Style

Always Well Groomed

The prosecution rested on Friday, Dec. 10, in the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, who stands accused of helping the deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein recruit, traffic and sexually abuse underage girls. Ms. Maxwell has pleaded not guilty and denied the accusations.

Four women offered emotional testimony over two weeks, each recounting the detailed ways Ms. Maxwell allegedly primed them for interactions with Mr. Epstein, describing how she offered them attention, praise, gifts and promises of financial support to ensnare them, they say, in a cycle of exploitation.

Since Mr. Epstein’s suicide in jail last year, Ms. Maxwell has been occupying something of a dual role: Officially, she must answer for her own alleged crimes. But symbolically, she is also a stand-in for Mr. Epstein and a conduit to his bizarre, bifurcated world — whose glittering surface camouflaged a troubling lower depth.

Ms. Maxwell has some familiarity with moving between worlds. As many headlines about this trial remind us, she is a “socialite,” and socialites harness style and status to create connections. In fact, examining her particular talent for this avocation — and how her style contributed to it — explains a lot about the workings of Mr. Epstein’s enterprise.

There are two kinds of socialites, as Dr. Andrew Solomon, a psychologist and the author of “Far From the Tree,” suggests: “Socialites who are to the manner born, whose function is to have connections made with them. And there are those who earn their place, by constantly bringing together people, and then bask in the reflected glory of those introductions.” Ghislaine Maxwell, he said, was in an “ironic position.” She was to the manner born, Dr. Solomon said, but “she had to shift gears and become that other kind of socialite,” after her family lost its money.

In both cases, though, “socialite” is a term reserved for women. While some men may operate similarly, they would never be labeled socialites because men are presumed to have individual identities beyond their social interactions. And because a socialite’s success depends upon an array of attributes still largely considered feminine: charm, poise, grace, beauty, cultivation and polish.

Ghislaine Maxwell had all of these. Born to great wealth, she was raised mainly in England in an Italianate mansion and educated at Oxford University. Her father, the newspaper mogul Robert Maxwell, named his yacht after her (the “Lady Ghislaine”). She holds French, British and United States passports and is reputed to speak four languages. (She has been overheard in court speaking fluent French with her brother.) She is believed to hold licenses to pilot both helicopters and submarines. She has dabbled in environmental philanthropy. After her family lost everything (in the wake of her father’s death and posthumous embezzlement scandal), Ms. Maxwell moved to the United States and for a time sold high-end real estate — a potentially lucrative choice for a woman with her upper-class manners, plummy accent and good looks.

As countless photos of her demonstrate, Ms. Maxwell has always been dressed and coifed with elegant, Parisian understatement. For decades, she has worn her dark hair in a tousled, gamine crop and favored finely tailored clothes in neutral tones: tweed jackets, silk and cashmere sweaters, collared shirts. She wears little visible makeup and only minimal jewelry (earrings, a good watch). Standing beside more elaborately adorned women, she looks unfussy and confident.

That kind of unstudied elegance attracts people still figuring out how to style themselves or aspiring to learn the cues of a more elevated social world. Mr. Epstein may have been wealthy, but he was a Brooklyn-born arriviste seeking legitimacy and mobility among the moneyed upper classes. Ms. Maxwell would have seemed the perfect guide. And she came through, inducting him into the very highest circles of British society, introducing him most notably to Prince Andrew. A photograph produced at trial even shows Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell relaxing at Balmoral Castle, Queen Elizabeth II’s holiday estate in Scotland — with Ms. Maxwell clad in an appropriately aristo-shabby plaid flannel.

It’s easy to imagine how Ms. Maxwell could have beguiled those teenage girls of mostly modest backgrounds — appearing to them (initially) like a beneficent role model and arbiter of their potential to join the elite world she inhabited. You can hear this in the testimony of her accusers. Annie Farmer, the only witness to reveal her identity at trial, described Ms. Maxwell as a “trim, attractive woman” who gave her gifts, such as beauty products and cowboy boots. Ms. Farmer noted, too, that she “had a British accent and … was well spoken and articulate.”

The accuser known as “Jane” recounts Ms. Maxwell treating her at first like a younger sister, taking her to the movies and buying her clothes, including a cashmere sweater and underwear from Victoria’s Secret. And the accuser known as “Kate” testified that when she met Ms. Maxwell in London, she “was quite excited to be friends with her. She seemed to be everything that I wanted to be.”

The admiration Ms. Maxwell inspired in these girls would have made them all the more susceptible to the nefarious tactic known as “grooming” — the slow process of eroding a potential victim’s defenses, desensitizing them to increasingly inappropriate or abusive behavior.

But, of course, grooming has another, more common meaning, referring to the everyday habits we perform to be socially presentable. While men practice grooming, the process for women is far more complicated, involving myriad products and learned techniques — from hair styling to skin care, makeup to manicures. Grooming is part of beauty culture, and despite feminism’s strides, the importance of beauty has not materially diminished in women’s lives.

The message of beauty’s urgent importance bombards us incessantly, from every beauty blog, TikTok makeup tutorial, fashion magazine, weight-loss fad, anti-aging treatment, Hollywood actress profile and beauty contest. (The Miss America organization held its 100th anniversary competition this week, marking a century of young women lining up to be judged before a crowd.)

For a young girl, learning how to groom herself — being “well-groomed”— is a step on the road toward maturity, toward acceding to “beauty” and all its promised rewards. From their earliest teens, girls examine and assess their own looks and one another’s. They watch as an entire culture does the same with women all around them. “Our patriarchal culture grooms girls into wanting to be desired,” as April Alliston, a Princeton comparative literature professor who researches gender and sexuality, said in an interview. In this way, girls absorb and normalize the many practices that can turn a woman’s life into an endless, de facto Judgment of Paris.

​​No wonder Ms. Maxwell was able to gain traction with teenagers by buying them the accouterments of grooming: clothes, lingerie, beauty products.

For a girl to be chosen by Ms. Maxwell, singled out by this refined woman, would have felt like a great compliment, like winning a beauty contest, like opening a portal to a world of privilege and ease. “Jane” was herself a contestant in the Miss Teen USA pageant (in which she wore a $2,000 dress given to her by Mr. Epstein). And “Carolyn” testified that Ms. Maxwell flattered her by saying “that I had a great body for Mr. Epstein and his friends.”

Understand the Ghislaine Maxwell Trial


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An Epstein confidant. Ghislaine Maxwell, the daughter of a British media mogul and once a fixture in New York’s social scene, was a longtime companion of Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself after his arrest on sex trafficking charges in 2019.

The trial. The highly anticipated trial of Ms. Maxwell began on Nov. 29, 2021, in Manhattan. Her sex trafficking trial is widely seen as a proxy for the courtroom reckoning that Mr. Epstein never received.

The charges. Ms. Maxwell is accused of recruiting and grooming minors — one girl as young as 14 — for sexual acts with Mr. Epstein and others. She will be tried on six counts, including transporting minors to engage in criminal sexual activity.

The prosecution’s case. Prosecutors say Ms. Maxwell psychologically manipulated young girls in order to “groom” them for Mr. Epstein. The concept of grooming is at the heart of the criminal case against her.

The defense. Ms. Maxwell’s lawyers have sought to undermine the credibility of her accusers and question the motives of prosecutors — efforts they have indicated they would continue at trial. Ms. Maxwell has steadfastly maintained her innocence.

It would have been but a small step for Ms. Maxwell to begin that other form of grooming, which entails sexual instructions and, ultimately, actual molestation. This process exists on a continuum, whose earliest moments look much like normal life for millions of teenagers. In other words, Ms. Maxwell’s alleged illicit version of grooming would have slipped easily into the all-encompassing practice of regular grooming that already saturates most women’s lives — grooming that is inextricable from learning to be a commodity, to be the object of constant appraisal.

There was a social-class element to Ms. Maxwell’s tutelage as well. Beyond his mansions and private planes, Mr. Epstein signaled his desired class status through Ms. Maxwell, who in turn acted as a social-class instructor of sorts, implicitly with the girls she is accused of having recruited (although her alleged sexual instruction for them has been described as graphic), but quite overtly with the household staff she managed.

The trial has brought to light the 58-page manual that she provided for the Epstein staff, which includes lists of banned words and expressions, preferred diction for different situations, and rules of comportment. Forbidden terms included: “yeah,” “no problem,” “you bet” and “gotcha,” which were to be replaced with “my pleasure,” “I would be very pleased to” and “you are quite right.”

As these lists make plain, Ms. Maxwell was essentially instructing domestic workers in how to sound less like working-class Americans and more like upper-class Brits (or at least their servants). The manual also advised on telephone manners and what to say upon entering a room; it reminded staff members to smile at all times and avoid direct eye contact. That Mr. Epstein presumably approved these instructions confirms that he longed to transfer her social polish to his own domestic sphere — whatever horrific crimes may have lain just beneath the faux “Downton Abbey” patina.

The “poshification” of Mr. Epstein’s staff presents a corollary to the grooming (in both senses) of the girls he is accused of harming. In each case, a British socialite — a stylish woman — lent her skills and her aura, the currency of her social class, to the task of prettying up what was, by most accounts, a grotesque operation.

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