Sarah Palin’s style: the issue at hand

Times Fashion Critic

WHAT TO do about the war, what to do about the economy, what to do about those rimless glasses and that saucy updo? Style has never been more important than it is in this election. That’s not just because this high-stakes political contest is being watched by a tabloid and celebrity-obsessed culture. It’s also because this election now has so many powerful women on the national stage who are putting their message across with vastly different style strategies.

For months, we’ve seen how polarizing style can be, dissecting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s gender-neutral pantsuits, Cindy McCain’s $300,000 Oscar de la Renta-and-diamonds convention outfit and Michelle Obama’s throwback Jackie O. shift dresses. But in a little more than a week, the Republican vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 44, has stolen the campaign’s style spotlight, causing a run on Kawasaki 704 eyeglass frames and upswept hairstyles.

Fashion can be a potent tool for packaging a candidate (or “co-candidate,” as political spouses take on more substantial roles). And though men can speak volumes just by washing the gray out of their hair, or choosing to wear makeup on TV, women have bigger challenges. Keeping the focus on the issues, not the clothes or their looks. Projecting authority while seeming approachable, not elitist. If you’re a woman in the spotlight of a high-profile race, the issue quickly becomes: What changes are you willing to make to your appearance to get people to take you seriously? And in a savvy, YouTube-aware way, how will you use style to telegraph your essence?

A beauty queen turned politician by way of the PTA, Palin has a style strategy that’s quite clever. In an interview in Vogue magazine in February, when rumors of her as a possible VP candidate were only whispers, the Alaska governor said she was trying to be “as frumpy as I could by wearing my hair on top of my head and these schoolmarm glasses.” (Never mind that she was appearing in Vogue, bastion of the fashion obsessed, which Clinton famously refused to do when she was campaigning for president.)

Barely a blip on the political radar before now, Palin has to go the extra mile to hone her VP style. But far from uglifying herself, she plays up her sexuality. And this early on, Palin is already playing the image game like a pro. When Sen. John McCain accepted the nomination Thursday night, she wore a black satin jacket that dipped just low enough in front so you could see some cleavage. In this political marriage, Palin clearly knows she’s the trophy.

Her hair is a study in contrasts, carefree and “done” at the same time. The untidiness of her updo has a can-do spirit that says, “I have more important things to do than worry about my hair, so I just twirled it into this clip so I could get to the real business of governing and shooting caribou and having babies and taking them to hockey practice.”

The bouffant in the front, which appears to be teased from underneath, is more traditional, to appeal to the GOP base and those big donors from Houston who’ve been known to fly with their hairstylists on their private planes. And yet, you get the feeling that at the end of the day, she could shake out that lustrous mane (longer than any other major female U.S. political figure’s) and get it on with her man.

She wears skirts that are quite form-fitting and often goes without stockings. As ZZ Top might say, she’s got legs, and she knows how to use ‘em. When Sen. John McCain introduced her at an Aug. 29 campaign rally in Dayton, Ohio, she was wearing open-toed red patent leather shoes. The only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick, she said in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday. She could have added to that joke the black pencil skirt and shiny, oyster-colored jacket she wore that night, a more modern take on Clinton’s power pantsuit. It looked darn good.

Which is not to say that style is a substitute for substance. But because she’s a relative unknown, style is a lot of what we know about Palin right now. No doubt, in coming days her positions on the issues will eclipse our fascination with the brand of eyeglasses she wears. If they didn’t, that would be the worst double standard of all.