Elena Kagan's "Dowdiness" And Fashion's Seriousness Problem

Another major staging of political theater, another opportunity for the Washington Post's Robin Givhan to offend with her fashion close readings. This weekend: Elena Kagan. Bonus: Givhan's existential angst about why "serious" people — especially in Washington — hate fashion.

There's been a lot of outrage, in our inbox and elsewhere, about Givhan's scrutiny of Kagan. The freshest observation in the piece appears to be the two paragraphs where she notes that Kagan doesn't cross her legs the way other women in Washington do. Look! I found a photo of Kagan crossing her legs. Maybe she isn't a lesbian after all. Again.

Still, I find it difficult to get exercised over it given Givhan's history, from Dick Cheney's parka to John Roberts' kids to Sotomayor's jackets. Does she scrutinize women differently from men? Probably, but that's also because her approach is to talk about what these images mean in a social context, and those differ for men and women. The trouble is, sometimes there just isn't that much to say — as in this piece, which basically says that Kagan dresses like everyone in D.C., on the dowdier end of the spectrum — and it turns into a meta-critique.

For example: "Tied up in the assessment of style — Kagan's or anyone else's — is the awkward, fumbling attempt to suss out precisely who a person is." That's more or less Givhan's modus operandi. And then there are the almost self-parodic, zen-like lines: "Is it so wrong to lean on cliches for guidance? Well, yes. And, also, no."

So yes, this article is more about Givhan than it is about Kagan, and about the self-loathing and other-loathing and ennui that must come with being a fashion reporter writing about our nation's capital. Givhan, whom I once interviewed for a piece not online, worked at Vogue briefly but then returned to The Washington Post where she could stand slightly outside both the fashion industry and the beltway. But she is decidedly ambivalent about it:

Looking drab has its advantages for both men and women in the nation's capital because it insulates them from accusations of superficiality — a sure-fire political career killer. And as a society, we still cling to certain cliches about absent-minded professors whose brilliance is only matched by their just-rolled-out-of-bed appearance. We connect brains with bad clothes....If cities such as Los Angeles and New York are obsessed with appearing younger, Washington is the rare place where looking older seems woven into the official dress code.

It was once my professional obligation (as a reporter for Women's Wear Daily) to walk around a high-profile inauguration party and ask people whether they thought the capital was going to be more fashionable with the arrival of the Obamas. On the one hand, I knew this was a stupid question. On the other, it was my job. And while fashion was always an incidental beat for me, it had to be admitted that even people who would be called socialites in Washington D.C. dressed really, really badly. And seemed rather self-regarding about it to boot.

That night, David Brooks bragged to me that he was probably the only one in the room who had been to the men's collections in Milan. He was, perhaps as a result, rather self-aware about D.C. fashion, such as it was.

"I dress the way we all dress - pathetically," he said. "That's what you do if you want to be taken seriously here. And we're not that good looking. We're kind of dumpy."

I didn't have a problem with this per se. Let New York and Los Angeles and anywhere else obsess over every contour and seam. Then again, I wasn't fond of being condescended to by people who assumed that because I worked at a fashion newspaper I was an idiot or that I couldn't be a feminist, or who mocked the offensive girliness of a friend in politics, especially when I sent her a care package of gift-bag cosmetics and a yoga DVD to get through a campaign.

But it would be easier to sympathize with the fashion crew if they didn't sound so Mean Girls in their enforcement — no sweatpants on Fridays, no Ann Taylor suits when you have a lot of other shit to worry about and also don't really care. Do I wish every time I go to D.C. that more people, men and women, wore clothes that properly fit them, and didn't smugly wear their dowdiness like a badge of honor? Sure. But I would hate for it to be my job to try to make it otherwise.

Elena Kagan Goes On Supreme Court Confirmation Offensive In Drab D.C. Clothes [WP]
Related: Capitol Gains [WWD]

Earlier: Friends, Peers Testify That Elena Kagan Is Not A Lesbian
Memo To Fashion: Leave Hillary Clinton Alone