“And now, being received as a member of the amiable family whose portraits we have sketched in the foregoing pages, it became naturally Rebecca's duty to make herself, as she said, agreeable to her benefactors, and to gain their confidence to the utmost of her power. Who can but admire this quality of gratitude in an unprotected orphan; and, if there entered some degree of selfishness into her calculations, who can say but that her prudence was perfectly justifiable? "I am alone in the world," said the friendless girl. "I have nothing to look for but what my own labour can bring me; and while that little pink-faced chit Amelia, with not half my sense, has ten thousand pounds and an establishment secure, poor Rebecca (and my figure is far better than hers) has only herself and her own wits to trust to. Well, let us see if my wits cannot provide me with an honourable maintenance, and if some day or the other I cannot show Miss Amelia my real superiority over her. Not that I dislike poor Amelia: who can dislike such a harmless, good-natured creature?--only it will be a fine day when I can take my place above her in the world, as why, indeed, should I not?" Thus it was that our little romantic friend formed visions of the future for herself.”
LI does not find it shocking that Sarah Palin’s handlers bought her a campaign wardrobe worth $150,000. Becky Sharp was aware from the moment she set foot in Vanity Fair, or rather, in the household of old Pitt Crawley, that the rules were made for her, here. She began under several disadvantages, and if they had had it back in 1812, she would have come in second in the Miss Alaska contest, too. But Becky knew she had a good figure and the wits to know who to please, who to tease and who to crush.
“With Mr. Crawley Miss Sharp was respectful and obedient. She used to consult him on passages of French which she could not understand, though her mother was a Frenchwoman, and which he would construe to her satisfaction: and, besides giving her his aid in profane literature, he was kind enough to select for her books of a more serious tendency, and address to her much of his conversation. She admired, beyond measure, his speech at the Quashimaboo-Aid Society; took an interest in his pamphlet on malt: was often affected, even to tears, by his discourses of an evening, and would say--"Oh, thank you, sir," with a sigh, and a look up to heaven, that made him occasionally condescend to shake hands with her.”
The newspapers and Slate are just fascinated with the wardrobe. For one thing, it gives newspaper people a chance to play the the bluntnosed working journalist, Walter Matthau in the Front Page, as though they were down to a few undershirts in the apartments they rent - so of the people! So we have Marc Fisher of the WAPO writing:
“I've never been to any of the stores listed in Sarah Palin's shopping spree, so the idea that it's possible to spend $5,000 on a dress, $75,000 at Neiman Marcus and $4,716 on hair and makeup is kind of mind-boggling, especially by someone who who portrays herself as being "just like you." But I'm also startled to read about the $1,500 that Barack Obama spent on a suit and the $528 that John McCain spent on his Ferragamo shoes. I don't expect these folks to shop at Payless, but these extravagances are so far at the other end of the scale as to represent nothing but disdain for the people they claim to understand and represent.”
The idea that Marc Fisher has never been to Neiman Marcus is something I find equally as mindboggling. Or Saks. Has the guy been to NYC? Underneath that astonishment that you can spend $5,000 on a dress, we spy Tartuffe, in the aw shucks, captain American mode.
Becky’s foothold in Vanity Fair comes from a vain old man. Becky knows how to follow a rule with vain old men: feed the amour-propre.
Instead of Marc Fisher, we’d urge LI readers to turn to Roland Barthes. In an article in Annales, vol. 12, 1957, Barthes sketched out a theory of the system of clothing that later served as the basis for his book on the fashion system. We’ve been interested in fashion since having worked, this summer, copyediting captions for the Autumn fashion issue of Texas Monthly. That was merely sticking our petit orteil into the vast ocean of la mode, so to speak, but we are not immune to the frisson of retifism, the poetry of the silhouette, and the scented non-sense of the barkers of hip. We understand the divide here: for fashion is all about a certain aura in which the dollar operates as paraphilia, while to those outside the aura, the dollar is, depressingly, only a dollar, a cipher that accumulates to create another cipher.
Barthes’ idea was that he could use the classic Saussurian pattern – parole, or speech act, vs. langage, or the language system – to analyse clothing choice, or habillement, vs. fashion, or coutume.
“The oppositiong costume/habillement can besides only serve the sociological point of view: in strongly characterizing costume as an institution and in spearated that institution from the concrete and individual acts by which, so to speak, it is realized, we are lead to research and to disengage the social components of costume: age groups, sex, class, degree of culture, locales, as much as clothing remains an empirical fact, essentially submitted to a phenomenological approach: the degree of disorder or dirtiness of a vestment being worn, for example, is a fact of clothing, and has not sociological value, save if the disorder and the dirtiness function as intentional signs … and inversely, a fact which takes up apparently less space, like the differential mark of the vestment of married women and young girls in such and such a socity, is a fact of costume: it has a strong social value.
The fact of clothing is constitued by the personal mode that the wearer adopts (or badly adopts)…
The fact of costume is the proper object of sociological or historical research…
Facts of costume and facts of clothing can seem sometimes to coincide, but it isn’t difficult in each case to re-establish the distinction. The squareness of the shoulders, for example, is a fact of clothing when it corresponds exactly to the anatomy of the wearer, but it is a fact of costume when its dimension is prescribed by the group in the name of facsion. It is evident that there is, between clothing and costume, an incessant movement, a dialectical exchange that one could define a propos langue and parole as a true praxis.”
“Your India muslin and your pink silk, dearest Amelia, are said to become me very well. They are a good deal worn now; but, you know, we poor girls can't afford des fraiches toilettes. Happy, happy you! who have but to drive to St. James's Street, and a dear mother who will give you any thing you ask. Farewell, dearest girl,
Your affectionate Rebecca.
P.S.--I wish you could have seen the faces of the Miss Blackbrooks (Admiral Blackbrook's daughters, my dear), fine young ladies, with dresses from London, when Captain Rawdon selected poor me for a partner!”
Taking Barthes division as a starting point, we can immediately see that the 150,000 dollars is a hotpoint because it crosses the wires, so to speak – habillement, which is “proper” to the hockey mom, is crossed with coutume, which costs a bundle and comes from the female mysteries that are beyond Marc Jacob’s ken. To LI, though, the comedy here begins with the notion that the hocky mom is only clothed in clothes. There is a comic soundtrack, made no doubt by a flute, playing whenever Sarah Palin is around – clothing and costume gets all confused. For, before ideology or party, Palin stands for becoming suddenly famous – for celebrity in its purest state is sudden. It is in this way that I understand her frequent lapses into incoherence – they don’t denote a mind that doesn’t think, but one that is thinking all the time of being famous. And there is nothing more trivial, to celebrity, than meaning.
“And so--guiltless very likely--she was writhing and pushing onward towards what they call "a position in society," and the servants were pointing at her as lost and ruined. So you see Molly, the housemaid, of a morning, watching a spider in the doorpost lay his thread and laboriously crawl up it, until, tired of the sport, she raises her broom and sweeps away the thread and the artificer.”
It is not so much Sarah Palin who is the comedian here, but the “C” level press corps, writing the script. Sarah Palin didn’t direct the buying of the clothes, any more than Cate Blanchett would supervise the design of clothing for some movie she was starring in. In Palin’s case, the movie was high concept. It was hockey mom. Nobody, of course, knows what that means. That is the genius of it. Like Dog Detective. Like any mutt that results from crossing one film with another – Gone with the Wind meeting the Exorcist, perhaps. Of all the money the McCain campaign has wasted, they got good value, at least, for the Palin costume. She wears them well – the reds! The boots! To which she has contributed the signature glasses.
So, Sarah Palin has been cast to play Sarah Palin in the role of a hockey mom, with clothes from Nieman Marcus. If only this were all the movie. But, like many a high concept production, the film has only one gimmick to milk over and over again. The gimmick overshadows logic, motivation, and sense. Logic crumbles before FX, but the FX look used, second hand. The McCain campaign movie is a straight to video product. What I wonder is: what Palin will get out of it. I’m bettin’ on her.