Robin Givhan never planned to write fashion criticism.
“I don’t know of any fashion writer — working for a newspaper, anyway — for whom becoming a fashion writer was their ultimate goal,” she says.
“People who are passionately interested in fashion go directly to fashion magazines.
“My first love was writing and journalism. I wanted to be a newspaper writer. I fell into fashion almost by happenstance.”
Obviously it was more than mere happenstance that led to Givhan winning the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for her fashion coverage in The Washington Post. The award committee cited her “witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism.”
Told by an interviewer that he was in awe of her Pulitzer Prize, Givhan laughs and replies, “I know. I’m in awe of it, too!”
Givhan discusses the nexus of fashion and politics with Time magazine editor-at-large David Von Drehle in When Fashion Meets Power , the sixth and final 2013 presentation in the Library’s series Dateline: Washington with David Von Drehle, which provides an insider’s look at key issues in Washington, D.C., through the eyes of America’s top journalists.
During her years as fashion editor at The Post and in her current position with The Daily Beast and Newsweek, Givhan has frequently generated controversy about the fashion sense exhibited by the political elite.
She criticized then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for an “unnerving” and “startling” outfit: “It was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!”
She took on Vice President Dick Cheney for wearing a heavy, dark-green parka to a ceremony at the Auschwitz concentration camp: “I don’t want to be represented by someone … who looks like he’s at a Green Bay Packers game.”
Perhaps one reason Givhan is on the lookout for horrible fashion is that early in her career she got stuck with reviewing horror movies.
“My first job after grad school was at The Detroit Free Press” — she’s a native of Motor City — “where I ended up in the entertainment section, surrounded by critics. Everyone had a beat, except for me, the youngest person and on the lowest rung of the totem pole. I got the worst assignments, and as a result became an expert in really bad horror movies.”
But a couple of years later, when the paper’s fashion writer became a columnist, Givhan applied to fill the position.
“It wasn't that I knew a lot about fashion. I would have become the religion editor, anything. But I learned that the fashion editor got to travel and cover an interesting industry. Back then I didn't connect fashion to politics.”
That came a few years later when she was hired by The Washington Post, a paper with a long history of excellent fashion criticism.
“The Post had an incredible history of fashion coverage thanks to Nina Hyde, who took it from being about hemlines and color palettes to writing about it as culture. She wrote about the social aspects of it, the way fashions worked for first ladies. She covered the beat as a serious one.”
That Givhan would meld fashion and political coverage seemed inevitable, she said.
“You can’t work at The Washington Post without politics seeping into your head. It’s like osmosis.”
The first story to hammer home the connection between fashion and politics involved Clinton. The first lady testified on Capitol Hill wearing a coat that attracted the attention of the media for the design of a dragon on its back.
“All the news anchors were making reference to her coat, and were dropping dragon-lady references,” Givhan recalls. “So I called Clinton’s office, and her communications person went to the private residence, photographed the dragon on the coat, and sent it to me.
“Here’s the thing: It was a completely abstract design. It had nothing to do with dragons or breathing fire.
“So I wrote a piece about how this coat had become a Rorschach test for Clinton’s critics to see what they wanted to see. It was a really fascinating moment.”
Even male politicians, who are usually locked into a suit-and-tie world, find ways to use fashion to send messages to the public, Givhan notes.
“It says something about how George W. Bush wanted to be perceived that he sometimes wore cowboy boots.”
A few politicians can exhibit a daring fashion sense and get away with it, she said.
“With others there’s a feeling of disconnect, because the clothes seems so out of character with everything else they've ever worn, or out of sync with a particular situation. And sometimes their body language that suggests that ‘I’m so uncomfortable.’”
There’s even a message in the way a suit is tailored. In recent years the silhouette of stylish men’s suits has shifted to a very narrow, almost tight fit.
“When Obama was running for president, people commented on how he had this lean physique and he could carry off one of those fitted suits,” Givhan says.
“But he didn’t wear one because that would have sent the wrong political message. It would have made him look younger than he was, made him look like more of an arugula-loving subversive than some people already thought he was.”
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.