The political blogs are all abuzz with the latest news that the Republican National Committee purchased $150,000 worth of clothes for Governor Sarah Palin and her family. According to Gov. Palin, she wore the high-end togs for only three days which works out to $50,000 per day by my reckoning. [Note: The campaign claims that one-third of the clothes were returned, but that still adds up to about $33,000 per day]. The blogosphere tends to be split between those who view “NeimanMarcusgate” as a trivial distraction from the real issues in the campaign and those who see it as further evidence that Republicans are hypocritical, elitist pigs.
Both sides miss the kernel of truth at the heart of the kerfluffle–that what politicians wear sends a message and that politicians–male and female–are acutely aware of this. In “Fashion is Political”, Robin Givhan, fashion editor for the Washington Post, is interviewed by the International Museum of Women and has a number of insightful things to say on the subject. Check out Givhan’s audio slideshow, “Campaigning in Style”, where she analyzes the fashion choices of the Democratic and Republican primary candidates.
Male attire has remained essentially unchanged since the 19th century so male fashion choices are much more subtle and easier to miss. That sometimes makes it difficult to decide why a look seems to work for one male candidate and not another. For example, John Edwards may have started off as the son of a millworker, but he’s a millionaire lawyer now so it seemed very out of place for him to dress as a blue collar worker during the Democratic primary. Rudy Giuliani’s three-piece-suit, tie, overcoat, and gloves mark him as a political boss of the Tammany Hall variety–a guy who can schmooze easily at the neighborhood block party, but who also knows where all the bodies are buried and has probably helped bury a few himself. Like women, male candidates have to walk a tightrope between appearing accessible to electorate (“one of you”) and appearing professional and authoritative.
So what exactly do Sarah’s new clothes reveal about her? David Letterman has his own take. To me, the choice made by the Republican National Committee to shell out $150,000 for new clothes for their vice-presidential candidate says that the RNC is perfectly willing to fritter away the donors’ money. People who contributed money to the Republican cause gave it because they wanted to defeat pinko socialist Democrats, not to enrich the Red Chinese so that Gov. Palin could have another mandarin-collared jacket. One hundred and fifty thou could have bought dozens of “Zombies for McCain” buttons or several witches on broomsticks to sky-write “Surrender Obama” over Democratic campaign rallies–legitimate political expenditures :-). If the Republicans can’t be trusted to use their donors’ money properly, how can they be trusted with the taxpayers’ money?
The McCain strategy was clearly to present Gov. Palin as Everywoman, but it didn’t follow through on that political message by echoing it in her wardrobe choices. If Sarah is just an average hockey mom running for office, then shouldn’t she be seen wearing T-shirts, sweatshirts, and turtlenecks like she wore when she ran for governor? If she’s a representative of small town America, then why are her clothes coming from snobby, elitist East Coast institutions like Saks Fifth Avenue? If she’s the populist outsider running against the politics-as-usual, Armani-wearing D.C. insiders, then why isn’t she wearing blue jeans instead of designer suits? The lack of consistency undermines the political points the campaign is trying to make.
Bottom line: You can’t go around claiming that you’re just one of the peasants if you’re dressing like Marie Antoinette.