

Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

If you’ve been following the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards, you’ve likely heard about the testimony that drove his 30-year-old daughter, Cate Edwards Upham, from the courtroom in tears yesterday. As his former aide began recounting what happened on the day his now late wife Elizabeth read about his affair with Rielle Hunter in the National Enquirer, her father reportedly warned her: “I don’t know what’s coming, do you want to leave?”

But he did know what was coming, and it was this: a description of his ill wife ripping off her shirt and bra in an airport hangar and screaming “You don’t see me anymore.” If you’ve seen Cate faithfully accompany her father to court every day, the fact that she was spared this morsel was a relief—a rare moment of appropriateness for a daughter put in an impossible situation.

Her father’s thinly protective move underscores just how cringe-inducing the whole situation is—and pushes the limits of what can be expected from a “good daughter,” especially one who is also a lawyer and has been observed passing notes to his defense team. It’s one thing for humiliated political wives to stand by their men, but what should we expect of political sons and daughters? One can’t help but wonder: Did Cate offer to play the role, or did her father selfishly ask her to repeatedly trudge up the courthouse steps to make him appear sympathetic as he fought charges that he used nearly 1 million dollars of campaign money to hide his mistress and baby while her mother died of breast cancer?

Whatever Cate’s feelings of loyalty for her father, she is in an unenviable place of having to look out for the interests of her motherless 14-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother—and by extension, her young half-sister. (He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.) This comes just a year after she buried her mother and six months after she got married to her college sweetheart.

Whatever the case, Cate clearly did not choose her public role, and it’s a safe bet she’d rather be posting her honeymoon pictures on Facebook than reliving the gory details of her father’s disgrace and her mother’s humiliation. So it’s particularly obnoxious that the Daily Beast ran a piece yesterday critiquing the poor girl’s courtroom fashion style.

“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,” writes the Beast’s Robin Givhan. “At only 30 years old, she isn’t dressing with youthful swagger or confidence … If protocol demands that John Edwards look like a banker, his daughter dresses as though she could be going to a Piggly-Wiggly.”

After all this woman has been through, the Beast has the nerve to call her a sloppy dresser. Perhaps Cate’s lack of “polish” is her quiet way of rebelling against the entire ordeal. Maybe it’s the only way she can say, “I don’t want to be here. This is so wrong.” In some ways, that fashion statement is refreshingly appropriate.