By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; E01
The common reaction from folks outside the Beltway has always been surprise that this newspaper - headquartered in the land of Dockers, Lands' End satchels and sensible shoes - takes its fashion coverage seriously.
After all, New York is the heart of the country's fashion industry and Washington - by virtue of its proximity to Manhattan - has always suffered in sartorial comparisons. The nation's capital has also fared poorly when considered alongside Los Angeles, even though that's a fashion landscape best known for overpriced jeans and velour sweat suits.
Those juxtapositions have always seemed unfair. New York has an outsize population of fashion world denizens. If they aren't paying special attention to trends and high style, then who will? And film, the singular business of Los Angeles, is a visual medium. Obsessing about one's looks is in an actor's job description.
Yet Washington has its own unique relationship with the fashion industry, and for the past 15 years I've been honored to report on it. And now, as I prepare to leave The Post for a challenging adventure at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, I'm reminded of how much I have been shaped and energized by Washington style, which has always been about so much more than merely clothes.
In a city that overflows with intellectual curiosity, residents are fascinated by this billion-dollar industry that thrives by tapping into our deepest fantasies, insecurities and prejudices. Fashion seeps into our subconscious and influences the way in which we see ourselves and those around us. Even when we pretend not to care about the clothes in the glossy advertisements, we are still bothered by the models. They are too thin, too pale, too young, too something. Why don't they smile? Why are they so awkward? Why do we even care?
Washingtonians instinctively know that no matter the depths of their ambivalence about an industry that traffics in superficiality, surface appearances matter. How we look serves as introduction and parting shot. It can underscore an important point or distract from it.
Washington's currency is power, and fashion helps to bring order to the power structure. Clothes provide the first hint of how we relate to one another and how seriously we should be taken. (Remember that, dear interns in your flip-flops and miniskirts.) Gentlemen may pull on a bespoke suit or rebel against that brand of traditionalism with rumpled jeans and T-shirts. Power is now a woman in a sleek sheath, not one in a frumpy suit and a pair of commuter sneakers.
I arrived at The Post with a simple philosophy: Fashion doesn't happen in a vacuum. We use fashion to navigate the world on a daily basis, to communicate, to define ourselves. Runway trends serve as guideposts and offer clues to changes in our culture. Models - both male and female - tell us how we define beauty. They tell us something about the kinds of people we exalt and value.
The Post encouraged a wide view of what counted as a fashion story. And it nurtured my belief that fashion was at its most fascinating as seen through the day-to-day wardrobe of public figures and average Joes.
In my first conversation with then-Executive Editor Leonard Downie, we talked about the many fashion tribes of this town: the K Street lobbyists and their fancy suits, the Capitol Hill politicos who obsess about the spread of their shirt collars, the university crowd that indulges in fads and so on. The big dog cared about fashion!
From my first days in the Style section - where my stories competed for space with those about politics, film, television, music, books - I quickly learned that this paper saw fashion as part of the exquisite cultural stew. Fashion wasn't separate, aberrant or exceptional. It was simply part of who we are.
Beginning with the late, great fashion editor Nina Hyde, The Post always understood that clothes matter. Hyde covered fashion as both business and creative endeavor. She recognized its influence on our lives, and she was entertained by its absurd indulgences.
Cathy Horyn followed Hyde, and she brought her intellectual rigor and an insider's savvy to the job. And when I arrived, fresh from that fashion mecca known as Detroit, the biggest style enthusiasts in this city were welcoming, gracious and generous with their good counsel. They gave me the two most valuable gifts any journalist could ask for: the benefit of the doubt and a return phone call.
Thanks to The Post's support and the benefit of a curious and savvy readership, I've been able to chronicle the seismic changes in the garment trade as it transformed from a series of mom-and-pop businesses into a web of international corporations. I witnessed the dazzling business acumen of men such as Domenico de Sole and Bernard Arnault, as well as the creative daring of Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Rei Kawakubo and Alexander McQueen, just to name a few. And locally, I've been able to tell the story of stalwart retailers like the Marx family, whose Saks Jandel has remained vibrant as other family-owned, high-end fashion businesses have crumbled.
I've been privileged to chronicle the public style of a great many men and women: the ever-dashing Vernon Jordan, a de-frizzed Paula Jones, the brooch-loving Madeleine Albright, a swashbuckling Condoleezza Rice, a parka-clad Dick Cheney and too many other politicians to name. And I have reported and commented on the state wardrobe of first ladies Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and, most recently, Michelle Obama. Their choices of inaugural gowns, pantsuits and sleeveless dresses have spoken volumes about the way in which femininity, power and the role of the first lady itself have evolved. Their style has told the story of changing gender roles as eloquently as any policy speech ever could.
I've also had confirmed what I long suspected: While women's clothes offer the most variety, and thus the greatest fodder for critique, men are far more sensitive to the messages their attire communicates. They are quick to fly into a letter-writing, e-mailing tizzy when they believe those messages have been misunderstood.
As I leave The Post, I'm filled with gratitude for all the readers, those who sent their kudos, as well as those who sent their complaints . . . but kept reading despite their anger or indignation.
I'm indebted to my colleagues for their tips, contacts and the breathtaking examples they provide every day of the best that journalism has to offer. I have always aspired to their dauntingly high standards.
And mostly, I thank this newspaper for its institutional belief that fashion could provide a window on who we are, for seeing that amid the frippery and parties, fashion is also business, politics, religion, sociology and ultimately, life.