Robin Givhan joined the Washington Post in 1995, covering the news and trends of the international fashion industry and writing a weekly culture column. Her work has also appeared in publications including Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Essence, and The New Yorker. She received a BA in English from Princeton University and an MS in Journalism from the University of Michigan. From 2009-2010, she wrote about Michelle Obama and the sociocultural shifts accompanying the Obama family’s entrance into the White House. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2006.
The Politic: What drew you to fashion as a particular beat?
Robin Givhan: I really fell into it. If there was anything that initially attracted me to it, it was probably its sense of breadth. It’s an international industry. And it seemed like an industry that really aimed to bring pleasure to people. What’s kept me covering it was my realization that it’s a rich place to explore human nature. You get a sense of how people see themselves, how they long to be seen by other people.
The tone of your writing can be, in a phrase, uncompromisingly straightforward. Frankness is valuable in writing, but those who may take issue with your work could construe that frankness as tactlessness. Is “uncompromisingly straightforward” an accurate assessment of your tone?
Yeah. I try to be straightforward and I do that because I want people to be able to accurately understand what I’m saying. Since I’m writing about an industry that, for a lot of people, feels foreign to them, I try to write in a way that allows them entry into this world. That means not using a lot of jargon. My average reader doesn’t know what soutache embroidery is. It’s more reasonable to just describe it. So yeah, I think I’m relatively blunt.
You’ve said that you don’t write to uplift. Could you clarify that idea?
When we get into this idea that part of our job is to advocate or champion, then you’re getting into a gray area of what it means to be a journalist. As a critic and a columnist, I have opinions and the license to focus attention on matters I believe have been overlooked. But I never feel like I’m an advocate of something. That means you’ve relinquished some of your journalistic capacity to be critical.
How has your identity as a black woman informed your journalistic work?
It allows me to bring a particular kind of nuance and see stories that may go missing, not intentionally necessarily, but because someone’s vision doesn’t include that world. Most people go home to rather unintegrated lives. Lifestyle and culture stories can come out of an experience you had some Saturday afternoon or an event that you stumbled upon on a Friday evening. Diversity in downtime—the unofficial stuff that doesn’t show up in data—is important. You need a diverse newspaper staff to find these things. I like to think that all the things I am help me to find those stories.
One can say that purpose of journalistic reporting for a reader lies in the illumination of facts and information. Reported stories communicate messages and realities to audiences that, ideally, benefit from possessing that knowledge. In your mind, does criticism achieve the same thing or something else entirely?
The point of criticism should be to enlighten and be revelatory. The best critics are also good reporters because the best criticism is rooted in fact, not just opinion. Facts matter. Can I say that again? Facts matter! Words matter! What is the point of criticism that is just based on how you feel about something? The critics who enlighten are the ones who synthesize the facts and help a reader come to a surprising understanding of something. Critics also spur healthy debate. Whether you agree or disagree with their opinion, you’re dealing with the same set of facts and can argue about where those facts ultimately lead you.
You’ve often written about the dress of politicians. The fashion of public figures is so interesting because the line between authenticity and performativity is blurred. How often do you find that ambiguity in the subjects you cover?
It’s always there. When we talk about authenticity and the public costuming of politicians, what we look for is whether the costume matches the messaging. Case in point, Sarah Palin presented as this salt-of-the-earth hockey mom and then the campaign went out on a shopping spree at Nieman Marcus to get her new wardrobe. That was such a jarring disconnect between the message that they were trying to deliver and the presentation. Because politicians’ roles are so performative, I don’t know if you’re ever going to get a sense of the authentic in a public space. Everyone has an authentic self in private, at least they do hopefully. With politicians, I always emphasize that I’m talking about their public wardrobe.
How strongly do you consider to comments you receive from the comment section under your articles?
The comment section is more of a place for readers to talk back and to express themselves. I don’t know that they necessarily want me to engage with them. I’m privileged to have my space in the Washington Post, so I’ve had my say. If they want to disagree with me in the comment section, as long as they’re civil, they’re free to strongly disagree. The ones who want me to respond typically will send me an email. Contrary to what people think, I really do get those emails. Remember that you’re speaking to a human when you send that email. And I do feel it’s my responsibility to respond to those emails and make every effort to do so.
Now, just a few quick questions. Where do you generally get your news?
The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker.
What place would you like to visit the most?
At this very moment, Vietnam. It’s where I want to go on vacation next year.
Which living person do you admire most?
What’s one thing that keeps you up at night?
The state of democracy.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring critics?
Learn your subject. You have to, before you can have an opinion on it. And never forget that the work you’re critiquing is made by individuals who put their heart and soul into it.