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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.
It was the explicit manipulation of a studiously unattractive sweater.
Cosby, who is accused of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004, arrived at the small courthouse in suburban Philadelphia last week on the supportive arms of two attorneys. He looked as though he had been suddenly rousted from a fireside nap, helped up from his comfortable rocking chair and asked to put aside his favorite cigar, then forced to make a bewildering appearance before a judge. That was the first-glance illusion as he stumbled down the path towards the courthouse door.
For Cosby, of course, none of this the charges, the perp walk, the media throng was a surprise. One of Cosby's attorneys, Monique Pressley, has said as much. And so, there was time for his costuming to be considered.
When the multimillionaire entertainer climbed out of a black SUV, he was gingerly holding on to a spindly cane that looked like something that might have been gathering dust in the prop closet of an old vaudeville show. He was carrying a top-handled newsboy satchel and wearing what appeared to be a pair of duck boots. But most striking was his salt-and-pepper hooded sweater with the sort of toggle closures that might be found on a child's coat.
Taken on its own, the sweater managed to telegraph the dual message of grandfatherly trust and warmth, as well as impish innocence. What the sweater most vehemently did not imply was money and power, which Cosby has in abundance.
During his years playing the patriarch on "The Cosby Show," the entertainer made sweaters his signature along with suspenders and sweatshirts from historically black colleges and universities. His character, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, was known for brightly colored pullovers with dizzying patterns that often tilted into the category of garish. They were playful and charming and underscored the fatherly charisma of Dr. Huxtable, as well as Cosby himself.
But the perp-walk sweater was different. With its sober color and vaguely lopsided fit, it had the look of a sick-bed sweater. You could practically smell the Bengay.
Cosby reportedly has a degenerative eye condition and as he was walking towards the courthouse, he tripped and stumbled forward. He was carrying a cane that did not look strong enough to support his weight. He seemed unsure of how to use it to find his way. He looked unsteady.
Pressley, during an interview on "CBS This Morning," described Cosby as a "78-year-old blind man who they've chosen to charge," although the Washington attorney noted that such an assessment is "not a defense to a charge, that's just a fact."
Yet everything about Cosby's carriage, his clothes and Pressley's description of him focused one's attention on a particular subtext: old. He is old. So very, very old.
But actors Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Patrick Stewart and Michael Douglas are all in their 70s. Actor Sidney Poitier is in his 80s. They, like Cosby, are in the twilight of their lives. Blind musician Stevie Wonder, 65, requires help maneuvering through unfamiliar territory. But he always looks like the boss.
The Cosby promenade delivered a more pungent and cynical statement. It suggested that Cosby a man who last year completed a rigorous national comedy tour in the face of mounting scandal is doddering and fragile and incapable of moving through the world unassisted.
Cosby could have arrived at that modest courthouse wearing a shirt and tie or a business suit. Instead of being propped up between two lawyers who did not seem to know how to escort a person with impaired vision, he could have moved smoothly through the crowd with the guidance of an experienced aide. Cosby could have grasped their arms not the other way around. That image would have told a different story.
People would have seen an older man, but one draped in power, status and wealth. They would have seen an aging man who now requires assistance but who still lays claim to confidence and control. Onlookers may not have seen the bare truth, but they might have gotten a glimpse of reality.
Robin Givhan is the Washington Post fashion critic and winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.