Here’s the thing about Robin Givhan, the WaPo‘s fashion journalist. She frequently writes about fashion in contexts that should make for fascinating readings: the images portrayed by women in power, and how their stylistic choices reflect (or, often, deflect) our expectations of femininity. Sounds right up our alley, no? But here’s the other thing about Givhan: she’s bad at it. To be more precise (and more fair), she’s not bad at writing, and she’s not bad at fashion; she’s just bad at feminism. Sure, I don’t need all reporters in the world to be feminist (but, oh, what a world that would be!), but if your beat consists of analyzing fashion and gender, and you’re not doing it through a feminist lens, you may as well work for Cosmo.
Givhan made herself infamous in the feminist blogosphere by dedicating an entire article to Hillary Clinton’s cleavage and how “unnerving” it supposedly was, during campaign season, natch. (Choice quote: The cleavage, however, is an exceptional kind of flourish. After all, it’s not a matter of what she’s wearing but rather what’s being revealed. It’s tempting to say that the cleavage stirs the same kind of discomfort that might be churned up after spotting Rudy Giuliani with his shirt unbuttoned just a smidge too far. No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!) Now she’s weighing in on Sonia Sotomayor, claiming that for her hearings, Sotomayor chose to eschew femininity altogether. In maddening but typical fashion, she fails to even remotely discuss why Sotomayor might make such a choice, instead dissing her for being stuck in the ’80s — which is so hot right now, unless you’re a lady judge, of course. (See Jezebel for a great comparison of Sotomayor’s look to the “1980s lady power broker” that Givhan claims she’s channeling. Maybe Givhan isn’t that good at fashion after all.)
Whether or not you agree with Givhan’s premise that Sotomayor “embraced that period in fashion when femininity had no place in the executive suite” (for the record, I don’t), you’d think Givhan might at least mention the fact that Sotomayor’s status as a Vagina American has actually been a point of contention and debate in the past few weeks. Givhan sidles up to a gender-based analysis, but then she gets distracted by shiny things or something and doesn’t follow through:
In recent years, it’s been men in Sotomayor’s position, with their hands raised as they promise to tell the truth. In matters of aesthetics they’ve had it easy. They needed only to wear a tidy dark suit with an unstained tie and a crisp dress shirt. A fresh haircut was always a wise move. Meeting these meager requirements has sometimes been a struggle. Still, both Samuel Alito and John Roberts were mostly unremarkable when they appeared before the Judiciary Committee.
Sonia Sotomayor didn’t try to imitate the boys by assembling androgynous ensembles. That would not have gone over at all. Too dark a palette or too sleek a silhouette would have looked too urbane. Too unapproachable. Too minimal. Too suspiciously New York liberal.
Sotomayor avoided wearing clothes so bland that they faded into the background and left her looking dowdy and retiring and like she was trying to remake herself into something she is not. Based on her résumé and her life story, “flat” and “dull” are not adjectives that could accurately be applied to the “wise Latina.” So she was not a blur in beige.
Gosh, why do you think men wouldn’t bother doing more than getting a haircut and a dry cleaning before appearing before the Senate (and the nation)? It’s almost like they are evaluated on their accomplishments and qualifications instead of on their color palettes. I guess they’re just lucky!
I can’t believe that Givhan has the nerve to refer to the “wise Latina” comment — which has been widely mocked by white men (who, of course, are Neutral Humans) as a sign of being uppity — in the context of how neutral Sotomayor decided to dress, without even a hint of irony. It’s as though she has no idea that Sotomayor might have a vested interest in appearing nonthreatening to the white men who have been trying to get her to admit she’s some kind of pity nominee. Givhan writes that Sotomayor’s fashion projects the following statement: “I am palatable. I am familiar. And in addition to my ethnicity, I also know how to leave my gender at the door.” AND THEN THE ARTICLE ENDS. Because, I guess, there’s nothing interesting to say about being required to “leave” your ethnicity and gender at the door to the Supreme Court.
For a journalist who writes about fashion in politics, Givhan seems to miss the main point of her own work: fashion is political. Can you imagine the uproar if Sotomayor, a fat (or at least not thin)*, middle-aged Latina, actually showed up at the confirmation hearings in the sheath dresses and bare legs** that Givhan recommends? The powers that be in fashion may have announced that “Strength, femininity and fashion can coexist in the boardroom as well as on Capitol Hill,” but I’m pretty sure that these guys didn’t get the fucking memo.
*ETA: I am actually not sure at all if Sotomayor is fat or “Hollywood fat,” but her body shape is still not one we would see in a lot of the fashion magazines that apparently should dictate her every move.
**IIRC, the Bush White House required women to wear pantyhose to work (though I can’t find a link for that at the moment).