Palin's $150,000 wardrobe amounts to foolish expense

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2008

If politicos weren't so snide and dismissive of fashionistas, the McCain-Palin campaign wouldn't be in the awkward position of having to explain the $150,000 tab for shopping trips, hairstyling and beauty makeovers for Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

How do you sell someone as a no-frills hockey mom who sold the state plane, fired the official cook and turned down travel per diems for her family and then try to explain wardrobing her in clothes from Neiman Marcus - a store occasionally referred to by aggrieved, frugal shoppers as Needless Markup? How do you, in barely two months, lavish her with fashion swag worthy of a starlet and valued at more than her annual governor's salary of $125,000?

That's not careless.

That's just plain stupid.

Or to use this election cycle's phrase of choice: That's some seriously bad judgment.

One assumes that her campaign is populated by some of the brightest minds and they have spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing over mind-numbing details. But Palin's handlers would do well to occasionally read a fashion magazine, skim a fashion blog or at least ask themselves why women are willing to spend upwards of $10,000 on a handbag known as the Birkin.

It's not because that famous Hermes bag is so pretty. It's because of what it represents: exclusivity, success and classiness. That's why frocks are a nearly $50 billion dollar business in New York alone, and it's also why they have the power to agitate us so. It's all in the symbolism, or in the case of Palin, the dissemblance.

On good days, Americans are smart and tolerant people. They might have been surprised about exactly how much Cindy McCain spends on her Oscar de la Renta and Escada dresses, but the price tag didn't contradict her public image. A de la Renta day dress, by the way, rings up at about $5,000. The political handlers weren't trying to present this heiress as a regular gal who knows what it's like to worry about paying the mortgage.

Americans do not begrudge the men custom-made suits. When Barack Obama went on a shopping spree with Hart Schaffner Marx before his nomination acceptance speech in Denver, few people blinked over his new $1,500 suit. He has even gone on to buy a couple more. But it was also conveniently revealed that Hart Schaffner Marx is an American label that manufactures its tailored clothing in Des Plaines, Illinois. John McCain's $520 Ferragamo shoes aren't that big a deal either, despite what his critics had to say.

And who could forget the gush-fest Michelle Obama unleashed when she wore a $148 Donna Ricco dress on "The View" and told the audience, "You put a little pin on it and you've got something going on." That little moment overshadowed all the thousand-dollar designer ensembles featuring Thakoon, Isabel Toledo and others that she has worn. One dress was worth a hundred over-paid image consultants, political advisers and spinmeisters.

So when rooted out the financial details of Palin's wardrobe makeover, one's jaw dropped, the eyes blinked in disbelief at the total and the mind whirled at the idiocy of it all.

The purchases were paid for using Republican National Committee funds. One wonders where the Palin stylists were during the $400 haircut kerfuffle caused by John "I am a populist and the son of a millworker" Edwards. He received two such pricey haircuts during the Democratic primary and they were billed to his campaign, which is how everyone found out about them. (He later said the billing was in error and offered reimbursement.) Didn't they learn anything about the relationships between fashion, image and perception from the beating Edwards took?

It's smart for a candidate to polish her image before stepping onto the national stage. Only a fool would stand in front of a television camera without the assistance of a makeup artist and a good hairstylist. Older photographs, from when Palin was just a regular old governor and paid for her own clothes, show her wearing fleece jackets, chunky turtlenecks and windbreakers. Her wardrobe probably did need a little help. Truthfully, whose wouldn't?

Unlike a man, a woman can't easily get away with a wardrobe of a half-dozen virtually indistinguishable suits, a gross of red or blue ties and a suitcase full of white dress shirts. A woman's wardrobe will cost more, and putting it together will be more time-consuming. But it should also be one that reflects the person, her demographic and her message. And it's always nice, if she actually buys it herself.

Instead, the campaign spent $75,000 at Neiman Marcus and nearly $50,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue as well as substantial amounts at Barneys New York, Macy's and Bloomingdale's. Now, if you've got a candidate whose persona centers around small town America, Joe Sixpack, and lots and lots of "you-betcha", what business do you have connecting her to Neiman's, Saks and Barneys, specialty stores - no, they are not good old-fashioned department stores - that epitomize upscale, rarefied, luxury consumption?

In a statement, a Palin spokesman played the indignation card: "With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it's remarkable that we're spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses," said Tracey Schmitt. "It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign."

What people are talking about, however, is not pantsuits and blouses.

Fashion is a form of self-definition. Any retail expert can tell you that part of being a good merchant is finding a way of speaking to who it is the customer believes herself to be. A smart retailer stands for something. And in our culture Neiman Marcus stands for "elite", not for "Everyman."

When the campaign ends, we are to believe that Palin's wardrobe will be donated to charity. Thus, if the McCain ticket loses, then, like Cinderella, Palin will be stripped of her party clothes. And if the Republicans should win, Vice President Palin will be forced to start from scratch - create herself anew.

• Robin Givhan is the fashion critic for The Washington Post.

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