Slate: Palin's Pricey Wardrobe

Melinda Henneberger and Nina Rastogi
Slate XX Factor Bloggers
Thursday, October 23, 2008; 11:30 AM

Slate XX Factor bloggers Melinda Henneberger-- author of " If They Only Listened to Us" -- and Nina Rastogi were online Thursday, Oct. 23 at 11:30 a.m. ET to discuss the GOP's budget for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's outfits, how much clothing $150,000 buys, and what impact the story will have on the race.

The transcript follows.

Henneberger also writes columns for Commonweal, the Catholic opinion journal. Prior to that she was a reporter for the New York Times and contributed to Newsweek.

Rastogi writes for Slate's Explainer column. Her writing also has appeared in New York Times Online and Poets & Writers.

Archive: Past discussions with Slate authors


Washington: Good morning, I am an Obama supporter and I initially thought the choice for the Republican National Committee to purchase clothes for Palin was fine. I felt she should "look the part." However, after further examination, I think what shows a bit of poor judgment was not the fact the clothes were purchased, but where they were purchased. I think Saks and Neiman make them look a bit hypocritical, after the "elite" statements about Obama -- Perhaps Macy's or Ann Taylor would have been better selections. Do you agree the choice of merchant may speak to the voters more than the purchases themselves?

Melinda Henneberger: Exactly. My first reaction, too, was hey, I'm enjoying the fashion show -- and if someone handed me a credit card and pointed me towards Neiman's, there's a 0 percent chance I'd come back with a few durable things from Target. So I don't blame her for the clothes, but I do blame her for dividing us into elites and non-elites, real America and fake America. And yes, it is hypocritical to talk about "Wasilla Main Street values'' and then favor Escada and Valentino.


Washington: Who cares how much money she used? While I can't imagine spending that much on clothing, I think that's part of the whole scene. Why even bother having these big hooplas of conventions or allow the candidates to fly around in jet planes? It's all a waste of money when you think about it.

Nina Rastogi: I don't think the issue is so much that Sarah Palin spent $150,000 on clothes -- I wouldn't be surprised if Hillary Clinton spent that much on clothes and accessories in a comparable amount of time. I think the issue is that spending that so money at such high-end stores really shows the gulf between Palin's "aw shucks, regular gal" persona -- which is really being sold to the public -- and the reality behind that persona.


Arlington, Va.: I don't imagine there are a lot of Hockey Moms out there spending $150,000 on clothes, but my guess is that it won't matter one bit to them. She's a "good Christian" and many of the uber-narcissistic voters in the country want someone "just like me" in the White House. This is a two- or three-day story at most, no?

Melinda Henneberger: I'm not so sure, and 24 hours after my first reaction -- which was "hey, what's wrong with looking good?" -- I'm starting to see this more like John Edwards's haircut, a very telling disconnect between the candidate's stated agenda and their personal priorities.


Washington: Did any of the $150,000 go towards new clothes for Palin's kids? Perhaps a new dress for Piper, or maternity-wear for Bristol? Or a new onesie for Trig?

Nina Rastogi: Apparently some of that clothing budget did go toward clothes for Todd, Trig, Willow, et al.


Washington: It's an obvious election law/campaign finance violation ... when will Department of Justice or the Federal Elections Commission prosecute her? And $150,000 on shopping, $20,000 on flights for her kids to events they weren't invited to, and $20,000 on per diems she didn't earn -- who's the out of touch elitist? I know Joe the Plumber can't afford $75,000 at Saks. With all that dough, they didn't hire a political science professor to explain to her what the vice president does?

Melinda Henneberger: I don't know what the legal implications are, but we knew she was "elite'' even before we saw the clothing bill. She hired a Washington lobbyist even as mayor of a town of 5,000; who does that? She has assets of $1.5 million, which doesn't put her in Cindy McCain territory, but doesn't make her Josephine Six-Pack, either. Or Josephine the Plumber.


Washington: Will you be doing a story on how much Michelle Obama spends on clothes? I thought not ... another Post hit job. So much for being a newspaper. Should be The Washington Post, not the Huffington Post. The Post's coverage of this election has sunk to the level of NBC. The Post is supposed to be a newspaper -- do both sides.

Melinda Henneberger: A lot has been written about Michelle Obama's clothes, but the difference is that Michelle is not a candidate, and her wardrobe is not being purchased with campaign funds. If it were, you can rest assured that that story would be on page one of every paper in the country.


Falls Church, Va.: I think Robin Givhan hit the nail on the head -- you can't promote Palin as an aw-shucks hockey mom and then dress her up in such clothes. Would it have killed them to hit J Crew or Ann Taylor? After a $150,000 Makeover, Sarah Palin Has an Image Problem (Post, Oct. 23)

Melinda Henneberger: Right. I actually think that whoever is dressing her has done an excellent job of buying things that look like they could have come from Talbot's but didn't -- like the black pencil skirt she wore at the convention, or the white blouses she often wears. But now that we know what they cost, the disconnect is glaring.


Washington: What does it mean to donate the clothes to charity? I presume that doesn't mean giving them to a charity like "Dress for Success" -- I can't imagine the clients they serve wearing $5,000 suits to interviews.

Nina Rastogi: As far as I know, the Republican National Committee hasn't said how, or to whom, the clothes will be donated. In the original Politico article about Palin's total price tag, spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt just said "it was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign."

I would love it if they donated the suits to Dress for Success -- a beautiful, well-cut outfit certainly does boost your confidence and make you feel more professional, more ready to tackle the world. I'd be thrilled if Dress for Success's clients could feel that way.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: As an ex-finance person who loves fancy suits, how on earth did she spend so much? She's not wearing the most expensive couture. Is something else hidden in the $150,000? Jewelry? Very expensive handbags? A mink coat?

Nina Rastogi: I'm not entirely sure how the $150,000 broke down. Slate sent me on a fake shopping spree yesterday, to see if I could rack up the same amount at Saks Fifth Avenue. I ended up having to buy some very, very expensive jewelry to hit the full amount.

Melinda Henneberger: I dunno; if she really were told to leave every thread of her existing wardrobe back in Alaska, then I guess she might have needed a lot of clothes.


Washington: Is she loses the election, will she still donate the clothes? My guy feeling so say no and we all will forget about it...

Melinda Henneberger: The McCain campaign says she will -- and now that the story's out there, I'd think she would have to.


Washington: It seems to me that the fundamental problem is not with the total price tag, it's that the Republican National Committee was paying for it with donor money. What Cindy McCain's (or John McCain's or Michelle Obama's or Barack Obama's) clothes cost is perhaps interesting vis-à-vis the messages they are trying to convey, but those are all clothes they bought on their own, with their own money. I believe the outrage that the RNC has footed such an extravagant bill is well-founded.

Melinda Henneberger: I'm sure there are donors who would enjoy knowing that their contribution bought Sarah Palin a Valentino jacket, no? Given the fascination with her looks, a few Democrats might even want in on that deal...


St. Paul, Minn.: Why aren't more republicans upset at how their money is being used? I donated to the Obama campaign, and if he had spent $150,000 on clothes, I'd be upset.

Nina Rastogi: Well, I can't speak for all the Republicans out there, but I think many people see it as a justified amount of money to spend on preparing a politician to be under heavy national scrutiny for several months -- it's a whole lot when you spend it all at once, as Palin's people had to, but maybe not so galling if you spread it out over a longer period of time.


Silver Spring, Md.: I was surprised and disappointed yesterday that the reaction on the XX blog leaned toward defending Palin. I'm glad to see you're coming around. Sneering at the "elites" while wearing a $2,500 Valentino jacket is a brazen act of hypocrisy. How can the McCain-Palin campaign be so tone deaf?

Melinda Henneberger: I think a lot of us just thought that we had way more serious beefs with her than her wardrobe. As an observer, I was enjoying the fashion show -- but from their perspective, it really is as tone-deaf as Edwards getting that haircut, because you know the expense reports are going to be made public, and you know that the bill is going to say "Neiman's." You also know that those people you've been pitching to on Main Street can't afford a lot of shopping sprees right now. So I would say that this is just one example of a campaign in disarray.


Kansas City, Mp.: Do you really think they will donate all those clothes to charity? The makeup too? Yuck! Is there any mechanism to make sure they do?

Nina Rastogi: Well, I would hope that Sarah Palin will get to keep the makeup no matter what the outcome in November -- for her sake and for hygiene's sake.

And a friend of mine pointed out that the RNC probably won't donate the clothes directly to charity -- it might make more sense to auction off the clothes and then donate the proceeds.


Richmond, Va.: How does donating the clothes afterward make the inappropriate appropriation by the RNC any better? In some ways it's worse, because the value is lost rather than depreciated over a few years.

Nina Rastogi: If they auction off the clothes, then presumably the value of each piece will increase -- you wouldn't just be paying for the apparel itself, but for the history and glamour that comes along with it. Just think how exciting it could be to own the red blazer Palin wore on "Saturday Night Live" ... especially if it came with the flag pin!


Houston: "I'm starting to see this more like John Edwards' haircut, a very telling disconnect between the candidate's stated agenda and personal priorities." I still find this a ridiculous assertion many months past the point it mattered. You're assuming that someone who is wealthy cannot honestly want to help poor people. Edwards's spending on haircuts was irrelevant to his policy goals and doesn't tell us anything. Edwards is now irrelevant, but this meme that only a poor person can advocate for the poor needs to be stamped out.

Melinda Henneberger: I'm not saying that only the poor can advocate for the poor -- I'm saying that it was very short-sighted of him to expense the haircut to his campaign, knowing it would be made public, and knowing that it would undermine his message. It wasn't smart, and it told us something about his judgment and self-indulgence that actually turned out to be pretty important information.


Wilmington, Del.: Do you think there's any chance the GOP will auction off the clothes, then donate the proceeds to charity? $150,000 is such an exorbitant sum, but given how popular Palin is among some groups, I'm wondering if an auction might actually turn a profit.

Melinda Henneberger: I think that's quite likely, actually, and a good solution.


Anonymous: If the clothes are picked to look like they came from Talbots, why didn't they just buy them at Talbots?

Melinda Henneberger: Because -- sadly for all of us -- the fit just is not the same!


Illinois: I am old enough to remember the fuss over Jackie Kennedy's clothes (and I wonder what her clothing total would be in inflation-adjusted dollars). I thought it was dumb then and dumb now. I was thrilled Jackie was so well-dressed. Ditto with Sarah Palin (and the rest of the family, as it included them).

Nina Rastogi: True, but Jackie O never touted her moose-hunting abilities or her small-town ways. She was always an aristocrat, and made no bones about it.


Who's the Personal Shopper?: And does that raise another question re: possible campaign finance violations -- i.e. if that person's salary was paid for through donations, etc.?

Melinda Henneberger: I don't know who the personal shopper is, but she is a woman of taste and vision, with a big future ahead of her! I wondered if Cindy McCain had been helping her, given that her favorite designer is Escada, too.


Philadelphia: I wonder if they might be affecting Republican fundraising efforts. Why should I contribute money that I thought would be going to TV advertising when it instead winds up going to someone's wardrobe?

Nina Rastogi: Well, Palin's wardrobe is part of the advertising effort, isn't it? It's not as if campaign funds were being used for extravagant dinners or vacations for the candidates' families (at least I don't think they were). The campaign clearly felt it was important, imagewise, to show Palin in really top-notch, classy threads.


Buckland County, Ohio: Oh, puh-leeze. Sarah Palin didn't divide us -- the cultural elitists on the left went after her the second Palin was nominated because she came from a small town with small town values. The news media coverage of her -- and Joe the Plumber as well -- has been completely over-the-top, and borderline predatory. Where's the extended, wall-to-wall, coverage on every single gaffe Joe Biden has made?

Melinda Henneberger: This whole small-town-versus-big-city idea annoys me, as someone who grew up in a town the size of Wasilla. Because I just don't see the big difference between people there and in cities -- where lots of people from small towns move to find work. Are our values really so different? Did the New York firefighters who ran into the Twin Towers to save people suffer from a lack of "small-town values''?


Palin didn't buy the clothes: Do you think there's a possibility that she simply had no idea how much they cost?

Melinda Henneberger: Good point. She has too much to do to demand to see the bill -- though that would've shown what a reforming maverick with executive experience really could accomplish, by taking on personal shoppers within her own campaign!


Washington: So how would you describe Sarah Palin's look? I find it very distinctive, and I think it works for her (not what I would go for personally, though). However, I can't quite sum it up. It is sort of executive-looking (slightly masculine), but the three-quarter-length sleeves also seem feminine, and all the lines are clean. How stylish of a look is it compared with East Coast fashions?

Nina Rastogi: Oh, I think she's incredibly stylish (or, I should say, she's stylish now -- there were some outfits she wore in Wasilla that were real doozies). The clean lines and bright colors suggest confidence and power, and she emphasizes her waist really nicely, making it very feminine and -- dare I say it? -- sexy at the same time.


For the record: My feet are killing me just looking at all the picture of those high high heels she wears. And I have a desk job, I'm not working rope lines or standing at podiums or trotting up plane steps!

Melinda Henneberger: Yes -- if most of us had those shoes on, no one would notice because they'd be watching us grimacing in pain. But she is tough!


Alexandria, Va.: Could she really have been told to leave all her personal clothing behind before hitting the campaign trail? Do we think underwear was included in the $150,000? After all, she needed to look (and feel) her best, and even in lingerie, quality makes a difference. Maybe $500 or so went toward some great bras or cute undies.

Nina Rastogi: I think contemplating Sarah Palin's undies is a job for a very different forum! (But I did wonder whether I should add hosiery to my imaginary Saks shopping bag...)


Philadelphia: I was really surprised when I heard $150,000 was being spent for Palin's wardrobe. Some of the outfits I have seen her in recently are god-awful ugly. For example, the off-white blazer and black skirt she wore for her speech during the convention and the red leather jacket she wore a couple days ago. Did she pick them out herself or did the RNC hire a stylist as well?

Melinda Henneberger: I'm sure that as Escada-gate continues, we will learn more about who chose the clothes. But with the exception of that red leather jacket, I would argue that they did get their money's worth.


Nina Rastogi: Thanks for participating, everyone -- good to chat with you!


Melinda Henneberger: Thanks for joining the conversation.


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