By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's style is exceptionally ordinary. Nothing about it connotes authority. No detail announces that she is in charge. And that's what makes it so powerful.
The rimless glasses that dominate her face are as banal as modern spectacles come. The entire goal of their design is to have them go unnoticed. They are not meant to frame her features as much as they are crafted to avoid detracting from her big brown eyes.
Her clothes are unpretentious, but they are also unremarkable. They have nothing to do with Fashion. It's fashion show season now, with designers unveiling their spring 2009 collections in New York, Milan and soon Paris. So far, none of them have suggested that the next new thing for the power-wielding woman is a straight black skirt with a boxy, oyster-colored blazer, which is what Palin wore when she accepted the vice-presidential nomination in St. Paul, Minn.
In the narrow confines of political style, the accepted rule is to dress in a manner that implies empathy for one's constituency -- so don't wear anything too expensive -- but also conveys authority. Palin has embraced the former and utterly ignored the latter. Nothing about her style jibes with the image of power. She does not dress like a boss lady, an Iron Lady or the devil who wore Prada.
Her clothes don't have the aura of sophistication like that of Michelle Obama's sheaths and pearls. They do not have a patina of glamour like Cindy McCain's heiress wardrobe. And they do not announce themselves with the confidence, assertiveness and listen-to-me-ness of Sen. Hillary Clinton's bold pantsuits. Palin's clothes are common. Everyone knows someone who dresses like her, which is partly why so many folks seem to think that they know her.
Palin likes to wear a super-size Old Glory brooch that shouts with as much patriotic bravado as one of those monster flags that wave from a car dealership. Her flag was on display during a campaign stop in Grand Rapids, Mich. And for the record, it has no kin among the statement jewelry currently being championed on the runway.
The ruby slippers she wore on the campaign trail, the ones she paired with the black jacket and skirt that pulled just so across her hips, churn up images of another small-town girl who'd suddenly landed in Oz. A peep-toe pump is coy -- coquettish even. But not an emblem of gravitas.
Despite what every optometrist with a publicity agent has to say, there is nothing remotely striking about her eyeglasses. It's only notable in an age of contact lenses and Lasik surgery that anyone in the public spotlight regularly wears them at all -- except, perhaps, when they're trying to make a point, such as when television interviewers keep a pair of reading glasses perched on the tip of their nose in a way that makes them look like professors skeptical of a student's ability to withstand their Socratic interrogation.
Palin is the girl next door. And yes, much about her attire emphasizes youthfulness, most distinctly her hair.
The hair, which has been highlighted, teased and scrunched, is a standard-issue, mommy-is-in-a-rush style. Since motherhood has been laid out by her campaign like one of the pillars of national service, the mop-top hairdo is practically a battle scar.
Executive women tend to avoid wearing their hair in ponytails or looking like they have it tacked to the top of their head with a chip clip. Like a good female news anchor, they get themselves a haircut that falls no further than the shoulders, is feminine and easy to maintain. They do not want to be wind-blown and tousled when they walk into a boardroom. Hair shouldn't be a distraction.
Palin doesn't have Maria Menounos's Pantene hair. But it is chestnut brown and long and is the antithesis of what most women do with it as they come into their own. They typically become more polished and controlled, not less so.
Palin has been referred to as America's hottest governor by sources as varied as Alaska Magazine and button-wearing Republican conventioneers. But Palin's power isn't in her physical looks as much as in the packaging.
Palin seems to dress for pretty rather than powerful. She is willing to be sexual, with the occasional fitted jacket and high heels. She wears dangly earrings. Campaign photographers can't seem to resist shooting her legs, as if they've never seen an American female politician with bare gams wearing three-inch heels. (Then again, they probably haven't.)
She talks tough. She doesn't blink. She speaks of "guys and gals." What is a gal? One thinks of a waitress in a bar who knows that if she pretends she doesn't notice when a guy's ogling her legs and gives as good as she gets when it comes to off-color jokes, life will go along more smoothly. She's not one of the guys, but she doesn't confront them with either a lawyer or rhetoric from a women's studies seminar.
Palin's style serves as evidence that a woman can step onto the national political stage without having to manipulate her wardrobe into some torturous costume calibrated to make her look authoritative but not threatening, feminine but not sexy, serious but not dour. Palin proves that a woman can wear red patent-leather shoes and still take questions on foreign policy and the economy.
The test, of course, is whether this particular gal knows the answers.