A Column Prompts a Dressing-Down

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 29, 2007

How did it come to this? Hillary Clinton's cleavage leading off the ombudsman's column?

The Post got thousands of angry letters and calls last week -- the vast majority from women -- in response to a July 20 Style column by Fashion Editor Robin Givhan, commenting on Clinton showing a bit of cleavage on the Senate floor. A note from Ann Stingle of Fairfax echoed others' complaints: "Robin Givhan's story is sexist and demeaning of both women and the seriousness of issues needing to be addressed.''

Ann Lewis, senior adviser to Clinton, wasn't only unhappy; she also used the column as the basis for a Clinton fundraising letter. She told me, "Writing about fashion can be lighthearted. Writing about body parts is grossly inappropriate, and that's what the column was. It had no place in The Washington Post." Her fundraising letter voiced that and said the column was "insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting." The letter urged: "Take a stand against this kind of coarseness and pettiness." The Trail, The Post's daily political diary, stepped right in with a story and comments headlined "Let the Cleavage Conversation Begin."

Givhan won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for criticism"for her witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism." She writes for Style, where staffers pride themselves on being edgy (some say snarky) and provocative. Her editors give her wide latitude to comment, and she regularly ticks off readers.

Givhan said the National Desk, tuned to C-SPAN2 on July 17, alerted her to Clinton's appearance "speaking in the Senate chamber, an extraordinarily conservative environment. The cleavage made me do a double take. It seemed so out of her stylistic character. And remember, women couldn't wear pants on the Senate floor until 1993 -- not exactly an environment where modern attire is robustly welcomed.

"Sen. Clinton, from the time she was first lady on, had a really publicly tortured relationship with public appearance, her style and fashion. Showing cleavage is not common for her; it seemed so out of her stylistic character. It suggested to me someone who has become more comfortable being a sexual person as well as one of authority, intellect and confidence."

Readers said that Clinton's cleavage isn't news. Givhan disagrees. "It is news because it is out of the ordinary and says something about clothing and sexuality in our culture and the way that we perceive people and the way that people want to be perceived."

Givhan has frequently written about male candidates -- when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani stopped the comb-over to hide his baldness. A 2004 piece about John Kerry and John Edwards started off: "Hair has become a central issue in the race for the presidency."

And she has caused ruckuses before, writing critically in 2005 about Vice President Cheney's appearance at a ceremony on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz: "The vice president . . . was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower." The same year she wrote that John Roberts's wife and children were dressed too preciously on the day his nomination to the Supreme Court was announced.

Clinton and all presidential candidates are under the highest scrutiny. Every facet of their lives -- political, social, marital, financial -- will be reported on and analyzed. And yes, Clinton, and her clothes, will get more scrutiny because she's one of the most famous and watched women in the world. To show the difference in public reaction, The Post ran a picture of Barack Obama in a bathing suit while he was vacationing, and I didn't hear a peep.

Is it appropriate to deal with how politicians present themselves to the public? Yes. But it took a long time for women to be judged by something other than how they looked. That respect is hard-won and not to be lost.

I admit to both wincing at and being fascinated by the column. I had a lot of questions that the column didn't answer: Did Clinton have a bad-blouse day, or did she want to wear something a bit provocative? Was this a wardrobe malfunction, and, if so, did it merit this much coverage? Shouldn't her reaction have been sought? Perhaps the column could have talked about cleavage on older women. If Clinton can show it on the Senate floor, is it okay in The Post's newsroom? Out at a restaurant? (This older woman wants to know.)

Givhan said: "As for the senator's cleavage being accidental, I never presumed to know what was on Sen. Clinton's mind. I only know the way in which that display could have been perceived, and that's what I wrote about. Accidental or intentional, the fact remains that seeing cleavage on her was surprising, given her history and given her location. And there is a difference between writing about 'body parts' and writing about decolletage and what it reveals."

There's a bigger issue about her Clinton piece: Does this have anything to do with whether Clinton should be president? Not a thing. But do we want to read the column about her cleavage? Yes indeed. It was the most viewed story on the Web site all day. So was a recent story on John Edwards's hairdresser.

There has to be a balance in campaign coverage. Readers deserve substance, but they also want to know who these people are, about their families and their lives.

One last thought: An angry female reader left a shouting voice-mail message, demanding that Givhan do stories on the more private parts of male candidates. Yikes!

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company