There two types of fashion writers: Those who unabashedly delight in fashion because they wholly and sincerely, as the sagelike Amy Astley once put it, "love clothes" — and fashion writers hired by the newspapers of record. The latter types are not really supposed to unabashedly "love clothes" but offer highfalutin intellectual opinions on them, and at the same time, attend to the soul-crushing business of being the fattest person at every party they attend, with the possible exception of Andre Leon Talley.
Meet Robin Givhan and Cathy Horyn. Horyn used to cover fashion for the Washington Post until 1995, when she left and was replaced by Givhan. Horyn now works for the New York Times, where she has written around a dozen stories about the DJ trio Misshapes and watched her old successor win a Pulitzer Prize. Anyway, in Sunday's Times — in the Week In Review section, no less — Horyn, without naming names, took a big swipe at Givhan's careful attention to the sartorial decisions of politicians and public figures.
First, Horyn got general.
There is a danger in reading too much into the fashion choices of a person, particularly a public figure. Namely, you can be wrong.
Then, she got personal.
Two years ago, a Washington Post critic castigated John Roberts and his wife, Jane, for dressing their two young children in "nostalgic costuming" when he was nominated to the Supreme Court and awaiting confirmation. The suggestion was that the Robertses were using their children's outfits to create an image of an idealized family. But to believe that is to believe that millions of American parents are abusing their kids every Sunday with seersucker and Mary Janes.
There are a couple of curious things about this assertion. For one, in the first two years of the Clinton presidency, when Horyn had Givhan's job, the terms "Cathy Horyn" and "Hillary Clinton" showed up in 30 separate pieces in the Washington Post. Pot, meet Prada bag!
Secondly, those Roberts kids really did look like little twerps in those clothes! Saddle shoes? Our parents dressed us like that, and if they hadn't, we probably wouldn't be so damaged now.
And lastly, Givhan — who smartly equated fashion with sports ("you don't need either, but both are billion dollar businesses") — is generally right.
Here's her take on Katherine Harris, in the wake of the 2000 election:
By the time perplexed Americans got another gander of her, she was suited up for business. Her cascade of auburn hair did a lazy Veronica Lake dip over one eye. Her lips were overdrawn with berry-red lipstick—the creamy sort that smears all over a coffee cup and leaves smudges on shirt collars. Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls in need of a skim coat. And her eyes, rimmed in liner and frosted with blue shadow, bore the telltale homogenous spikes of false eyelashes. Caterpillars seemed to rise and fall with every bat of her eyelid, with every downward glance to double-check—before reading—her most recent "determination."
And on Condi Rice during a trip to Germany in 2005:
Rice boldly eschewed the typical fare chosen by powerful American women on the world stage. She was not wearing a bland suit with a loose-fitting skirt and short boxy jacket with a pair of sensible pumps. She did not cloak her power in photogenic hues, a feminine brooch and a non-threatening aesthetic. Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame "Matrix" jump kick if necessary. Who wouldn't give her ensemble a double take — all the while hoping not to rub her the wrong way?
Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power — such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix!
Whereas Cathy Horyn is often just wrong:
In the "Week In Review" piece:
In a crisis, fashion produces a crisis of its own, and I can imagine how someone, riveted by the simple-mindedness of a fashion faux pas, might — oops! — overlook the fact that maybe the seamen were in the wrong place when the Iranians detained them.
(Didn't we, like, settle this already?)
And here, from the Times' T Style Magazine in February:
As a college student in the late '70s, I bought Yves Saint Laurent, not much, maybe, but certainly I never felt harassed by the idea that my income (actually, at the time, my allowance supplemented by odd jobs) was a serious impediment to owning good clothes. Where there was a will, there was a way.
So yeah: The point is that you can puke now. Where there is a will and a trust fund, there is a way for us to not take you seriously! Also? We heart Robin Givhan.
What They Wore To The Post-Revolution [New York Times]