For women in politics, the campaign trail is a catwalk

 

Irish female politicians will view Sarah Palin's wardrobe budget with envy, writes Catherine Cleary

SO THE DEVIL does wear Prada. And the jokes keep rolling. When news broke of Sarah Palin's $150,000 (€119,588) campaign wardrobe this week the glee was palpable. She's more Carrie Bradshaw than Plumber Josephine. Not only does the pitbull wear expertly-applied lipstick, she teams it with a Valentino jacket, pencil skirt and a Louis Vuitton bag.

The story about the controversial Republican vice-presidential candidate proved what Irish women politicians have known since Mary Robinson swapped frizzy hair and polo-necks for Louise Kennedy and glossy cuts. Although male politicians can get away with a suit they could have slept in, a woman TD or minister caught in a cardigan or dodgy hairdo is at best a news story and at worst political roadkill.

Palin's mistake was pulling a Paris Hilton in the middle of a credit crunch and doing it with campaign dollars. Why, as one commentator suggested on Politico.com, the website that broke the story, could she not have spent $20,000 on clothes and a little bit more on a dry cleaning account?

In Leinster House it is well known that shrieks of "what is she wearing or what has she done to her hair?" may drown out the first words out of the woman politician's mouth during a television appearance. Concerned constituents may even write in, like the pensioner worried about Labour's Joan Burton five years ago when she stood on the plinth in a November gale responding to the budget of the day.

The letter urged the Labour finance spokesman to invest in a good coat before she caught her death of cold. Her good Budget Day coat is now top of Burton's annual shopping list. Unlike Palin, female members of the Oireachtas spend their own money in the country's department stores and boutiques.

A spokesman for Minister for Health Mary Harney said cabinet members get no payment for clothes, whether for official or private functions. "They pay for their own clothes."

Yet this has not stopped an apparent public appetite for fashion stories from the Dáil. Earlier this month Mary Harney was snapped by a press photographer through a hairdresser's window. The photograph of the wet-haired Minister draped in a towel which appeared in the Irish Daily Mail was swiftly followed by an official complaint to the newspaper.

During the summer, much comment followed Tánaiste Mary Coughlan's journey out of marshmallow-pink suits and fluffy hair into a slimmer politician in chic suits and a blonde power bob.

The President, Mary McAleese, is the only politician with a wardrobe allowance. Her official wardrobe is funded from an annual budget of €317,000 which, according to a spokeswoman, also pays for refreshments at Áras events and accommodation costs for the President within the State. "It is not possible to provide a breakdown for these individual elements," the spokeswoman said. The mother of political makeovers was Mary Robinson. Her adviser Bride Rosney remembered her taking a conscious decision to do something with her image before running for the Presidency 18 years ago. It was a Faustian pact. "It became the norm both for her and the electorate to take an interest in what she wore," according to Rosney. A media obsession developed and Rosney was regularly asked for a wardrobe run-down along with a foreign trip itinerary.

Robinson "hated it", Rosney has said. "She used to really enjoy the jeans and sweater days when she had no public commitments."

The pressure on women politicians has intensified since then, according to Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin. Now there can be no slipping to the shops in a tracksuit for milk. "You're always in the public eye so you never have a dress-down day," she says. "And then there's the influence of TV. People will say 'oh, that was a lovely jacket on you'. It's a very visual world and a woman politician always has to look well."

Irish fashion designer Deborah Veale, who has dressed a number of politicians, believes the biggest fear women politicians have is a "wardrobe malfunction" when the cameras are there to record it. "They have to feel secure. They're going out to work and want to know they look their best and then be able to forget about it."

Women politicians use clothes to bolster their confidence on a tough day like the rest of us, she says. "You can tell when a woman feels that they look their best. And it's not about looking like a man. Tailoring is really important. Coming in wearing a cardie is really not going to cut it," Veale says. "There's real life and there's life through the lens of a camera. Life through the lens of a camera is very cruel."

There are some advantages to the double standards. "When you're in the Dáil it's a sea of grey," Joan Burton says. "Revolutionary male dressers like Ruairi Quinn might wear a brightly coloured tie but that's about it. So if you wear bright colours in the chamber you tend to stand out."

THE DOWNSIDES ARE THE "brutal lighting" in the Dáil chamber that "can make you look like a wanted poster", Bruton says. And she points out this may have been the reason Bertie Ahern invested so heavily in makeup in the last years of his term as taoiseach.

The only Irish challenger to Palin as far as publicly-funded vanity goes is the former taoiseach. Ahern outstripped all his female colleagues, racking up more than €85,000 in makeup bills in four years. During the controversy in the Dáil he was referred to as the L'Oreal Taoiseach, "because he's worth it".