(Jeff Neira/CBS Broadcasting)

Ann Romney sports an unforgettable $990 T-shirt during a TV interview with her husband, and instantly it becomes the latest item to hang in the Great American Fashion Foible Closet of Political Wives and Female Pols. 

To be sure, it was not the smartest thing she could have worn, given the vast Romney fortune, the continuing nationwide economic stall and the tin ear possessed by the presumptive Republican nominee, notes my colleague Suzi Parker

But America seems to be of two minds when it comes to how women who wield, or are wed to, power ought to dress.  We want them to look good, be stylish, command respect and by the way, not take fashion too seriously or spend conspicuously on clothing, shoes and accessories, even if these women earned their own money.

In the case of first ladies, we also prefer that they buy American. Jacqueline Kennedy made a quick switch from her beloved French couturiers to domestic designers when she moved into the White House. And because knock-offs of genuine designer merchandise are a form of intellectual property theft, it’s a no-brainer that those in political life not buy counterfeit fashions.

So it was that Ann Romney gladly plunked down nearly $1,000 for what might now be the world’s most famous T-shirt (truth be told, if I had her money, I might buy one, too, but short of winning the lottery or robbing a bank, it’ll never happen). 

Inspired by the birds of John James Audubon (budget-busting budgies?) the real Reed Krakoff red silk top now joins Callista Gingrich’s Tiffany jewelry, Michelle Obama’s entire wardrobe (from mass-market J. Crew togs to pricey evening gowns and daywear by young American designers), Nancy Pelosi’s four-figure Armani suits (her husband Paul chooses most of the former speaker’s clothes), and Rosalynn Carter’s recycled inaugural ball ensemble (first worn when parsimonious husband Jimmy became the governor of Georgia in 1971, then trotted out again six years later after his recession-era White House win).

Who could forget the $150,000 worth of duds and styling services the Republican National Committee provided Sarah Palin and her family during the 2008 GOP convention, never mind that for years she bought previously owned suits at an Anchorage consignment shop. The RNC finally, quietly disposed of the radioactive wardrobe that Palin sent back to her free-spending benefactors. 

Nancy Reagan was so fond of glamour that to reverse her image as an out-of-touch Hollywood fashion queen, she warbled  “Second Hand Clothes,” to the tune of “Second Hand Rose,” while dressed like Minnie Pearl on acid at the 1982 Gridiron Dinner. That satirical mea culpa worked some 30 years ago, but since then countless women have found themselves in sartorial sand traps.

In 2008, Vanity Fair deconstructed the cost of the GOP convention outfits worn by outgoing first lady Laura Bush and White House hopeful Cindy McCain, a wealthy businesswoman married to Republican nominee John McCain.  

The estimated cost of McCain’s ensemble — based on VF’s assumption that her three-carat diamond earrings and four-strand pearl necklace were real, not fake — totaled around $300,000, including $8,100 for an Oscar de la Renta dress, Chanel J-12 white ceramic watch and shoes by an unnamed designer.  Laura Bush was a distant second — between $3,245 and $4,325 — spent for her Oscar de la Renta suit, Stuart Weitzman heels and pearl stud earrings. 

Surely Ann Romney knows how to dress, having been the wife of a corporate executive, Massachusetts governor and Mormon church elder.  Tall, slim and athletic, she is the type of woman who looks good in whatever she wears, from jeans to power suits to ball gowns.  What she does not know as much about—and no one does who has not been in the unforgiving eye of a presidential campaign where every word and gesture is microscopically examined — is what to avoid wearing until Election Day.  

“I don’t think anything is off limits realistically,” former Laura Bush chief of staff Anita McBride tells me. “Somehow when it comes to these women we talk about a lot, maybe too much, about their clothes. However, having said that I really care much more about the government is spending my money than the way Ann Romney spends hers.”

Until now, Mrs. R. has done just fine without the advice of a fashion stylist. But if I were in her shoes (and we’re definitely not talking pricey Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin stilettos here) I’d play it safe and frugal for the duration.  No recognizably exorbitant clothing, no ostentatious bling, no fur, no foreign designers. In fact, she should probably wear a couple of favorites three or four times to disabuse voters of the notion that she has endless closets in her multiple homes.

Such a tactic may not be remotely “authentic,” as political operatives like to say, but it’s a heck of a lot safer than buying a $990 designer tee when so many people are struggling to pay the mortgage or their medical bills.

Heck, she may just want to go to her husband’s online campaign tchotchke shop where, for a nice round 30 bucks, she can order a “Romney. Believe in America” number in tasteful heather gray that would look just great with white jeans and a navy blazer.

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com staffer who writes widely about politics, design, culture and 21st century manners. She is at work on a memoir.