You Are What You Wear

Fashion Writer Robin Givhan poses for photos in the lobby of the main tent during Olympus Fashion Week Fall 2005 at Bryant Park February 7, 2005 in New York City. GETTY

(This program originally aired May 14, 2006)
You'd expect to see stars decked out in a designer's best on the fashion pages of a newspaper, but what about a Secretary of State's ensemble? Or a Vice-President's parka? Or a disgraced lobbyist's attire at trial?

To Robin Givhan, it is all fashion, reports CBS Sunday Morning contributor Erin Moriarty.

"I define fashion very broadly. Probably broader than most people who cover the fashion industry do," Givhan says.

In the 10 years that Givhan has been covering fashion for the Washington Post, you could say she's given the beat a major alteration.

"There are a lot of people who sort of say that something is good or important or progressive or edgy when in fact, it's just crappy. And no one will just say it's crappy," Givhan states bluntly.

But the critic is quick to add, "I'll also say when I think something is absolutely magnificent."

It's honesty that has made Givhan rather unusual in the industry. When she likes a designer, she doesn't hesitate to say it.

But Givhan is just as quick to point out flaws in a designer's work. After watching Michael Kors's new fall collection, she wrote, "we're getting a little bored."

"She has sliced and diced me. She's heralded me and given me OK reviews," Kors says of Givhan.

Yet Kors holds the critic in high esteem: "She makes me sort of step back afterwards and say 'I see her point.' I know where she's coming from."

The world of high fashion wasn't an automatic fit for the writer who grew up in Detroit.

"I was never obsessed with fashion. As a high school kid, I never had a subscription to a fashion magazine," Givhan intimates.

But after graduating from Princeton and the University of Michigan with a masters in journalism, Givhan got a job writing features at the Detroit Free Press.

"The fashion beat was open and I was just overjoyed. I thought, 'Oh, a beat, clothes. I wear clothes. I can write about clothes,'" Givhan recalls.

Givhan writes, she says, for readers a little intimidated by fashion.

"If there is one thing I can do, it would be to convince them that when they get dressed in the morning, they are participating in fashion. That's what it is. Fashion is what you wear and how you want to present yourself to the world," Givhan says.

But it was when Givhan went to work for the Washington Post-in a town more interested in scandals than styles-that she really took the fashion beat to new lengths.

For instance, last year when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Germany to greet troops, it was her fashion statement that got Givhan's attention.

"She's wearing black. That's completely dignified and appropriate. And nothing is too short, nothing is too tight, nothing is too revealing, but she looks really great. She looks stylish," Givhan says of Rice after reviewing a picture of the event.

"She looks sexy. She looks like a woman who's really confident with her body but also with her position. So my whole sense of this was not that it was inappropriate but that it was just so rare," Givhan says.

But she was not nearly as kind to the vice president one month earlier.

Dick Cheney's parka, worn at a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, reminded Givhan of "the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower."

"Here he was wearing something that visually didn't symbolize to me the level of solemnity and respect that I though a service like this demanded," Givhan says.

"He was there, but we all know that it's not just being there. It what you're your being there represents. He was representing the American people. I don't want to be represented by someone in, you know, a parka who looks like he's at a Green Bay Packer game," Givhan quips.

Givhan once decreed that U.N. Ambassador John Bolton's hair was "so poorly cut, it bordered on rude." And she wrote about the attire of lobbyist Jack Abramoff after he pled guilty to fraud and other charges.

Commenting on Abramoff's black trench coat and fedora, Givhan says, "I mean, can you look any guiltier? To me, it looked like a mob boss gone bad."

Givhan freely admits that her column is not merely about fashion, but also a way to comment on society, politics and culture. However, she says, "it's also just another way of pointing out where fashion fits into things."

As one can imagine, Givhan's articles have caused quite a stir.

But when she described the wife and children of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts as resembling "a trio of Easter eggs, a handful of jelly bellies, three little Necco wafers" some readers were outraged and said she went too far.

"One of the great complaints was that I had written about the children and their attire. However, I had made it very clear in the column that the children obviously are innocent," Givhan says. "I mean, they're little kids. What struck me, though, it had this very sort of 1950s nostalgic feeling to it and to me this was sort of history and tradition getting the better of them."

Givhan has been accused of hiding behind fashion to make political attacks, which she denies.

"You know, it's absolutely true and I would agree that many more times Republicans are sort of in the crosshairs. But it's really because I write about people in power and there are an enormous number of Republicans in power," she says.

It is rare for a fashion writer to attract so much attention, even rarer for one to be rewarded for it. So no one was more surprised than Givhan when she won this year's Pulitzer Prize for criticism. She celebrated by going shopping and buying a dress for the awards ceremony later this month.

"Can you believe it? It still astonishes me, absolutely," Givhan says. "As cliché as it sounds, like you know, I pinch myself cause it's really amazing."
  • Sean Alfano

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