Style, Substance and Sarah Palin

by Mollie Wells

It’s not news that women in Washington (particularly those truly on the world stage) are scrutinized for their clothing, but I’m a little confused by Robin Givhan’s Washington Post story about Palin’s so-called ordinary style. Givhan is known for her no-nonsense fashion criticism of the political elite–whether or not that’s responsible or even necessary is up to you–but this one just seems like a redux. Givhan waxes aesthetic for several paragraphs about Palin’s run-of-the-mill style, ultimately concluding that its common roots are what make it so different, and then…well, that’s it. Palin as strategic style maverick. The end.

Listen, I love fashion writing as much as the next person, and I especially love fashion writing that puts style into a greater cultural context, but this, to me, is a completely played out story. Sure, I agree that Palin’s aesthetic is strategically outside the norm for Washington (and I think that Givhan discussed it as intelligently as anyone could), but haven’t we already read this a thousand times over? Nancy Pelosi wore fire-engine red and style writers went wild. Hillary Clinton in a V-neck and pants? Holy mother of god, did we ever talk. And if Republican senator Olympia Snowe comes barreling into the nation’s viewfinder, you can bet her clothes will be one of the first things people kvetch about.

But it’s always a story. Always. The specific criticism may change, just as the result changes–Clinton’s pantsuits conveyed authority, Palin’s skirts blend into the background, at least according to Givhan–but at the heart of nearly all these stories is the same general idea: a female politician either expresses her femininity or doesn’t, and it’s a breach of the standard either way.

Writers will probably always parse a female politician’s choice of clothing, by sheer virtue of it being different from a man’s. Okay, fine. Parse away, if you must. But is this angle–or any political style angle–really relevant? What do you think, ladies? 

(P.S. Givhan will be taking questions about her story Monday morning. Get them in now if you have them.)

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