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11.15.09

Time to End Pantsuit-Gate

With viewers tuned into Palin's much-anticipated Oprah interview, Linda Hirshman explains the sexist double-standard at work over the fuss about the clothes the RNC bought her. Plus, view our gallery of Palin's fashion.

the fuss about the clothes the RNC bought her. Plus, view our gallery of Palin's fashion.

On Monday, October 20, 2008, Sarah Palin waved to the crowd in the stadium in Grand Junction, Colorado, clad in a shiny red leather zip up jacket. Two days later, reporters revealed that Palin's gorgeous red leather jacket, and most of her other campaign trail clothes, didn't come from her usual North Face store. She wore a White Valentino blazer for the acceptance speech and a shiny black Elie Tahari suit for the vice-presidential debate. All in all, including the family's clothes, Palin's wardrobe, hair and makeup cost the conservative Republican National Committee a liberal $150,000. The media erupted. Couldn't she have dressed for success for less? Was she going to pay taxes on the swag? What kind of hockey mom was this? Where was the pink sweatsuit so fetchingly caught on camera in the Juneau Costco just months before?

Click the Image Below to View Our Gallery of a Brief History of Sarah Palin's Fashion

In her new memoir, Going Rogue, which hits bookstores Tuesday, Palin wonders what all the fuss was about. “My family is frugal. We clip coupons. We shop at Costco. We buy diapers in bulk and generic peanut butter. We don't have full-time nannies or housekeepers or drivers. So the portrayal of my family as wasting other people's money on clothes was a false one. And many wondered at the same time why no other candidates or their spouses were being asked a thing about their hair, makeup, or clothes.”

I’m with Palin on this one.

Those who savaged Palin for her fancy duds mostly argued a self-described working-class hockey mom shouldn't be wearing pricey designer outfits. Why not? In a system of representative government, the mass of people are almost always poorer than their candidates. But the most interesting aspect of the wardrobe flap was that Palin, the poorest of the four candidates, and with five children to support, was in no position to spend her family's money on a new wardrobe. Either her titular employer, the Republican National Committee, was going to have to buy her clothes or she was going on the stump in a down parka and something from the resale shop. So what exactly did she do wrong?

It's not like the candidates of the common man were going around in sweat suits. When Hillary was on the stump tossing back shots and extolling the "real people, white people," she was wearing a tailor-made pants suits from a shop in Los Angeles where they cost five grand a pop. Yet no one said a word about the shot-and-a-beer candidate wearing garments created off a mannequin specially designed with her particular proportions, requiring a minimum order of $15,000. That information was available to any journalist with a Google search function, but no one chose to set off Pantsuit-gate.

Similarly, no one had a bad word to say about what former community organizer and Democratic candidate Barack Obama's wife wore. The look that dominated her style during the campaign came from Chicago designer Maria Pinto, whose collection ranges from $900 to $5000 per garment, and the short Jason Wu silk shift dress she wore on Barbara Walters' show cost $3500. She's been buying clothes at the most expensive boutique in Chicago, Ikram, for years. The inauguration dress retailed for $1500, and she wore it with $700 Jimmy Choo shoes and a Nina Ricci cardigan, $995 at Bergdorf's. And though there was a certain amount of chatter when Cindy McCain appeared at the Republican Convention in what Vanity Fair speculated might have been a $280,000 pair of earrings, her defenders quickly reminded the public that "the potential first lady is also heiress to a beer distribution fortune valued at as much as $100 million.

What's the difference? It's simple: in the Clintons' case, Bill is the big earner; in the Obamas' case, there are the millions of dollars of proceeds of his book sales; and in the McCains' case, the income of the old Arizona beer distributor paid for their women's clothing. But Palin received her outfits from her patron since she couldn't afford them herself, nor could her husband pay for them. Palin took the heat because women aren't supposed to earn their own clothes. They have to acquire their clothing in the private precincts of the family—as gifts from their husbands, rather than as a reward for succeeding at a public role.

Either her titular employer, the Republican National Committee, was going to have to buy her clothes or she was going on the stump in a down parka and something from the resale shop. So what exactly did she do wrong?

The proper power relationship being maintained, the most successful and educated women then get to do the girly I Love Lucy thing of hiding the extent of their extravagance from their husbands. As the First Lady told The New York Times:

“He's always asking: 'Is that new? I haven't seen that before.' It's like, Why don't you mind your own business? Solve world hunger. Get out of my closet." She teasingly imitated him: "You didn't need any more shoes. The shoes you had on yesterday were fine. Why can't you just wear that for the rest of the presidency?’”

Ugh. Until the media made a sexist stink over it, at least the RNC wasn’t nosing around Palin’s closet.

Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, and a columnist at DoubleX.com. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.