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

By Robin Givhan
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 and fired the official cook and hunted her own moose meat, 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?

This is not careless image management.

This is ill-advised and ill-informed.

Or, to use this election cycle's phrase of choice: This is 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, right down to whether the candidate would stand or sit during the debate and who gets to hover behind her for photo ops. 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 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. Perhaps she can empathize with such a crisis, but this is a woman who told Vogue that the kids loved her beachfront condo so much and came to visit so often . . . she bought another one just for them.

Americans do not begrudge the men's 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, Ill. John McCain's $520 Ferragamo shoes aren't that big of 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 overpaid 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. It was only a matter of time before the dollar figure became public and the question of legality would be raised. 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. 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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