Monday, Sept. 29 at 10 a.m. ET

Robin Givhan on Sarah Palin's Style

Robin Givhan
Washington Post Fashion Editor
Monday, September 29, 2008; 10:00 AM

"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."

Photo Gallery: Making an Understatement

Does Sarah Palin represent a new aesthetic for a woman on the world stage? Pulitzer Prize-winning Post fashion editor Robin Givhan discussed her thoughts about the Alaskan governor's style.

A transcript follows.

Sarah Palin's Unassertive Fashion Statement

Givhan column archive


Robin Givhan: Hi everyone and thanks for joining me to discuss Sarah Palin and her style.


Alexandria, Va.: Since you will undoubtedly get an angrier version of this question, let me ask politely: Will you kindly cite when and where you have scrutinized the attire of male candidates or officeholders? I've been a Washington Post reader for 15 years. I remember the flap over the piece on Condi Rice's boots. And I dimly recall maybe some discussion of whether or not to male candidates wear a tie on the campaign trail. But have you ever done as deep an analysis of why, say, Dick Armey always wore cowboy boots and what did that signify? How about a comprehensive piece about which designer McCain chose for his $600 shoes and does that say about him? Does Obama wear off-the-shelf or tailored? Have these things even OCCURRED to you? Here you go: Campaigning in Style: Robin Givhan Dissects The Candidates' Fashion Choices

Robin Givhan: Yes, let me reassure you that I've gotten an angrier version of this question. The reality is that I have written quite a lot about men in the public eye. All of the major candidates during the primary, justices John Roberts and Sam Alito, VP Dick Cheney and so on. It's just that when I write about the women, people scream sexism and start climbing atop soap boxes.


Melbourne, Australia: In your introduction, you commented:

"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"

Can you explain what you mean by this, please. My perspective, gained from having worked in a senior executive role for many years, is that it is much easier to be an effective leader when you project a confident, credible, authoritative image. Therefore, why do you think it is so "powerful" for Sarah Palin not to try to do so

Robin Givhan: Hi Melbourne,

I think at least one of the reasons we are so captivated by her - besides the fact that we know so little about her and she is essentially a political mystery - is that she doesn't look so much like the traditional female political animal or even top executive. Many women tend to believe that in order to climb to the top they have to present themselves in a way that dilutes their femininity or at best, works hard to make sure it isn't a distraction. Palin doesn't do that. Red patent leather peep-toe pumps are solid evidence of that. I think she's using prettiness and cuteness to her advantage. And without any hesitation.


Columbus, Ohio: Robin, can fashion experts easily identify the brand of clothing that high-profile women wear? Obviously it's easy if someone is wearing a designer item, like Cindy McCain's de la Renta dress. But with Sarah Palin's "everywoman" jackets and pieces, how do you know the brand? Can you easily tell if a jacket is, say, from Talbots or a specific department store private label? I thought that with the wealth of online sources available plus their wealth of knowledge of manufacturers, that fashion experts could easily identify brands, but in commentary I rarely see any sources listed. Thanks.

Robin Givhan: I think one of the reasons that a lot of high-profile women of Palin's ilk choose not to wear well-known designer labels is precisely for that reason. They don't want their clothing -- and its cost - to be easily identified. They don't want that to be a distraction.

So yes, it's difficult to eyeball a jacket from a distance and distinguish whether it is Ann Taylor or Banana Republic. While it would be much easier to identify Ralph Lauren. That said, I tend to think that except for a few labels, it's the style that's more important than the brand.


Chicago: Typically, it's the unqualified or insecure women who dress a little too sexy for their jobs. Anyone who has worked in any office has seen this phenomena.

Robin Givhan: Sorry, had a weird technical glitch there.

But you raise an interesting point. But as it applies to Palin, I would not argue that she is dressing "too sexy."


Eureka Springs, Ark.: Palin uses her body for more than a clothes rack, THAT'S what sends a signal of power and authority. She has excellent eye contact, a composure of her face, erect posture and a powerful stride when she walks. Maybe more women should play hockey and quit trying to outdress one another.

Robin Givhan: Palin has interesting body language. You are correct that her posture is very erect and she's good on eye contact. But she also has ticks that strike me as not exactly exuding authority, such as her tendency to scrunch her nose when she's making a point.

The point here is not about trying to outdress anyone. It's dressing to reflect your stature, your sense of authority and for the job to which you aspire.


Fairfax County, Va.: I am curious about your thoughts on Joe Biden's, Todd Palin's, and Jill Biden's styles as well. I am not being sarcastic.

I enjoyed your profiles of the other candidates' fashion styles way back when (this spring), and of Cindy McCain and Michelle Obama, too. The notes on Mike Huckabee and how people dress after a huge weight loss were particularly interesting (this applied to our family and has influenced my choices since then).

I just can't recall if you've done Joe Biden already, from when he was a presidential candidate -- if so, please link!

Robin Givhan: My style profiles of the candidates were limited to the frontrunners....that left Joe Biden out. I will be keeping an eye on Biden. I think Todd Palin will be interesting to watch because he is someone so removed from the world of boardrooms and executive suites.


New York: Do you think that Sarah Palin's style has been powerful enough to distract from her poor performance during interviews? I'm not trying to be snarky, I really want to know. Because it seems that while pundits have been panning her, the voting public still loves her. Thanks.

Robin Givhan: I believe there is clearly something about her style that appeals to some voters.It is plain-spoken style. However, I don't think there are any garments dynamic enough to invalidate what is or is not coming out of her mouth.


Re: women vs. men: And let's face it: women's clothing is more varied than men's. Period. There's simply more to critique and write about.

Robin Givhan: Absolutely right. And I think that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Frankly, for Palin, I think it has worked in her favor. Enormously.


Arlington, Va.: I enjoy your distinctive commentary on the political implications of sartorial choices. Twenty years ago, as a woman breaking into a traditionally male field, my friends and I thought a lot about how to dress; we were very conscious of what message we were projecting -- intentionally or not -- with a hemline, the choice of pants or a skirt, or the cut or fabric of a jacket.

But your work seems to provoke some people, especially when you write about the style choices of a politically powerful woman (or a woman who aspires to power). How do you handle the response from people who don't seem to understand that fashion is your topic?

Robin Givhan: I'm just happy that people continue to read my stories. We're all entitled to our opinions. I enjoy a good civil debate.


Lancaster, Pa.: I thought her clothing reflected the profound lack of shopping options in the State of Alaska -- paralleled by a similar lack of opportunities to cultivate diversified world views and knowledge.

Robin Givhan: I wouldn't go so far as to say that her clothes reflect world views. But I do think they reflect the fact that she is not influenced by the sort of sleek, urban sensibility that informs the style of someone like Nancy Pelosi. But beware declaring Alaska a shopping wasteland. There's this thing called the Internet that pretty much makes everything available everywhere. If she wanted to get her hands on a Prada dress....she could.


New York: I really want to know why we even care about Sarah Palin's style. Can someone please answer that? For heaven's sake, she's running for the VP of the United States, not for Project Runway.

Robin Givhan: I care about Palin's style because I think it tells us a little bit about how she wants to present herself to the voting public and to the world. Why wear ruby slippers? You don't just roll out of bed and fall into red shoes. That took some thought. It said something about how she thinks of herself. Do I care more about her choice in shoes that about her understanding of foreign policy? Absolutely not. But style is part of the puzzle.


Eastern Market, DC: I find it interesting to compare Hillary Clinton's rainbow of pantsuits with Palin's neutrals. I always found Hillary's style of dress to be odd, like an updated version of what a lady would wear to lunch in an earlier generation. Palin's oyster colored jacket and general preference for blacks and grays seems more professional to me, or at least more similar to what I see business women wearing. Do you agree?

Robin Givhan: What I found fascinating about Clinton's pantsuits is that one of their effects is they always made sure that she stood out in the room. You could always spot her. But they also had a kind of middle America warmth to them. I thought they screamed "look at me" without the brashness of say,a stark black pantsuit (which is what she wore when the only voters she cared about were those living in New York state.)

Palin's color choices are more business friendly, but her accessories and hairstyle contradict that.


Bristol, RI: What's with her hair-do? It reminds me of the Flintstones. Is there a retro message in that styling? Did you see it elsewhere, before she was tapped by McCain candidate? Are you seeing it copied by others?

Robin Givhan: I've been in Europe at fashion shows the last few weeks. I can say that I have seen no one along the runway mimicking her hairdo.


Givhan Fan: Robin, I'm a 57 year old male and not a fan of Sarah Palin. How do I respond when asked what I think of her in such a way that I don't come off sounding either condescending or sexist? No, I'm not Joe Biden. Just an ordinary person who wants to contribute constructive criticism, not a white heterosexual male rant. Thank you. P.S. You are one of my favorite writers at the paper. Keep up your splendid work!

Robin Givhan: Thanks for the compliment! I'm not sure I can help you out on this. I think the accusation of sexism has been thrown around a lot during the campaign...especially when the subject of women and their clothes comes up. But I think it's far more sexist to keep a candidate in hiding until reporters learn how to treat her with "deference." Let the lady fend for herself.


Atlanta: How much of the governor's style is a generational shift in political style? I've noticed in my somewhat conservative corporate world that my generation (those of us in our 30s and early 40s) are wrap dresses and boots, pencil skirts and fitted shirts, neutral pantsuits with shoes that "pop", and dark washed denim with blazers and heels on casual Friday. However, those older than us are still short hair done just so, brightly colored suits with big jewelry, khakis and sweaters and sensible shoes on Fridays, i.e. very Nancy Palosi and Hillary Clinton, if on a more limited budget.

Robin Givhan: Hey Atlanta,

You're absolutely right. One of the things that a younger generation of women have done is to refuse to play by the more conservative style rules that allowed their predecessors to make their way up the corporate ladder. Mostly, young women don't have to play that game. (A big shout out to the women who broke that style ground.)

But, I do think younger women still have to figure out how to combine their own sense of style with what is appropriate and authoritative. Some young women think there's no reason why they can't wear flip flops in the office in the summer because their accomplishments should exempt them from a stodgy dress code.

Even now, some looks connote power. Other don't. Flip flops don't say power. And while I love red shoes as much as the next person, I don't think they say: vice-president.


Boston: I think her clothing reflects a desire to not look too good. McCain is hoping to narrow the gender gap with her...and there is such a thing as too thin and too pretty when you are trying to relate to other women.

Her boxy jackets in particular strike me as an attempt to hide how thin she is. So by de-emphasizing her nice figure, its fine to showcase her naturally pretty face.

Robin Givhan: I don't think she's trying to ugly herself up a bit or look a little chubby. I think she's trying to look "regular."


College Park, Md.: Why have you written columns about how Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin dress -- the Washington Post even managed an entire story on the degree of cleavage that Clinton was showing -- and never devoted equal attention to how male politicians dress? Here you go: Campaigning in Style: Robin Givhan Dissects The Candidates' Fashion Choices; The Front-Runners: Fashion Sense -

Robin Givhan: Just so you know. My take on the boys.


Vermont: Isn't there something grotesque about the mere existence of this discussion? Given the gravity of the issues (yes! issues!) at stake in this election, chin-stroking babble about Palin's jackets and skirts, glasses and makeup, is positively irresponsible. Meanwhile, nobody is even sure whether this candidate for an slot in the White House is a Creationist or not, or thinks we're living in the End Times, or truly does acknowledge the scientific consensus on global climate change. And why are we discussing Palin's "style" and not that of Biden, McCain, or Obama? Oh, I know why. But adopting a double standard overtly, and getting paid to do so, doesn't make it right. We've already covered them: Campaigning in Style: Robin Givhan Dissects The Candidates' Fashion Choices; The Front-Runners: Fashion Sense -

Robin Givhan: Dear Vermont,

Why would you, yourself engage is such grotesquenss? Clearly, we are influenced by appearance, by style, by first impressions. There is something quite powerful about the fact that Republican conventioneers were wearing buttons declaring her the "hottest" governor. They're wearing these buttons while in the process of celebrating her as their vp nominee. Hotness figured into all of this. I think we should try to figure out why and how.


Keyport, NJ: Robin : Interesting take on Palin, not sure I agree with all of your points though. You mention her ordinary glasses, what is her optical condition and do you think she wears them to appear more intelligent ?

Robin Givhan: Her optical condition? I have not checked her ophthalmologist's records. If she wears them to appear intelligent and there's no prescription lens in them, I find her choice of frames odd. These frames are about disappearing on the face, not standing out.


Boston: I'm not convinced that red shoes don't say vice-president. In the end its all about the person who wears them. Offhand, I would say people's first reaction to knee high leather boots wouldn't be Secretary of State -- but Ms. Rice looked terrific and powerful in them.

Robin Givhan: I don't think the knee high boots say secretary of state in terms of what we had always thought of as appropriate attire for someone with that title. Rice made them work.

I think Palin is doing something similar. Red shoes do not say vice president. We'll see if she has what it takes to change that perception. But at the moment, she has not been able to carry those shoes with gravitas.


Vienna, Va.: I believe there's been a definite effort made to tailor Sarah Palin's look since her selection. My biggest problem with her persona--win, lose or draw--is the fact that she so often appears clueless. You just can't have any woman wearing shiny knee high boots and dangly cross earrings greeting foreign dignitaries on behalf of our nation.

Robin Givhan: Interesting... because you seem to suggest that the dangly earring and boots exacerbate the problem.


Washington, DC: I really would like to see Palin mix things up more. One of the advantages that women have is the freedom to use their clothing to communicate subtle gradations in their relationship to various events, By always looking alike, Palin seems to suggest, to me, that all events are the same.

Robin Givhan: I agree.


Boston: Hi Robin - I really enjoy your insights on fashion and its place in the world. I work with and am friendly with a number of men in their 40's and 50's and almost to a man, they all have stated, in various ways, how sexually attractive they think Sarah Palin is. While Gov Palin is attractive, I have been taken aback by the obvious sexual component of the men's response to her. What's your take on this?

Robin Givhan: Interesting reaction from the men. I think we get into delicate territory when it comes to assessing someone's sexual attractiveness. I'll leave that to the men to work out on their own. But I do think that she plays to her attractiveness and is acutely aware of it.


Wilmington, N.C.: Well I'm a professional female and I happen to think Palin's hair style is just fine. It's dressy in a casual way. Feminine. It also says "I'm not giving up a part of my feminine side so that the masses can take me seriously."

Robin Givhan: I think you're right. It's quite girly. And that's one word that is rarely applied to a woman in power, particularly one striving to be vp.


Washington, DC: I'm surprised that the column didn't include any information about the fact that Palin now has a stylist and that the outfit that she wore for the convention speech included a $2500 Valentino jacket. Or that she committed the worst sin of wearing stockings with open toed shoes. Ick. SARAH HAS SECRET STYLE TEAM (New York Post)

Robin Givhan: Just because a jacket is expensive...doesn't make it pretty.


Santa Fe, N.M.: Both a commenter and you said that Sarah Palin's posture is very erect. That may be true when she's standing up, but in her interviews, she sits hunched over in a posture my father never would have tolerated! Sit up straight! he would have thundered.

Her body language in those interviews has been terrible. She may be good at projecting confidence when she's in front of a cheering crowd, but she loses it when she actually has to show some capability.

Robin Givhan: I don't think I said she projected confidence in those interviews. If I was a slip of the fingers.She has good eye contact. And I guess your father was more demanding on the subject of posture. I think she sits up pretty straight.


Reston, VA: Hi Robin: You're spot on about the 20 something women and how they dress for the office. I'm female, 38 and relatively open minded, but on multiple occasions I've had to send women who work for me home to change their outfit. In my mind, your clothing should complement you and your job, not distract from it and I don't think these younger women get that.

Moving on to Palin, she drives me nuts. I don't care what she's wearing, frankly, just let her answer a real question or two so I know what she really thinks!

Robin Givhan: I think that we are in a period of transition for women in public life and in powerful positions. I think I've said before, we're trying to figure out what female power looks like in a post dress-for-success, Armani, St. John world.


Rockville, Md.: Thanks for doing this chat. I LOVE all the people who conveniently forget about your commentary on male politicians. What a great way to start the work week! PS Your blog is fabulous too.

Robin Givhan: Love you!


Fairfax, VA: As usual a great article.

Because I have only seen Governor Palin with this one specific look, I have a hard time imagining her any other way. As a result, she somehow doesn't seem real to me. It is as if she is a character on a television show who always looks the same. Don't you think that it might help her politically if she mixed up her look a bit more? Starting with her hair?

Robin Givhan: Historical evidence (see Hillary Clinton) tells me that mixing up your style so that people don't know what to expect, is not a good way to go.


El Paso, Tex.: Why doesn't Palin ever wear stockings in formal professional meetings (or anywhere else for that matter)?

I can't think of any professional situation in which this would be appropriate. Hollywood?

But New York? the UN? Washington DC?? Ground Zero? Interviews on primetime national TV? Is she just hot, being away from Alaska? Have I become an Ivy League fuddy-duddy?

Robin Givhan: I'll end with this question which has come up before. Pantyhose. I think they represent the great generational/regional divide. Most women don't wear them in professional and formal situations in cities on the coasts. Or they do so with great exasperation.

Younger women tend to avoid them. Palin not wearing them is, I think, a reflection of her age.

Thanks for all the questions!


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