The Lyin’, the Which? , and The Wardrobe: Palin’s new clothes cost her more than $150,000

by cv harquail on October 23, 2008

Sarah Palin original Wardrobe before makeover Sarah , Sarah , Sarah . Just when I’m ready to move on to other topics, you serve up yet another opportunity to understand organizations and authenticity. This time, the lessons are all about image, and the relationship between how we present ourselves and who we really are.

If Palin’s wardrobe upgrade had been well-executed, perhaps we would have heard only the usual sexist complaints about how much time and money women (need to) spend on clothes, or the chatter of armchair fashionistas regarding how pantsuits are "too sensible" and red pumps "too tacky". Instead, we’ve got a media-pundit-blog bonanza. (Check out Princess Sparkle Pony’s Sarah Palin Neimansgate Link Roundup .) And in this bonanza? A chance to think more about authenticity.

Let’s start by appreciating the smart move : paying attention to image. It all starts with The Wardrobe.

The Wardrobe

The upgrade of Palin’s wardrobe by RNC operatives was absolutely appropriate and even necessary. A wardrobe upgrade was necessary because: Palin Alaska Wardrobe Parka

  • Image matters.
    Every organization and leader needs to project how it wants to be seen. And, since we all contain multitudes of attributes, we need to be choosy and shape our images so that we project the specific attributes and characteristics that will help us achieve our goals.
  • Context matters.
    Images that look fine at the hockey rink are just not right for the national stage. Similarly, the face your organization shows to the community in which it is located is probably not what it needs to show to the NYSE. You need to shape your image to fit the context (in this case, the campaign and the audience).sarah-palin
  • Palin needed a new wardrobe.
    Consider what Palin wore as Governor — These outfits are fine near the Arctic circle, but not hot enough for the heartland. Consider the blue parka and green scarf (ouch) (photo from Michelle Malkin ) and the oh-so-80’s eyewear. Enough said.

Look at it this way: What would we think of a leader– especially a politician– who didn’t bother to adjust her appearance and self-presentation when moving from a provincial podium to a national stage? We’d think she was naive. And maybe even unprofessional. Plus, we’d all make fun of her. So let Palin be thankful that at least she didn’t do the shopping herself. — Not only is clothes shopping an appropriate task for an executive’s stylists assistants, but just imagine the field day we’d have if Palin had spent more campaign time in Nordstrom’s than she has in press conferences.

But moving on, what about …

The Lyin’

The occasional fashion gaffe is inevitable and forgivable (and sometimes just funny. See this faux pas, from MakePalinAVerb .) But a full wardrobe of mistakes? That makes you wonder what’s really going on. Like when an organization misspells its name in its logo , and then tries to suggest the misspelling disappears if you squint a little. While Palin’s stylists were busy considering cut, color, fabric and fit, they forgot two important things. First, they forgot about the brands and how brands communicate the symbolism that goes along with a product’s function. Then they forgot that when you stick together brands that contradict each other, you create conflicting messages and leave your audience wondering what is intended and what is accidental, and what is true and what is not .

For a time, the brands of the nominee’s new clothes were overlooked. Even the Washington Post’s fashion columnist, Robin Givhan, missed the brands — and so Givhan described Palin’s wardrobe as "exceptionally ordinary ". Without the brand, the silk jacket is pretty but let’s pay attention to her speech. Knowing the brand, it’s a $2400 Valentino top- and who has that kind of money? 2008-09-17-palinjacket

Still, although true fashionistas took note of the brands, the luxury labels in Palin’s Wardrobe might have escaped public acclaim if the total costs had not been outed by Politico . Struggling to understand how any person, even a candidate for national office, can spend five times the average American’s household income on clothing, we look at the brands and we find our explanation. All that extra money, the money that separates the silk jacket from the $2400 Valentino top, is the cost of sending a message of wealth , luxury, and high style.

My friends, these are not the priorities of ‘the real America’.

And this is what has everyone’s boxers tied in knots… With all the effort and cost budgeted for overdoing Palin’s wardrobe, the RNC is displaying ‘elitist’ values, values that it publicly mocks yet cannot resist, even at full price.

The symbolism of the luxury brand outfits clashes with the RNC’s claimed values. And contradicting your own values never looks good.

If your organization’s brand is all about the "real America" and Main Street values, you can’t brand your spokesperson with luxury-priced designer clothes. Similarly, if your organization is offended by $400 haircuts , it can’t argue that a $4,000 handbag is a necessary expense.

Forgetting about the values conveyed by the brand is like a corporation of spending all its communication resources on a nice logo, while forgetting about the text that goes along with the visual. What you end up with are conflicting messages, and an audience unsure which message(s) are true and which message(s) are lies.

The Which?

Through the magical door of the RNC’s Wardrobe, which Palin do they want us to see now?

  • The authentic Palin who expressed ‘who she was’ by how she appeared, and behaved — like a real hockey mom governor?
  • The Palin who was savvy enough to upgrade her appearance as she upgraded her ambitions?
  • The not-quite-so-autonomous-and-competent Palin who is ‘groomed’ and ‘fashioned’ by backstage employees of the RNC?
  • The Palin who comes from the "real America" (you know, the America where Everyfamily, like hers , has has a $500,000 lakeside home, 2 vacation properties, a plane, and an annual income of $230,000 )?

Images matter. The messages that candidates and organizations create and send through their manufactured images are important. In the case of the "real American" wearing an elitist luxury wardrobe, the mixed messages simultaneously confirm what we know (e.g., the Palin’s are wealthy enough, the Republicans are out of touch with real Americans’ budget constraints) and project what we desire (e.g., anyone (you?) can seamlessly move from the frontier to the front stage). Images can even tap into long standing cultural concerns that were once authentic and are now just put on and cast off when it’s convenient for the organization.

Looking like a hypocrite has its own high price.

In Dante’s Inferno , hypocrites walk endlessly ’round and ’round the 8th circle of hell, wearing heavy lead cloaks that have been painted with gold. Lucky for Sarah Palin, she only has to wear Escada jackets– and she might even be released by November 5th. But, no matter how polished she looks, Palin will forever carry the burden of tarnished "authenticity".

Ultimately, the fault lies with the RNC stylists. They understood only part of what’s important about images.

Yes, images matter. Yes, it’s okay– even necessary– to shape the image of your organization and your spokesperson as your objectives and your contexts change. But also, you must pay attention to the assortment of messages, the message ‘wardrobe’ , if you will. Messages have to be styled so that they coordinate rather than clash, because contradictory messages leave your audience wondering who you really are.

What should an organization do to avoid creating the perception of lying and the raising the question of which image to believe?

—Follow the Inviolable rules of Authentic Organizations , and sustain a relationship between your image and your substance.

—Never stretch your claims about who you are too far from the reality of who you are. It’s okay to create an image that is aspirational; it’s not okay to create an image that is hypocritical.

And, organizations could consider this thoughtful suggestion from arch-conservative, vice-presidential speechwriter (and my Bryn Mawr classmate) Lisa Shiffren . Usually, I respectfully disagree with Lisa, but here, writing for The National Review, she makes a lot of sense:

"Because I like Sarah Palin, and want her to succeed, I would be really happy to know that, should she find herself back in Alaska for the next four years, (or, for that matter, in D.C.) she chose to spend a little of the money that would otherwise go to her clothing budget on a personal library of conservative classics. Going upmarket intellectually will complete the transformation, and make her truly" (i.e., authentically) "prime-time ready."

What do you think? Share your thought in the comments, below.

{ 1 comment }

Princess Sparkle Pony October 24, 2008 at 8:07 pm

This is a very, very good post. You really hit just about all the right aspects of it, especially the “taking it seriously” part, because these topics really do matter, despite being “shallow.”

But I really believe that the real importance is simply this: give the GOP money and they will immediately give it away to rich people. They are simply not fiscally responsible.

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