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After a $150,000 Makeover, Sarah Palin Has an Image Problem

Fashion Columnist Robin Givhan asks how a campaign can portray Gov. Sarah Palin as a no-frills hockey mom while spending a jaw-dropping sum at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys to outfit her.

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. It spent $789.72 at Barneys New York, which, considering the typical prices there, probably got Palin little more than a scarf. The RNC also bankrolled substantial buying sprees at Macy's and Bloomingdale's.

Now, if you've got a candidate whose persona centers on small-town America, Joe Six-Pack, 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? No one can make the argument that the only store open in Minneapolis in early September was the local Neiman Marcus. They couldn't have popped into J. Crew or Ann Taylor? On "What Not to Wear," Clinton and Stacy manage to build an entire wardrobe for their client for a mere $5,000.

In a statement, Palin spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt 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. It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign," she said.

What people are talking about, however, is not pantsuits and blouses. The reality is that there is nothing especially outstanding about her clothes -- aside from the red patent pumps and that bright red leather jacket, which she really should rethink. No matter how much they cost, they are not ostentatious or eccentric. They are, quite simply, fine. What is baffling is the mind-boggling evidence of a tin ear for the symbolism of popular culture. 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." The same is true of Saks. Barneys? Make that soy chai latte-sipping, champagne-swigging elites.

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 ditch her campaign costumes, start from scratch and create herself anew.

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