Today the Washington Post’s fashion critic is in Milan covering the spring fashion shows; tomorrow she might feel inclined to undress a vice president—figuratively, at least.
Her beat includes occasionally exposing what the clothes worn by the powerful reveal about who they are and what they think.
Robin Givhan is used to receiving hostile e-mails after she dresses down a politician or Cabinet secretary in her Post column, but a complaint about her story on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito sent her over the edge.
The complaint didn’t center on Givhan’s describing the fabric of the suit Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann, wore to her husband’s Senate hearings as looking like “upholstery that once covered La-Z-Boys.” Or that her brooch “resembled nothing more closely than a half-peeled banana.”
The e-mail attacked Givhan for describing a group Alito joined, Concerned Alumni of Princeton, as “an organization notable for its displeasure over the admittance of women and minorities.”
Says Givhan: “I went to Princeton. I was there in the ’80s. I know all about that group.
“It bothers me that people read evil motives into my columns,” she says. “They can be so partisan, so malicious, as if I have some complicated agenda. I don’t have time to come up with a complicated agenda.
“I think I am equal opportunity.”
Last week she declared Dick Cheney’s pink neckwear the new power tie.
Givhan has carved her niche as a journalist who turns the attire of the powerful into social, political, and cultural commentary. She thinks Cheney’s parka and Condi Rice’s boots reveal more about them than just their sense of style.
“There’s this ridiculous taboo about talking about people’s clothing,” she says. “Most of the time I am just acknowledging the obvious. People say it’s so shallow that it doesn’t matter. It does.”
We are in a Japanese restaurant on New York’s West Side. Givhan lives nearby in a co-op on Broadway with Ruby, her West Highland terrier. A native of Detroit, she came to the Post in 1995 and moved to Manhattan in 2000 to cover the fashion industry. The Post is one of the few newspapers outside New York to assign a reporter to the beat, which takes her to Milan and Paris twice a year.
Givhan loves covering fashion because of “its reckless creativity at the same time it is pure, unadulterated commerce.” Readers love Givhan, or don’t, when she decodes the politics of clothing.
Her take on Vice President Cheney at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz last January: “Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name.”
Says Givhan, “Imagine you are burying your mother, and a friend shows up in a Bozo suit.”
When Condoleezza Rice took her first diplomatic trip to Europe, Givhan wrote: “Rice’s coat and boots speak of sex and power—such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal.”
For which one reader accused Givhan—who is African-American—of racism.
But the piece that really riled readers was her essay about Supreme Court nominee John Roberts’s appearance with his family at the White House last summer when President Bush announced his nomination: “His wife and children stood before the cameras, groomed and glossy in pastel hues—like a trio of Easter eggs, a handful of Jelly Bellies, three little Necco wafers.”
Children are out of bounds, readers complained. Givhan says kids are fair game “when their parents dress them as if they were props.”
Does Givhan enjoy the strong reactions? She giggles: “Of course. I take delight in my sense that I’m right. I know that a lot of people are going to disagree with me.”
Givhan is dressed this evening in sensible brown sweater and skirt and sensible oxford shoes with a low heel. But she fancies high heels by Prada and Christian Louboutin. And suits by Belgian designer Dries Van Noten. And dresses by Marni, her favorite Italian designer.
“Lately,” she says, “I’ve been really into dresses.”
The competition to dress for fashion shows is intense. One day another writer approached her near the runway and asked, “What are you wearing?
“Gap,” she responded. “I work for a newspaper.”
Givhan’s first fashion essay in DC skewered Washington women for wearing running shoes to work and made her a pariah to some.
Now she says, “Washington women never struck me as dowdy. Part of the problem with Washington women is that they compare themselves to New York women.
“New York women don’t compare themselves to anyone else but New York women. The fashion industry is here. The marketing industry. If you’re not fashion-conscious and pulled-together here, where else?” she asks.
“Washington women,” she says, “are more interesting to talk to—and they know it.”
And they know not to wear running shoes to work.