Robin Givhan on Responding to Critics, Cheney’s Parka and Tony Snow’s Style

The Washington Post fashion critic and Pulitzer winner discusses why fashion matters and how many of her critics simply miss the point.

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.

The idea that fashion is somehow more frivolous than sports or more frivolous than cars or music or paintings, that just shows an incredible level of bias and misunderstanding of what the fashion business is all about. Some of it is the responsibility of the fashion industry for presenting itself in such a way that people respond that way, part of it is the industry’s fault for creating this sense that fashion is this rarified world, this tiny group of people, all size 0.

I would argue that is focused on one tiny part of the industry. If there’s anything I’d love to be able to convince people of it’s that every time you make a decision about what to wear in the morning, that is part of what fashion is. It’s no more complicated than that.

LCB: And the “mean-spirited” stuff?

RG: I don’t think that I’m mean-spirited. I think certainly I’ve been critical and that’s part of what I do. There are people who don’t like my work, so all I can do is continue to write and maybe they’ll change their mind.

LCB: In January 2005, you wrote a column about Vice President Cheney wearing a parka and ski cap (which you called “the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower”) at an event in Poland marking the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. You wrote that Cheney’s outfit “had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that he was more concerned with his own comfort than the reason for braving the cold at all.”

The Post’s ombudsman at the time, Michael Getler, wrote that he thought you should have called Cheney’s office to ask why he was wearing that particular outfit. How much reporting do you typically do? Should you do more, as Getler seemed to suggest?

RG: As I said to Getler, when I’m looking at images like that, so much of it is based on the idea that this is how a particular ensemble is received, not the intention of the wearer. I think that is a valid kind of story, about someone’s personal style, but that is a very different kind of story from the one that talks about the way the clothes are received, the way people react and the emotions.

[As for reporting], it depends on the story. I feel like I do the amount of reporting that’s necessary to be able to comment and write a thoughtful column about it.

LCB: In addition to writing about the style choices of public figures in D.C., you also — as fashion editor — attend the runway shows and critique designers’ collections. In your experience, who has thicker skin as far as criticism goes, your average D.C. luminary or your average fashion designer?

RG: The average fashion designer. For them, it’s the labor of some degree of love and passion. I respect the creativity that goes into it, the incredible work — and money — that goes into putting together those runway collections.

I think readers tend to react most vigorously when [I criticize] a specific public official as opposed to the clothes on a runway. You could write practically anything about a runway collection and people wouldn’t get themselves riled up about it, because I think they have a very strange relationship with fashion — the idea of the runway, it tends to feel like it’s not connected to them and their first reaction no matter what is to kind of dismiss it, “Who’s going to wear that?” I’m much more gratified when I write about the runway and someone says, “Oh, you really helped me understand what was going on there.” I have no vested interest in whether they love it or hate it. Definitely readers react most vigorously to the [columns about] public officials. I found they typically respond in a partisan way.

LCB: How so?

RG: I find that there’s a lot of score-keeping and political paranoia. If I write two critical columns about a Republican, it’s immediately noted that I must have an anti-Republican agenda. Those who complain, however, seem to have conveniently forgotten that I’ve also been critical of Democrats. I connect fashion and politics, but a lot of my critics believe that the connection is between fashion and Republicans. There have been more columns about politicians who are Republican or conservative, but that is only because Republicans are the party in power. If the administration was led by a Democrat, then I’m sure there would be more columns about a Democrat vice president, secretary of state and non-conservative judicial nominees. And I suspect that those columns would be no less pointed or critical.

LCB: On Wednesday, Bush named Fox News’ Tony Snow as the new White House press secretary. Your quick assessment of Snow’s “look” or style? What about outgoing press secretary Scott McClellan?

RG: From what I’ve seen, he seems like a slick, very crisp, sharp dresser. Watching him stand there on one side of Bush with Scott McClellan on the other, it looks like “before” and “after.”

LCB: And McClellan’s style?

RG: You now, I haven’t watched him that closely, but I’ve sort of had the sense he looked a bit like, “If only I’d had 20 more minutes to get dressed, the jacket would fit a little better, the shirt collar would fit a little bit better.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.