Robin Givhan finds the political side of fashion

hen Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan recently wrote, “This is a visual culture, after all. There is a tendency to remember how things looked before recalling precisely what was said,” she placed fashion at the center of the individual and the collective conscience.

A citizen of the international world of couture and a product of Detroit’s Renaissance High School, Givhan’s pronouncements on fashion are augmented with commentary on the larger implications of the images they project. So much so that in 2006, she became the first fashion writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism “for her witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism.”

Givhan says a high school teacher handed her a copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and her love for the power of words intensified into a calling. “Renni’s” 1982 valedictorian followed her love for decoding well-spun words to the Ivy League, earning an English degree from Princeton. She credits this liberal arts exposure – and her master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan – with providing her both wide-ranging cultural context and the confidence to express it. Now three years into her second stint at the Post, she’s crafted a career that includes working at Vogue, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and the Detroit Free Press.

One of the very few African-Americans seated in the prestigious front rows during fashion weeks in cities like New York and Paris, the view from that vantage point allows Givhan to look beyond the drape and fabrication of garments. From there, she explores the symbolism behind the carefully orchestrated imagery of personal appearance – whether in Milan, Hollywood or in official Washington.

“I was trying to figure out why a public figure made you do a double take. I began to notice that when politicians go to a union hall or factory floor, they roll up their shirt sleeves. I started to ask myself what that really meant,” Givhan says.

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So perhaps Michelle Obama was not surprised in 2009 to read Givhan’s column in which she famously scolded the then-first lady for disembarking from Air Force One wearing “play shorts.” The concern: Trying “so hard to be average that she winds up looking common.” Givhan then summed up her worldview on the all-encompassing role that the selection and donning of clothing actually plays, adding, “Fashion can be an indispensable tool for delivering a message.”

On this point, Obama generally wins Givhan’s praise as the first contemporary first lady whose fashion choices mattered.

“What she represented on the world stage and how she used fashion to define herself and to clarify her message, it was very particular to her and journalistically very intriguing,” Givhan says, adding that the end of the Obama era brings “closure on a particular chapter of fashion history.”

She then challenged the fashion industry to play an active role in writing that next chapter.

Dressing the first lady for Inauguration Day is certainly a designer’s dream, but this time, the fashion critic called upon designers to consider the morality of supporting the Trump women and helping to create images that empower the wearer. The then-president elect, she wrote, “ran a campaign that framed immigrants, minorities, women and Muslims as ‘other,’ inspiring new waves of racism and violence,” and so, “Whether to associate with him has become a moral question.”

Givhan next armed designers with an argument to take on the moral battle, writing, “Protest that grows out of a desire to make the country better, to push it to live up to its ideals, is surely a form of patriotism.”

In advocating for morality over commerce, she once again elevated the role of fashion critic to one of word warrior – writing about that which is truly beautiful.

“I feel I’ve done my job when readers say they’re not interested in fashion, but they find my articles compelling – when the story goes beyond their predisposed notion of what fashion is.”

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