Screw The Husbands: What Is Today's Humiliated Wife Wearing?

GMA is concerned about how Jenny Sanford is "coping." Robin Givhan says, just look at the clothes: she's fine! But when we see Ruth Madoff's roots? That analysis is accompanied by Schadenfreude.

Jenny Sanford has not been terribly cooperative with the media. When, we wonder, will we get the confessional, the tearful appearance, the angry tirade we're clearly ready to believe? Since, amazingly, she hasn't felt like doing this in the ten days since her world came crashing down, we're forced to search for clues - the reliable "friends and family" (who seem to think she's okay) and, obviously, the wardrobe. This is tricky, because unlike the tight-lipped spouses who resentfully stand by their men in a comfort armor of pearls and suiting - de facto First Lady Wear - Sanford has continued to dress as she did before the furor, in a relaxed vacation wardrobe that gives nothing away. But aha! According to the Washington Post's Robin Givhan, this is in fact more revealing: There is, she says

"something splendidly defiant in the wardrobe Jenny Sanford, the wife of Gov. Mark Sanford, has been wearing the past few days...when she appeared before the cameras she was dressed like she'd just come in from a leisurely bike ride amid the wildflowers, during which she did not perspire. Mrs. Sanford did not look stern or brokenhearted. Mostly, she seemed about as aggravated as if she'd run out of sunscreen. One photograph has her in white pedal pushers and a blue paisley peasant blouse. In another, she's again wearing white shorts but this time with a coral-colored, flower-print tunic. Another photograph catches her in the kind of loose-fitting paisley tunic one might wear over a swimsuit. She's wearing sunglasses, carrying a large shoulder bag and showing a little thigh. But what's most noticeable is that she's not looking like a constrained — or strained — political wife who uses clothes like a suit of armor. Instead, it's just the opposite. She comes across as a woman set free. Everything about her style is breezy.

The hieroglyphics of a public woman's grooming are complex, the paparrazzi archive is our Rosetta stone. When we feel for her - or are supposed to - a woman's blithe relaxation can be a sign of empowerment and independence. But how about when the shoe's on the other foot? Take the reviled Ruth Madoff. One rarely reads an account of her in which her impeccable presentation is referenced - "carefully groomed," a New York feature calls her, while Madoff's secretary described her as "meticulous." Now, we gleefully read about her gray roots and her demotion to jeans. This deterioration is regarded, not as a sign of a liberation from a charade, but as the cracks in the careful facade. Says New York,

In the public eye, Ruth has come to represent the spoils of her husband's criminal activity: The lifestyle, the furs and jewelry, the fancy hair salon, the clinking glasses at parties, the trips around the world-they all seemed like they were her domain, orchestrated and enjoyed more by her than by the stone-faced, withdrawn Bernie. It didn't matter that Ruth came from modest beginnings; something about the way she carried herself-her highlighted hair, the upturned collar and petite physique-played into the stereotype of the pampered, free-spending wife.

There's similarly little to go on with both women - both have been media-shy, giving terse sentences and avoiding the press, while newshounds depend on guarded, or gleeful, statements from tenuous acquaintances. One is a victim, one an accomplice - or so they are perceived in the popular imagination, whatever the reality of Madoff's situation. Sanford promptly distanced herself from her husband's tax-fueled antics; Ruth has failed to renounce her ill-gotten gains to anyone's satisfaction. The women have nothing in common save an accident of time-frame and a distaste for the public eye. So why are both reduced to their grooming?

Maybe it's because they're both figures who are defined, for us, in relation to their husbands. Weirdly, while Sanford has thrown his wife under the "soul mate" bus, Madoff has done his damndest to keep his wife out of it, whatever her crimes - is part of it our contempt for letting someone protect her? Maybe a part of the collective consciousness feels, unfairly or not, that if we are to accept these women as living on their husband's terms, they have earned this kind of superficial, traditionally feminine scrutiny. Whatever the reason, there's something depressing about it. But here's something that, through all the mishigas, has managed to consistently put a smile on my face: Franni Franken. Franken is obviously not a political wife by vocation; she's a free-spirited woman who dresses like my mom - which is to say, acreatively-tinged boomer. And yet, check her out on the podium when Al spoke to the press about his election: she was in a First Lady costume! A boxy, Chanel-style suit and a scarf, less! It looked completely strange, and unnatural, and yet was unspeakably endearing. Probably because, at the end of the day, it actually had nothing to do with who she is, said nothing about who she is, save that she's new to politics and is trying to match the dress code. She was smiling and laughing and totally unguarded, and as a result, you didn't need to analyze the clothes, any more than you would a man's suit. And that was refreshing.

In Hubby's Time Of Trouble, She Can't Be Bothered [Washington Post]
How is Jenny Sanford coping? [GMA via Politico]
Poor Ruth [New York]
What The Secretary Saw [Vanity Fair]
Daily Show [Min 21]