Sarah Palin, $150,000 fashionista

How much is too much to spend on a politician's wardrobe? Salon writers discuss the whopping price tag for the V.P. candidate's clothing.

Published October 22, 2008 8:00PM (EDT)

As reported in War Room earlier today, Jeanne Cummings of Politico broke the news that the Republican National Committee "has spent more than $150,000 to clothe and accessorize vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family since her surprise pick by John McCain in late August."

That is a one cool chunk of change. And the staggering number does not include the entourage of stylists, personal shoppers and gun cleaners that vice-presidential candidates might require. Some of the line items include: $75,062.63 spent in one shopping spree at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis, near the site of the Republican convention, and $49,425.74 spent at Saks Fifth Avenue.

But how much is too much when it comes to outfitting a politician during a crucial election? 

Today, Salon sports critic King Kaufman received a press release from a professor who teaches fashion law. The release offered an interview to discuss the story of Sarah Palin’s $150,000 wardrobe. It's the kind of mass mailing we get around these parts frequently, but something in it snagged Kaufman's attention. He sent out an e-mail about it to the staff, which in turn kick-started an interesting exchange, pasted below for your reading enjoyment.

King Kaufman: I think this is interesting. I think this part [of the press release] is true and has been ignored in the "trash Palin" response (I mean everywhere, not Salon):

In our image-based society, the packaging of a candidate requires strategic spending on visuals, from stage makeup to backdrops to podiums at a flattering height -- and yes, costumes. As a result, it's difficult to argue that the RNC's purchase of clothing for Sarah Palin is an inappropriate expenditure on items for personal use, especially if they really do go to charity after the campaign.

I also think it's interesting to note that it's pretty clear from old videos, from Wasilla council meetings etc., that this is not Palin's chosen personal style, which seems to have tended more toward denim shirts in the past. So while one could argue that her wardrobe is just one more piece of the Palin-as-phony puzzle, it's also indisputable that if she campaigned in denim shirts, she'd be roasted for it. Damned if you do, etc.

Obviously the crux of the issue is the price tag, and here's what I'd like to know: What would an appropriate price tag have been? As a reasonably sophisticated, big-city cat with a wife who is interested in both fashion and the more academic subject of "costume," I've picked up a few things over the years. But I have no idea if $150K is really outrageous to outfit and make up and etc. a female public figure for eight weeks of campaigning. The $150K sounds like a lot to me, of course, but I really don't know. Sixty bucks for a men's shirt seems like a lot to me too, but that's par for the course at the mall.

What did Hillary spend -- although Hillary had a head start, having been in national public life already for a decade and a half?

What should it have cost? I don't mean those newspaper features where they say, "You can re-create Nicole Kidman's red-carpet outfit for $38!" and they have a picture of a woman in a vaguely similar outfit that doesn't look anything like Nicole's outfit and clearly came from J.C. Penney and Community Thrift. Obama's not walking around in off-the-rack suits from Kmart, and Palin would have been roasted for outfitting herself at Ross, too.

So what's reasonable? $30K? $6K? $100K? I literally have no clue, and I suspect I'm not alone.

Laura Miller: Given the down-home image the GOP is reaching for with its selection of Palin, I do think $150K is too much. It has only been for three months, and she's not Nancy Reagan. I think I am out of the loop on the typical costs of such things, but I would say $50K would be plenty, more than enough, unless she needs a new outfit every day.

Andrew O'Hehir: I'm torn. On the one hand, sauce for the goose -- if John Edwards' haircuts were a campaign issue, then so are Palin's hot-librarian fantasy get-ups. On the other, what does anyone expect? As has been noted, the GOP is positioning Palin less as a serious politician than as a pop-culture star, or as one morphing into the other. By that standard, I imagine the sum is normal. I bet Paris, J-Lo, etc. could burn that much money in clothes (and other things that come under the penumbra of "fashion") in a given quarter, no problem. For guys, the bar may be a bit lower, but I bet Justin [Timberlake's] annual clothing budget is extraordinary. Of course all this is distorted by the fact that the clothing budget of actual stars is notional, since they get a lot of the shit for free. Palin presumably doesn't, or wouldn't be allowed to.

Stephanie Zacharek: I think it's totally fair game, partly because, as Andrew points out, John Edwards' haircuts were used against him. I will note that good clothes are more expensive today (the prices for, let's say, nice "executive lady" department store clothes have increased markedly just within the past two years), so realistically, Palin's outfits probably cost more than anyone thinks they should. But even beyond the clothes, that hairdo sure isn't wash-and-go: Somebody's gotta twist that thing up and lacquer it every day. And this is a woman who beams out at an audience of guys in Carhartt jackets and steel-toed boots and says, "These are my people!" I'd say there's a pretty obvious disconnect right there.

She's being sold as someone who's in touch with the "real" America, and these "real" men who make up her fan base think she's a down-to-earth gal who'd be happy to go moose hunting with them. But would they really want to sit around and wait while her beehive gets that extra spritz of Aqua Net?

Rebecca Traister: The woman is running for vice president. It doesn't surprise me that her clothes are expensive, especially since she's traipsing around the country, in a bunch of different climates, speaking inside and outside, sometimes on television and sometimes not, holding peeing and spitting up babies (her own and those of strangers), during a seasonal change from summer to fall, every single day for three months. People are citing Edwards and the haircut, and it's a prime example of why it's dangerous to get worked up about how much someone has spent on appearance. Whatever else we can say about John Edwards in retrospect, and however expensive his haircut, he was the candidate who talked most meaningfully about poverty and class in this election. I mean, I'm all for calling out many facets of the McCain-Palin campaign for hypocrisy and bad faith, but I don't want to start wondering if politicians can represent or relate to "regular people" just because they are wealthy, or because they are dressed or coifed or presented expensively.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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