Thursday, October 23, 2008

Let Them Wear Valentino

Sarah Palin looking understated in her now-famous $2500 Valentino silk jacket.
Photo NY Post, via Huffington Post.

The flap over Sarah Palin's $150,000 wardrobe may seem like a petty thing to be paying attention to in the twilight hours of a 20-month campaign. Fashion, according to one view, is frippery -- a parade of passing fancies without much in the way of meaning. Most of us can't remember what we wore last Friday; and for most of us, it doesn't really matter.

But, according to another view, clothes are a language as evocative and expressive and rich with symbolism as anything that comes out of our mouths. The choices we make about color, cut, and fabric speak volumes about who we are, what we value, where our heads are at, and what we aspire to. It's natural that in a culture that has traditionally silenced women's voices, the art of getting dressed would become the dominant way we tell our stories about who we are.

Most female politicians do their level best to look professional, competent, and non-threatening. They wear simple suits -- the less adornment, the better -- and generally let their color choices do the talking. Dianne Feinstein sets off her formidable height and anchors her even more formidable physical presence by combining bright mono-colored blazers -- fuschia, cobalt, chromium yellow -- with black.

DiFi in her usual blazer of glory. Stock office photo.

Nancy Pelosi expressed her intention to be "the Speaker of the entire House" by investing in a new purple wardrobe that favored lilacs and aubergines in soft textured fabrics, which flatter her peachy skin and are very deliberately don't send the same kind of high-contrast power signals DiFi's choices do.

Nancy in sweetly bipartisan and grandmotherly lilac.

Hillary and Michelle Obama both dress like any reasonably successful professional woman in America dresses. They buy their stuff in the bridge departments of the better department stores -- the same departments your own doctor or accountant probably shops in. "Bridge" lines are called that because they fill in the gap between lower-end mass-market department store fare (Jones New York and Liz Claiborne, for example) and the high-end couture that you see only in the pages of Vogue, and at the farthest of the far high-end department stores like Saks, Bergdorf's, and Neiman-Marcus. The bridge department will usually include several separate low-end (for them, anyway) department store brands established by the same top designers who sell their main lines at N-M: Kors (Michael Kors), DKNY (Donna Karan), Marc by Marc Jacobs, and so on. There are also a few bridge-only designers, like Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, and Eileen Fisher; and some departments stores also have their own in-house bridge labels as well. When you wander through the upscale end of Nordstrom, Macy's, or Bloomingdale's at the best mall in town, most of what you're seeing is bridge wear.

In practice, shopping the bridge department means you're probably spending $300-500 for a dress, $500-1000 for a suit, and $250 and up for a pair of shoes. That's a lot of money for most Americans, but not out of reach for the upper middle class, especially if you're in a job (like politics) where appearance matters. Back in '93, I remember the fashion press sniffing down its nose at new-first-lady Hillary, who cheerfully wore the bridge stuff she'd bought at Dillard's in Little Rock to her new job in the East Wing. It took her a while to accept that part of the First Lady's job is to wear and promote American fashion, which means allowing yourself to be dressed by the country's top couturiers. To her everlasting credit, Hillary's populist instincts were never quite down with that. Her vision of the job was to be something considerably more than a manniquin for Seventh Avenue. Her fashion choices spoke volumes about who she thought she was representing; and in those early years, her clothes sent the clear message that it wasn't the power elite.

Hillary on the trail this year. Some of us are just not built for tailored suits.
No photo credit available.

On the trail in 2007, Hillary was back in bridge wear. She can afford better now; but the cold fact is that campaigning is hell on a wardrobe. You're in that same suit 15 hours a day, walking and waving and sweating and being stuffed into planes and cars and eating hot dogs off paper plates and having stuff spilled on you. After just one day of that, it will absolutely need cleaning (don't even think you're going to just change your blouse and get another day out of it) -- but probably not before you've jammed it into a suitcase for the trip home. This grueling pace can take the life out of a jacket or a pair of pants in two dozen wearings. (The blouse may not even last that long.) Conversely: if you're lucky enough to find two pairs of shoes comfortable enough to get you through that kind of day without resorting to Vicodin to shut up your aching arches, you guard them with your life and wear them until they fall apart, regardless of how they look.

Michelle Obama's wardrobe sends most of the same messages Hillary's does. But then, Michelle has a lot in common with Hillary: a smart middle-class girl from Chicago who went to the Ivies, became a lawyer, and went on to work as a corporate attorney, public activist, and political wife. (She's also got the same figure issues -- narrow shoulders and a pear-shaped backside that need to be carefully camouflaged by well-chosen clothes.) Michelle's another bridge shopper -- but one with incredibly good taste and the kind of well-defined sense of her own style that you can't get from any paid stylist. Hillary always looks a bit rumpled in her suits, no matter how expensive they are. Michelle could pick up a $150 dress at Ann Taylor and make it look like it had just come off the rack at Prada. She never looks uncomfortable or the least bit out of place; and you never get the impression (as I often get with Hillary) that the outfit is wearing her, rather than the other way around.

Michelle Obama at the DNC. Who knows where she got this? Who cares?
You don't need to know that to know she looks fabulous. Photo Evan Robinson.

Take notes, people: that's what real style looks like. It's not what you wear (that part is, in fact, almost irrelevant). It's all in how you wear it. Michelle knows that probably better than any American first lady since Jackie.

And then there's Cindy McCain, whose clothes wear her so thoroughly that nobody really knows who the woman inside actually is -- and that may, in fact, be the whole point. Every time she steps off the plane in another overdesigned $15,000 Escada suit, the fact that she is Not One Of The Little People comes rumbling across the tarmac at 160 decibels.

Cindy in what is almost certainly Escada. Photo provenance unknown.

I don't know anybody in real life who dresses like that, and I'll bet you don't, either. And that, too, is the point. Those kinds of clothes are for people who spend their entire lives in the well-manicured confines of country clubs, gated communities, and upscale resorts -- places where they are spared the uncomfortable necessity of dealing with the unruly likes of you and me. Fashion looks very deliberately different in that world, because having the right look is the critical social signal that defines Who Belongs and Who Doesn't. (Your attorney, real estate agent, banker, and congresswoman -- all in their sharp little bridge numbers -- don't. They're merely acceptably dressed to come into your presence to serve.) These women have so much money that spending a quarter million a month on shopping is right up there with the Percocet habit and the affair with the yoga instructor -- it's all just another way to alleviate the soul-crushing boredom of having it all.

Clothes like this make a statement, and that statement is: "I own a private jet." There aren't two dozen cities in the US that are rich enough to support a Chanel or Escada or Hermes boutique. If you're living on a ranch in the middle of Arizona, if you're going shopping, you're going by air.

Which brings us, at last, to Sarah Palin. Sarah and Todd were already millionaires when McCain picked her, so it's a safe bet that she already had access to the best of whatever was on offer in the Fairbanks shops -- and also that shopping was a major agenda item whenever her job took her places with better stores, whether that was Seattle or DC. On the other hand, life in Wasilla required a more casual attitude:

Sarah Palin chatting up an Alaskan constituent in June. The dress looks like those worn traditionally by Yu'pik women. Photo by NY Post via Huffington Post.

But it says volumes about the GOP's priorities -- and who its clients really are -- that dressing Sarah up like Cindy was absolutely the very first order of business after she was picked. And the GOP's stylists had to reconcile two almost irreconcilable demands. On one hand, Caribou Barbie needed to have the standard bridge-wear look that's required of American female politicians, so as not to alienate the voters the way Cindy's overdone clothes tend to. (Broad claims to being a small-town populist ring damned hollow if you make them while dressed like you just stepped off a yacht in Fort Lauderdale.) On the other, she also needed to be seen wearing the right designers from the right stores, so the discerning eyes of the high-ticket donors would be amply reassured that She's Really One of Us. In short: they had to dress her like Hillary Clinton -- at Cindy McCain prices.

Which is how she ended up giving her acceptance speech in a $2500 Valentino oyster silk jacket that was so unremarkable that it could have just as easily been found for $250 on the rack at Macy's.

If fashion is a language, Sarah Palin's new wardrobe needs very little translation. She's taken on the important status symbols of the people she and John McCain really mean to represent. And she's done it in a way that the rest of us who aren't attuned to those cues aren't supposed to notice. It's the exact sartorial equivalent of the dog-whistle racism embedded in her rhetoric, only directed at a different audience. Just like the closet racists, the Republican rich are also being told what they need to hear in order to give her their support.

When the eyes of the country are upon you, it's not just getting dressed in the morning. It's making a statement of who you are, what you stand for, and who you're going to represent. The honest this-is-who-I-am simplicity of Michelle Obama's wardrobe makes one statement. The don't-touch-me perfection of Cindy McCain's makes another. And Sarah Palin's new clothes are another channel for political double-talk -- claiming to stand for the common folk, but with a big fat perky wink at the people whose money is what really matters.