- - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

“I think she dresses a lot like my mom,” Bristol Palin, the 20-year-old daughter of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, snipped to the celebrity tabloid website PopEater in June. Mrs. Palin was referring to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, an early, albeit slipping, leader in the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

As Republican women, savvy leaders in the tea party movement — and potential opponents in the Republican primaries — Mrs. Bachmann and Mrs. Palin inevitably are compared to each other. Aside from the occasional black suit or flag pin, however, the two rivals do not dress alike. In fact, their wardrobes could hardly be more different.

Between analyses of Mrs. Bachmann’s beliefs and speculation about Mrs. Palin’s 2012 presidential aspirations, the conversation often turns to physical appearance, which is par for the course for women in American politics. The usual suspects ritually denounce the media as “sexist” for dissecting female politicians’ shoes and hair while ignoring the ill-fitting suits of the male candidates.

Why not examine the women’s attire, though?

If they’re like any other women in the public eye, they thought, at least for one second while brushing their teeth in the morning, about the image being projected by their appearance. We’ll never know if the sartorial choices of Mrs. Bachmann and Mrs. Palin are coincidence or part of a carefully calculated branding strategy, but either way, these choices give us insight into how these women view themselves and, perhaps, how they want voters to view them, too.

Besides, the fashion enthusiast knows that until Mitt Romney and Rick Perry show us something more exciting than a predictable suit and tie, we have no option but to examine the clothing of these pioneering GOP women candidates, who must brave the campaign trail even on bad hair days.

Round 1: In the spotlight

As the first Republican woman to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mrs. Bachmann broke a glass ceiling in Minnesota. When she’s in the spotlight, such as during the Sept. 7 Republican debate, her style is reminiscent of another glass-ceiling smasher: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Whether calling for lower taxes or light-bulb freedom of choice, Mrs. Bachmann’s staid suits mean business.

Mrs. Palin also smashed a glass ceiling as the first Republican woman to be nominated for vice president. She, however, has commendably declined to join the boxy-business-suit club. Mrs. Palin is, instead, perfectly polished in tailored jackets and fitted skirts from designer labels. She may be attempting to make up for her less-than-polished interviews in 2008 — or she may simply prefer the cuts of Valentino, Escada and Tahari. Either way, Mrs. Palin is in control and in style.

Point: Palin. While they both wear suits, Mrs. Palin’s are sleeker. She may have had some help in 2008 from the Republican National Committee, but her style has remained chic ever since.

Round 2: The campaign trail

The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick — and, perhaps, a leather jacket. While touring the country, Mrs. Palin has embraced the role of “Mama Grizzly,” popping up in leather jackets, t-shirts and jeans. This rugged style works for the wilds of Alaska, but does it work for the rest of America?

The foster mother of 23 children, Mrs. Bachmann has a look that’s more PTA meeting than town-hall meeting in basic separates and dresses. American women may identify with her casual style, but do they want a casual commander in chief?

Point: Tossup. We like Mrs. Palin’s edgy style, and leather is hot this fall. We also appreciate that Mrs. Bachmann has worn feminine dresses on the campaign trail, even if they are a tad matronly. Sorry — too close to call.

Round 3: Formal attire

Mrs. Bachmann and Mrs. Palin both attended the gala celebrating Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in New York on April 26. Their dark outfits with lace accents may seem similar, but take a closer look.

Mrs. Palin’s ensemble is a fashion “Do” in a trendy black lace jacket, slim pencil skirt and leg-lengthening platform pumps. Mrs. Bachmann‘s, on the other hand, is a fashion “Don’t”: an ill-fitting strapless dress and — horror! — shimmery nude pantyhose with open-toe sandals.

Is Mrs. Bachmann telling the world that she doesn’t care about fashion — or did she really miss the pantyhose memo?

Point: Palin. We don’t love Mrs. Bachmann’s business suits — but we simply cannot condone her pantyhose.

Round 4: Shoes!

It’s rare to find a woman who doesn’t love shoes. Mrs. Palin has a covetable collection, from the red Naughty Monkey brand peep-toe pumps that made headlines in 2008 for their affordability to her tall black suede boots, similar to those that got Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attention in 2005.

Mrs. Bachmann apparently loves shoes, too, because we’ve seen her in a number of youthful, strappy sandals and casual wooden heels. However, they’re often not quite right with her buttoned-up clothes.

Point: Palin. Although both women have lovely shoes, Mrs. Palin is more skilled at pairing the right shoes with her outfits. And as Ms. Rice demonstrated, the right shoes can instantly connote power.

Round 5: Signature style

Although we worship the runways, every fashionista knows it’s important to maintain your own sense of style regardless of the trends. Both Mrs. Bachmann and Mrs. Palin understand this concept.

Mrs. Bachmann maintains her serious but low-key look in conservative outfits and predictable pearls a la 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. But — her hair is the star, as salons across the country have reported that women are requesting Mrs. Bachmann’s updated cut and color.

Mrs. Palin likewise maintains a distinct look with her signature updo and glasses. It’s recognizable and suits her. When your signature look becomes a popular Halloween costume, however, it may be time for a change.

Point: Bachmann. While her style is not especially fashion-forward, her clothing is classic and appropriate and works with her modern hairstyle.


After tallying the points, Mrs. Palin is the clear fashion winner. Are Republican voters comfortable with the idea of a polished fashionista in the White House? Or would they prefer the ordinarily dressed woman from the Midwest — or even a familiar navy blue suit and tie? Regardless, it’s a positive step for women that we can be taken seriously as politicians while wearing fitted suits or comfortable dresses.

The campaign trail is a long, difficult road, so if you’re going to take it, you might as well wear sexy shoes.

Samantha Sault has covered New York Fashion Week, London Fashion Week and the intersection of fashion and politics for the Weekly Standard, FocusWashington.com, and her own blog, SamanthaOnStyle.com.

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