Saturday, May 29, 2010

What we wear matters - a response to Robin Givhan

I promised you that we would discuss Robin Givhan's controversial review of Elena Kagan's style. And so we shall. I'm sure by now you've read it, and read numerous responses, reviews and rehashes of it. If you haven't, maybe start with Fishbowl DC

In a way, it's the reaction that surprises me - this article is precisely what we would expect from Robin Givhan right now. It's what she was hired to do. She wrote a practically identical article about Sonia Sotomayor during her hearings. And although she makes comparison to the "utterly ordinary" style of Samuel Alito and the other male justices in the Kagan piece, there was no article about his fashion choices or body language. She wrote a similarly analytical (although significantly more flattering) essay on Nancy Pelosi when she became Speaker. These are prominent women in Washington and intense scrutiny is the name of the game.

I don't necessarily agree with Givhan - I don't think Kagan's style on the Hill was deliberately drab, nor do I think her appearance is the sole reason for persistent innuendo about her sexual orientation. And Givhan's suggestion that there would be "nothing profoundly inappropriate" about wearing platform stilettos in the halls of Congress other than the fact that it would fly in the face of expectations for a political figure is patently absurd. As if perception didn't matter in politics. Givhan has always had a profound disdain for what Washington considers appropriate to wear in any given situation, on no particular authority other than that she is a fashionista and not a Washingtonian.

But it's tough to blame a fashion critic for being, well, critical about fashion choices, even when she's wrong. ["Bland equals responsible. Matronly equals trustworthy." Please.] I do think Kagan could have made better choices for herself in some areas. Her jackets were too boxy for someone so famously short. Her jewelry, as I've said before, is in serious need of an update. And if you're wearing a skirt, you do need to keep your knees together. It's not like she was at risk of a Britney Spears-style flash, but any recruiter would tell you that body language matters in a job interview. Like it or not, if her look is drawing this much negative attention, there's a problem. And that is where Givhan and I sort of agree. In writing about Nancy Pelosi in 2006, she said this:

Attire is not the sole province of women, but in comparison with men, it remains an area in which they have the greater number of choices, more flexibility, the heavier burden. The public has already settled on the defining characteristics of a powerful man: He wears a dark suit that is well tailored. He pairs it with a crisp white shirt, and if he wishes to underscore his authority, he wears French cuffs. He wears a four-in-hand -- a bow tie if he wants to emphasize his eccentricity. He tries to look dignified and serious. But what does a woman of great power look like?
It's a valid question, and one that still hasn't been figured out. Pelosi has found one way, Condoleezza Rice found another - a way that Givhan clearly prefers, as she seems to spend so many column inches wistfully suggesting a return to that chic sexuality. With an Obama cabinet and administration full of so many prominent women - Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Kathleen Sebelius, if you've been reading carefully, you don't really need another list - we can see that there might be as many ways of dressing a powerful woman as there are powerful women.

People ask me all the time why I write this blog. Am I trying to be funny? Am I trying to be snarky? Do I want Robin Givhan's job? No, none of those. What we wear matters. What we look like communicates a message to our viewer, and women in politics don't need one more reason not to be heard. Bad clothes and sometimes "good" clothes can draw attention that distracts from our words simply because we are women. Making good choices about what we wear will help us get our point across. At least we are getting to a point where people are not just noticing but expressing outrage at the blatant sexism that makes a woman's wardrobe newsworthy in a way that a man's is not.

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