Election 2008

michelle Obama, sarah palin
David Zalubowski/AP

Palin Wardrobe Flap Reignites Frugality vs. Fashion Debate

October 23, 2008 03:57 PM
by Liz Colville
The media focus on the contrasting wardrobe expenses of Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin recalls Nancy Reagan and other women in politics, and the clothes they wore.

Palin’s RNC Makeover

Since financial statements surfaced showing that the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 at Neiman Marcus, Barney’s and Saks on outfits for vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, the media has focused on the stark contrast between Palin’s and Michelle Obama’s fashion choices.

The Democratic National Committee has admitted to paying for “makeup and hair care expenses [Ill. Sen. Barack Obama] incurred in connection with TV interviews,” according to the Houston Chronicle, but has not funded clothing purchases. The Chronicle added that it is “rare for campaigns to underwrite the clothing costs of candidates of either gender. Indeed, of the 41 other candidates and political committees reporting expenses for ‘accessories’ during the 2008 campaign, none of them were for clothes.”

In early October, New York Magazine noted that Michelle Obama showed up to a rally wearing a dress by the inexpensive Sweden-based clothing chain H&M; the dress was compared to something the high fashion designer Narcisco Rodriguez might make.

Mrs. Obama has “remained committed to keeping her wardrobe down-to-earth throughout the campaign,” the magazine wrote, adding that a $148 White House/Black Market dress Obama wore on “The View” sold out at some locations, as reported by The Wall Street Journal and others.

Gov. Palin has garnered just as big a following, the U.K.’s Telegraph reports, as women have run out to buy wigs mimicking her hairstyle; frameless glasses; and shoes like the pair she wore during her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

In September, an outfit of potential first lady Cindy McCain’s was scrutinized by a Vanity Fair blogger, who used magazine staff estimates to price the outfit—including diamond earrings valued at $280,000—at over $300,000. “Far be it from those of us at V.F. to criticize people for buying fancy clothes (you’ve met our advertisers, right?),” the blogger wrote, “but even we were astonished when the estimate came back.” Comparisons have been made between Mrs. McCain and former First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Historical Context: First Lady fashion: Kennedy, Reagan and Bush

Few faulted Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for her expensive taste in clothes, which showcased designers like Givenchy and started many trends, including the pill-box hat. The former First Lady’s clothes were so influential that entire museum exhibits have been created from them. An exhibit at the JFK Library included some of the lavish outfits she wore on the campaign trail.

Nancy Reagan was First Lady during a recession, and her penchant for designer clothes, given to her by influential names looking for more exposure, did not sit well with many Americans. According to PBS, the public “balked” at Mrs. Reagan’s fashion choices. “The Reagans were accused of not caring that America was having trouble making ends meet,” PBS notes, “while they lived and entertained lavishly, surrounded by well-heeled friends.” But the First Lady gained credibility with voters by spearheading a drug awareness program, and she had more than just a sartorial influence in the Reagan Administration.

First Lady Barbara Bush followed Mrs. Reagan, and made a point of differentiating herself from her predecessor. In a 1989 article in The New York Times, the reporter notes that Mrs. Bush “doesn’t even seem to mind being photographed in sweatshirts and khakis and that her “penchant for adding two or three strands of fake pearls to her outfits is credited with catapulting costume jewelry pearls back into the limelight—and big sales.” Mrs. Bush was regularly dressed by notable designers, but she once told Bill Blass, “Now don’t make me look like Mrs. …,” referring to Nancy Reagan.

Opinion & Analysis: High Fashion or H&M Frugality?

In defense of Palin’s new wardrobe, Lisa Schiffren of the National Review compares the RNC’s purchases to the habits of two prominent Democrats, N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and notes that prior to her nomination Palin was more inclined to wear “inexpensive, perfectly appropriate but not ready for prime-time black suits, or the kind of outdoor clothing that Alaskans, and others who spend a lot of time in harsh elements, require. Her biggest sartorial luxury seems to have been fancy running shoes, as she told the Wall Street Journal weekend section, just before being nominated.”
The Houston Chronicle notes that, although Democratic Party figures have drawn contrasts between Palin’s wardrobe and the Joe Six-Pack message, some voters have come to the Alaska governor’s defense. Page Gowney, a Connecticut mother of four interviewed by the Associated Press, said, “I can certainly imagine her clothes would cost that much. What did you want to see her in, a turtleneck from L.L. Bean?”

Republican consultant William F.B. O’Reilly agreed, telling The New York Times that Palin “had a legitimate need to purchase clothing to get her through three months of grueling campaigning in the constant spotlight of television cameras. No one would blink if this was a male candidate buying Brooks Brothers suits.”

In fact, Minn. Sen. Norm Coleman has recently been criticized for getting deals from friends that included expensive suits and other clothing for himself and his wife. And in the same New York Times article, Ed Rollins, who headed President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, countered the cries of sexism: “It just undercuts Palin’s whole image as a hockey mom, a ‘one-of-us’ kind of candidate.”

But the biggest injustice the new wardrobe highlights might be gender-based, as O’Reilly suggested. Sociologist professor Heather Laube told Michigan’s Flint Journal that she often tells her students, “Think of a woman standing in front of a full closet saying I have nothing to wear. Men don't really do that. The difference is that for professionals, men can get away with a blue or black suit, change their tie and be perceived as professional and a man. It works for them. But women, whatever they choose to wear, it is much more difficult to balance that.”

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