The Politics of Fashion
Fashion is for everyone, not just designers and divas, says Robin Givhan (M.A. ’88), the high-profile fashion editor of the Washington Post, who recently left to join Newsweek andThe Daily Beast.
“Unless you plan to go naked, the fashion industry is relevant to you,” says Givhan, whose witty commentary on fashion as cultural anthropology earned her the first Pulitzer Prize for fashion in 2006. “Every time you say, ‘What am I going to wear today?’ you’re participating in the fashion industry. When you go into Target, remember that someone has designed those clothes. Now more than ever, fashion is democratized. To say the industry is frivolous is like saying the auto industry is irrelevant.”
At the Post, Givhan, a Detroit native, covered the news, trends, and business of the international fashion industry and wrote a weekly culture column. But her incisive analysis of fashion and the messages it sends about culture, power, and politics has put her in a class by herself.
Her work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, American Vogue, Essence, the New Yorker, and she has contributed to several books including Runway Madness (Chronicle Books),No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers (Verso) and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers (Harper).
Her already high profile increased in 2009 when she began covering Michelle Obama and the cultural and social shifts created by the first African American family in the White House. She is the author of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady (Triumph Books), a joint project with the Washington Post.
As a style and culture correspondent for the newly merged Newsweek and The Daily Beast, Givhan plans to cast her observant eye beyond fashion to include film and possibly television. Her unexpected departure from the Post in December caught Washington fashionistas off-guard, but will mean she can expand her reach beyond the nation’s capital.
In her debut column for The Daily Beast in January, Givhan focused again on the first lady, noting the symbolism of her savvy choice of an Alexander McQueen gown for the Jan. 19 state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao.
“The red petal print, silk organza gown wasn’t so much an act of diplomacy as a broad statement about the new realities of the fashion industry,” she wrote. “In choosing a dress from Alexander McQueen, Mrs. Obama championed the cause of artisan design, the legacy of bespoke tailoring, and the staggering creativity that can be nurtured in the frock trade when it is at its best. … And in wearing the gown to honor China, a country that many view with disdain for its abundance of cheap labor, counterfeit products, and poor labor practices, Mrs. Obama seemed to be recognizing the country’s inevitable place in the fashion cycle and giving it its due. Indeed, Chinese consumers represent a vast new marketplace for designer companies, and the production quality of its factories continues to improve.”
Tall and slender with long, dark hair, elegant posture, and a dry wit, Givhan is a major figure in the fashion world and admits to a weakness for high heels and sparkly things. But she is not afraid to be blunt or criticize power brokers in the nation’s capital, including the first lady.
“People tend to be overly diplomatic,” she says. “If you praise everything your opinion isn’t worth anything. I try not to be personal. It’s based on my perception.”
In August 2009, she criticized Michelle Obama for wearing shorts coming off Air Force One, while on a family vacation. “Avoiding the appearance of queenly behavior is politically wise. But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common,” Givhan wrote.
After the 2010 mid-term elections, Givhan observed that the victors, who railed against career politicians, donned red ties and safe sheaths for their victory speeches, just like the people they had just unseated. “Why didn’t a single one of these Everyman pols seize the symbolism and greet supporters in a Carhartt jacket and Red Wing boots?” she wrote.
Although many people don’t associate the word “fashion” with Washington, Givhan says it’s fertile turf for a fashion writer. In October, she delivered the Vivian R. Shaw Lecture at U-M on The Washington Catwalk, analyzing the convergence of fashion, power, and politics in the nation's capitol.
“For all the downplaying of fashion in Washington, it’s a city obsessed with appearances, second only to Hollywood,” she says. “Campaigns are so much stagecraft and costuming. Male candidates take off their suits and ties and then they can’t figure out what to do. When they roll up their sleeves it means I’m going to speak earnestly to you.”
She was the first journalist to slam former Vice President Dick Cheney for appearing in a parka and a ski cap at a 2005 ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
The column was picked up by media all over the country. Cheney did not respond.
“It was the most outrageous thing,” she recalls. “If clothes don’t matter, why do people have an interview suit, a bridal gown, and a funeral suit?” she says. “Clothes are symbolic of the importance we give to an occasion. A clown suit at a funeral would make a mockery of the occasion.”
She created an uproar when she criticized Hillary Clinton’s cleavage-revealing neckline during a July 2007 speech on the Senate floor as “unnerving” and “startling” for a woman “who has been so publicly ambivalent about style, image, and the burdens of both.…It was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!”
“Fashion does not happen in a vacuum,” she says. “It’s about how people live their lives and what messages they want to send.”
Givhan praised the message of dignity that civil rights activist Dorothy Height sent with her wardrobe when she died in April at the age of 98. “She found—and maintained—a style that served her well when she was marching on the Mall for equality, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and using her quiet elegance as a counter-argument to society’s perception that in so many fundamental ways she, as a stand-in for all black women, was not worthy.”
Givhan didn’t plan a career in fashion. She grew up on Detroit’s northwest side, the only child of Robert, a postal service manager, and Stella, who managed after school programs for the YMCA. She was the 1982 valedictorian at Detroit Renaissance High School and majored in English at Princeton University. After graduating in 1986, she briefly considered law school. But at her mother’s suggestion, she pursued writing and earned a master’s in journalism from U-M in 1988.
Her first reporting job was at the Detroit Free Press in 1988, covering nightlife and the emerging techno music scene. When a spot on the fashion team opened up, she was assigned to cover menswear.
In 1995, at a friend’s suggestion, she applied for the fashion editor’s job at the Post. She was hired and quickly began transforming fashion coverage into cultural and political commentary. Her second story for the Post took on the controversy surrounding entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford’s use of sweatshop workers for her clothing line.
“I talked about the connections between our expectations for cheap clothes and the pressure it puts on sweatshop workers,” she recalls. “The story went over really well. It let people know I wasn’t going to just write about trends.”
Her first foray into the nexus of power, fashion, and politics was a column about Washington lawyer and Clinton administration advisor Vernon Jordan, who testified at a hearing on Capitol Hill in the late 1990s.
“His suits fit just so, he wore a fedora with an overcoat,” she recalls. “It was a statement that, ‘I am the only black man, the best dressed and the most powerful in the room.’ The piece got a lot of reaction. Jordan told me it struck a chord with him.”
In 2006, her insightful commentary, including the column on Cheney, earned her the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor. She was the first fashion writer to win. “I was blown away,” she says. “The nicest thing was that I heard from fashion editors all over the country who said ‘this is for all of us.’”
When Michelle Obama became the nation’s first African American first lady in 2009, Givhan began covering her fulltime, a chance to witness history up close. Although Givhan and Obama were both at Princeton in the early 1980s, they did not meet until Obama moved to the White House. Givhan applauds Obama's savvy choice of young American designers and small business owners such as Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu.
“I should have a button on my keyboard for the word ‘first’ to cover her,” she says. “Everything she does is a first. She is a mother, lawyer, fashion sophisticate and the first lady. There are a lot of topics there to unpack.”
Although Givhan moves in high fashion circles, covering shows in New York, Milan, and Paris, she says she is not one for trends and looks at fashion magazines for suggestions rather than edicts. Her favorite colors are yellow, olive, gold, and black.
“Dressing well is just good manners,” she says. “If you keep that in mind as a guiding philosophy, you won’t be intimidated. Women feel overwhelmed by choices, but they are an incredible gift. Embrace it and be playful!”