Robin Givhan, the Washington Post’s fashion columnist, received this year’s Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Givhan has been at the Post since 1995, except for a six-month tenure as associate editor of Vogue in 2000. In addition to covering fashion, she has covered the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the 2000 presidential campaign, the Academy Awards and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Before joining the Post, she reported for the Detroit Free Press and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Liz Cox Barrett: When you appeared on The Colbert Report on Comedy Central in January, Stephen Colbert observed that Washington, D.C. is “not that fashionable of a town … it’s basically The Gap and Joseph A. Banks,” and he compared being the fashion critic for the Washington Post to “being the dance critic for the Southern Baptist Convention.” How do you describe what you do? What do you set out to do when you sit down to write a column?
Robin Givhan: I think of what I do as writing about the way that people present themselves publicly. My sense of covering the fashion industry is that it’s not limited to what comes down a runway or what some small pocket of trendy kids is wearing. To be honest — I love Stephen Colbert, I think he’s really funny — but I do get frustrated when people say, “How can you cover fashion for the Post?” To me, that’s like someone saying to an auto reporter, “How can you write about the auto industry if you live in Atlanta?”
Also, I tend to feel like the part of the fashion industry that is the runway and $20,000 gowns and the edgiest stuff you might see in a story is such a small, small part of what the industry produces. Sometimes people forget that. Sometimes people forget that the t-shirt they’re wearing was produced by a garment manufacturer, and that is part of fashion. To forget that would be like, to use another auto industry comparison, an auto writer writing only about concept cars.
I sit down to write about the industry and I try to think about it in the broadest possible terms and the way that it affects peoples’ lives.
LCB: You are sometimes asked — by Postreaders, and sometimes by fellow critics or media observers — to apologize for things you’ve written about the style choices of, for example, recently, one-time Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers (“in need of an aesthetic fairy godmother to explain that dark eyeliner can make one look harsh”) and Chief Justice John Roberts’ wife and children (the “honeyed faultlessness,” the “self-consciously-crafted perfection”). Have you ever apologized for anything you’ve written? Do you regret anything you’ve written?
RG: I’ve never apologized for anything I’ve written. I tend to feel very strongly about my opinions. I typically don’t write about some particular image unless I do have a strong reaction to it.
No, I’ve never regretted anything. I would say occasionally, with hindsight, I have seen the reaction people have to a column and I’ve felt like they’re reacting to something that wasn’t in the column at all, or something I think they’ve completely misconstrued and I’ve thought, I wish I could’ve gone back and pounded the point home five times as hard, or something like that — only because I’ve been sort of stunned when people have not gotten it at all.
LCB: Two weeks ago you won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Some have suggested that your work does not merit Pulitzer recognition, either because it’s so “mean-spirited” (to quote one Post chat participant) or because fashion is frivolous and fashion criticism is therefore a less serious pursuit than the criticism of art or literature (to paraphrase a post on the National Books Critics Circle blog). Your thoughts on that?
RG: I find it sort of shocking that someone would say that fashion is frivolous. I mean, why is an industry that produces billions of dollars and employs so many people and affects every single person’s life, why is that so frivolous? There are plenty of things that are produced by the industry that are not practical but I would say that the vast majority of books published are not that well-written or interesting. I find a lot of the reaction to fashion comes from this very old-fashioned idea that it’s somehow the venue of silly women, honestly.