Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, wore a $990 shirt on CBS’s This Morning and boy, was that a mistake. Not because it was an ugly shirt—which was the correct reason to be offended, in my opinion—but because of the price. Of course it was easy to figure out how much the shirt cost since it’s so unique (and so uniquely ugly), it couldn’t be mistaken for another. How many designers, after all, sell t-shirts with enormous yellow falcon faces on them? If Romney had been wearing a plain blue sweater set, it would have been harder to track down the price info.
Once the shirt’s price was ascertained, there was the predictable hand-wringing over the expense, much like the hyperventilating that went on when Michelle Obama bought a tote or Sarah Palin (without her knowledge, supposedly) wore fancy suits. It seems the American public—or at least the press—becomes enraged when semi-political figures spend a lot of money to appear polished and attractive. And every time that rage gets vented, I think, “Where do these people think we live?”
The United States is a country steeped in excess and displays of consumerism. Our popular culture is all about money and objects and getting and spending. Magazines like US Weekly chronicle celebrity handbag choices with hermeneutic precision. Blockbuster movies cost millions to make, and audiences watch them while eating popcorn and soda they’ve paid minimum wage for. Some people frantically wait online for the first moment they can click to purchase Lady Gaga tickets (a mistress of excess) for hundreds of dollars. Other people sleep in tents like capitalist Occupiers so they can trample someone and get a new iPad when a store first opens. For last night’s Costume Institute Gala at the Met, Vogue editor Anna Wintour insisted not only that all her editors wear pink, but that they take pictures of themselves in their dresses along with the hairstyle options they were considering. In theory, at least, these people are journalists.
American culture does not connote modesty. So why do we expect the most famous people among us—the people at the top of our society’s (lamentably) class-based structure—to dress like “everyone else,” whatever that means? If we have come to accept that Jennifer Aniston walks around with Tom Ford’s $3,990 Flap-Over bag when she goes outdoors, why blame the wife of the President, who’s arguably a bigger celebrity than Aniston, for carrying a $1,000 tote?
I know what you’ll say: The President’s wife—and the (presumptive) opposition candidate’s wife—are supposed to represent the American people, whereas we all know that Jennifer Aniston (and her abdominal section, in particular) does not. Unfortunately, much of what gets written about women in the public sphere revolves around appearance: clothing, handbags, hairstyles and makeup. As long as that’s true of political wives, I’d say the women are entitled—particularly if they can afford it—to buy whatever the hell they like. Michelle Obama wears a lot of clothing from lower-end stores like the Gap and H&M—for which she’s been criticized. Isn’t she entitled to use a fancy tote?
Women married to politicians are treated as celebrities, much as they’d like to be treated as human beings. Michelle Obama has tried to bring gravitas and purpose to her role, but she can’t escape that celebrity-fashion inheritance. After all, one of the New York Times bestsellers right now is a book about the Kennedy years—a presidency that continues to intrigue us, in part, because of Jackie’s pretty suits, pillbox hats and interior decoration skills. If it weren’t for Jackie, would we still care as much?
I can’t imagine why it matters if Ann Romney’s shirt was expensive, unless you’re a Democrat (which I am) looking for talking points (which I’m not). She’s rich, so she bought a fancy shirt. Happens every day. And god only knows what Mitt Romney’s suits cost. Not that anyone’s asking.