Dispatches | November 04, 2008

I love clothes and have enjoyed the primaries and this election in part because all the candidates are so snappily dressed. We are well past the days when politicians were limited to power ties, button-down shirts and navy blue Brooks Brothers suits. Much of Washington has discovered designer duds.
Yet, female politicians and political wives are so scrutinized for what they wear, how they wear it, and what it costs that I have begun to pity them. Most recently in the news Sarah Palin is getting slammed for her $150,000 wardrobe from Barney’s and Saks, paid for by the Republican National Committee. There are all sorts of reasons to take issue with Sarah Six-pack, but her clothes ain’t one of them. In fact, she deserves the touch of silk against her skin. If I were living on an airplane, giving ten or more campaign speeches a day, kissing babies, pretending to like beer and barbeque and having to act as if Tina Fey’s impressions don’t bug me, someone would have to drop six figures on what I was wearing.
Obama gets a pass for his Armani suits because he promises that he only owns a few of them. (A $1.9 million advance for a three-book deal buys a lot of Armani.) He is praised for his youthful, forward-looking fashion—slim cut, single-breasted suits, crisp white shirts and pale blue ties—while Hillary is criticized for her boxy pant suits, which are fashion relics in Crayon colors. Not so subtly, pundits discuss their clothes as if they are extensions of their political visions. The future verses the past. And when Hillary showed a sliver of cleavage, the same critics who railed against her antiquated taste moved to charges of immodesty. In America we get weird when women show skin, or even wear tall black boots. Condoleezza Rice boxed up her knee-high boots because she was told she looked too threatening. Since then, she’s consistently dressed like a junior high school principal in nondescript polyester-blend suits and pearl-button earrings.
Then there was the much publicized butter-cup yellow shirt dress that Cindy McCain wore to the Republican National Convention. Vanity Fair along with other news outlets itemized the cost of her outfit:
Oscar de la Renta dress: $3,000
Chanel J12 White Ceramic Watch: $4,500
Three-carat diamond earrings: $280,000
Four-strand pearl necklace: $11,000–$25,000
Shoes, designer unknown: $600

All of this was based on estimates, and then overnight her $300,000 outfit became a $300,000 dress. Is there such a thing? Standing on stage next to Laura Bush in a demure cream colored embroidered suit (Oscar de la Renta suit: $2,500), McCain did look like a million bucks, while Laura seemed to have returned to her roots as a school librarian.
And of course keeping with our class-conscious focus on clothes, we know Michelle Obama wears fake pearls and buys off the rack. Her convention dress cost around $900, and a Gap cotton frock she wore to a fundraising picnic sold out instantly. Every time she wears a sheath dress—one fashion magazine called her “the Commander in Sheath”—we are told she is the next fashion icon a la Jackie Kennedy. Sorry to be a myth buster but Jackie lived and breathed Oleg Cassini.
Politicians and their spouses give up every modicum of privacy. They can never drink more than one glass of wine in public again. And with cell phones and YouTube every imagined misstep is sent around the world in seconds. The least we can do is let them look good.