Politics is having a fashion moment. We shouldn't be surprised: After all, two women who dress in two very different traditions have been in the spotlight running for posts no woman has ever held.
Hillary Clinton's pantsuits are in the tradition of John Molloy, the image consultant who in the 1970s sought to shift women into business suits that shouted power. In "Women's Dress for Success," Molloy advised ambitious women to wear well-made, man-tailored clothes so their words and ideas could be taken seriously in the corporate world. Clinton adds bright colors and other flourishes to the Molloy prescription, but she remains in the image-of-power tradition.
Sarah Palin -- or at least the version dressed by the Republican National Committee for a large portion of $150,000 -- has dressed in the tradition of Edith Head, the costume designer who won eight Oscars during a long Hollywood career. Head loved well-fitted feminine suits with skirts, and, in her 1959 memoir, she advised women to wear such outfits or a dress with a jacket when they set out to do something important and public, like shopping. These were suits for looking nice, not for being taken seriously in the workplace.
In remaking the Alaska governor as the Republican vice presidential candidate, the operatives who clothed Palin channeled Head. That is one reason -- along with the jaw-dropping expense -- that her clothes drew so much anger: They recalled an era when few women had political power. Think of the well-dressed females in TV's "Mad Men."
In fumbling interviews, Palin hasn't conveyed mastery of some key political issues, and her apparent lack of substance has been accentuated by her clothing. Clinton, whose clothing choices have been brutally analyzed over a life in politics, has finally achieved a sort of balance with her power-and-color pantsuits. Her style, while still criticized, doesn't clash with her mastery of policy. The joke on "Saturday Night Live" was never how Clinton looked but that she had too much substance -- she'd actually bore us, in detail, about healthcare. For Palin, the joke has been less sympathetic and much more reliant on looks: Tina Fey in Palin-like clothes and high heels, repeating her disjointed sentences.
So it was refreshing when Palin drew on neither Molloy nor Head at a rally in Florida after Politico.com disclosed the RNC shopping spree last week. "I'm back to wearing my own clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska," she said as she grasped a lapel of her long, pink jacket. The store, Out of the Closet, resells such used, high-end brands as Prada and Gucci at a fraction of their original price. The look isn't strikingly different from the pricey RNC version -- the Edith Head spirit still reigns -- but a major-ticket vice presidential candidate who admits to wearing clothing bought secondhand is taking a significant step away from establishment fashion.
Palin's consignment-store clothes represent an American tradition that has blossomed in recent years as increasing numbers of women shop secondhand. The National Assn. of Resale and Thrift Shops, founded in 1984, estimates that the secondhand business is growing at a healthy rate of 5% a year, to more than 25,000 thrift, consignment and resale stores in 2008, even as some traditional department stores -- like the ones frequented by shoppers in the 1950s -- have folded or consolidated as they struggled to attract customers.
As we enter what may be a long and deep recession, when ever-fewer numbers of women will have the money or desire to buy new, high-end clothing, Palin's thrift-store style is far more Everywoman than the new clothes purchased by the RNC. It's surely too late to dispel her 1950s costume image, but a secondhand Sarah Palin may have finally found a script and look that work together.