The Front-Runners: Fashion Sense

Robin Givhan
Washington Post Fashion Editor
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan was online Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss her critiques of the fashion senses displayed by the front-runners in the 2008 race for the White House.

Campaigning in Style: Robin Givhan Dissects The Candidates' Fashion Choices (, Dec. 10-17)

The transcript follows.


Robin Givhan: Good afternoon everyone. Thanks for participating...


Portland, Ore.: Ms. Givhan: To what degree do you believe voters actually respond to a candidate's clothing choice? On the one hand, Kennedy and Reagan were partly admired for their looks and sense of style. On the other hand, we've also elected Nixon, Carter and Clinton, to name a few, none of whom were known for being fashionistas. So, do you think we really notice on some level? And if we do, based on your complimentary analysis, is his cool sense of style one more reason for the Obama surge?

Robin Givhan: Hi Portland. I don't think voters respond to a candidate specifically because they're well-dressed or, as you put it, a fashionista. I think people are looking at and listening to candidates and trying to get a sense of their honesty, compassion, intelligence, authority and so on. The way in which they carry themselves and present themselves influences the perception.


Helena, Mont.: In your article on Clinton's pantsuits, you didn't seem to come up with the reason she wears pantsuits -- the chances of having an embarrassing episode with a skirt. This could happen when leaving a car, having some scumbag put a camera up her skirt, a surprise burst of wind whipping the skirt up, etc. Pantsuits allow a woman to go anywhere with confidence that her skirt won't do her in, as you should know and should have stated.

Robin Givhan: Hi Montana. I agree with everything you said. In the column, I offered as a possible reason for choosing pantsuits the comfort factor. I think that essentially addresses all the issues you raised ... as well as the desire to avoid ending up with an embarrassing YouTube moment.


Arlington, Va.: Robin, I realize that you focused your research on the various gentlemen and one lady, but who is the best-dressed spouse out there? I vote for Michelle Obama -- the athleticism and grace she brings to her modern outfits hint at four years (or eight if we are lucky? Not that I am biased ...!) of fashion-forward White House receptions and balls!

Robin Givhan: I'm sure that I will turn my attention to the spouses in the near future. But I suspect there are many fashion designers who wouldn't mind getting to dress Michelle Obama. But I also suspect that no small number of menswear designers would like to get their hands on Bill Clinton...


Alexandria, Va.: Robin: I love your work. On your McCain piece though, I think you may be a bit tough on McCain. Part of the reason the guy dresses like that is because of his POW injuries. He is often cold, hence the sweater. Skin cancer from being left out in the sun, hence the hat on his head.

Robin Givhan: Hi Alexandria. I didn't mention anything about McCain wearing hats. If anything, I would have recommended he put a hat on his head when he's outside in New Hampshire and Iowa. As for his POW injuries, I was very aware of and sensitive to that. There are many ways to stay warm and one of them is to put on an overcoat when you're outside, instead of doing that politician thing and pretending like you're immune to weather...


Albany, N.Y.: I like your writing, but I can't help but wonder why politicians should seek your approval? Dressing too well is almost as politically hazardous as not dressing well enough, so shouldn't politicians seek to be inoffensive rather than fashion-forward? Being accused of caring too much about what you look like is like being accused of being French -- nothing good can come of it.

Robin Givhan: Good heaven's. I certainly don't think politicians to seek my approval when it comes to their clothes. I'm just fascinated by the choices they make and the kind of messages they deliver. I also don't think a politician should strive to be fashion-forward. But striving to be inoffensive means that you often end up looking like a drone.


Washington: Won't this be the shortest chat on record? All the top-tier candidates in their power ties? And Hilary in her sensible pants suits?

Robin Givhan: I think the top-tier candidates are more interesting than just power ties and pantsuits. But if that's all you see ... so be it.


Vienna, Va.: Robin: The highest compliment I can pay you is that I don't understand half of your columns, hate some of them but read all of them. One thing that always bothers me about candidates is that whenever they're doing something "casual" (meeting the voters, at home, playing sports or exercising) their clothes are always perfect and seemingly brand new. I know they want to look good, but when I see one of them windsurfing or biking or jogging and their clothes look perfectly new, they look phony, as if they're posing. Would they be better off looking a little scruffy, or would that cause its own problems?

Robin Givhan: Mmm, thanks for that compliment ... I think (ha)! Your point is interesting and it's something I mentioned about John Edwards when he was photographed by Annie Leibovitz in his "work clothes," which looked like they had just been unwrapped and the tags snipped off. I'm not sure it's scruffiness, exactly, that would help them look more real, but they do need to look like the clothes are part of their everyday lives and not like something that was handed to them for a photo op.


Washington: I have less of a problem with the clothing choices that male politicians make than with their haircuts. Why can't politicians break the trend of the long comb-over or comb-back, and embrace their eminent hair loss with a close-shorn cut (Obama excepted)? I mean, if it's good enough for George Clooney...

Robin Givhan: Are you suggesting that Clooney is losing his hair? Say it isn't so! The best aesthetic decision Giuliani made was getting rid of his comb-over. But politicians are only human. Hair loss has to be traumatic. Denial is natural. But I don't think any candidate oozes confidence when he has a comb-over ... and that can be a problem.


Mount St. Joseph High School: Dear Ms. Givhan -- thank you for your insightful articles. I know that you take a lot of heat for these essays, but please labor on! The issue of how those in leadership and authority positions dress is an important one. What is it about many Washington types who take it as a badge of honor to dress as frumpy and dowdy as is possible?

Robin Givhan: Big hug to you for being so nice. I don't think Washington types exactly aim to be frumpy or dowdy. I think the goal is to give the impression that they're thinking deep and powerful thoughts and so don't have time to consider their appearance. But I like to think it's possible to multi-task. Living in New York and dealing with the fashion industry, I don't know anyone who thinks politicians, candidates and leaders should dress like they've stepped off a runway. What they would like to see is people who look like they are engaged with contemporary culture, who look polished and who give the impression that they understand that their appearance is part of the whole package. Someone once said: Dressing well is good manner. I think there's some truth to that.


Fairfax, Va.: Didn't hats go out of favor because Kennedy didn't wear one? Is it possible that ties might eventually go the same way? If one of the leading male candidate would refuse to wear one, he would have my vote.

Robin Givhan: I think if one of the leading male candidates refused to wear a tie, yours might be the only vote he'd get...


Philadelphia: Robin, do you regret the article about Sen. Clinton's brief, unrepeated display of minimal cleavage? One outfit does not a trend make.

Robin Givhan: Hi Philadelphia. A trend? I most certainly didn't suggest that there was a Senate-based cleavage trend afoot.

I don't regret the column in the least. I regret that a significant number of people don't know the difference between a conversation about a neckline and one about human anatomy.


Seattle: Do you feel that your articles add anything of substance to the political debate? If so, what? If not, shouldn't they be relegated to the arts and living section? Maybe I'm stuffy, but I think this kind of superficial reporting/opining is one of the things that's wrong with today's media.

Robin Givhan: Dear Humorless in Seattle: Are you suggesting that the arts and living section are havens for nothing but fluff? I reject that argument entirely. And yes, I do think my columns add something of substance because I believe the way people present themselves publicly can tell us something about them that their words do not: the work shirts, the flag pins, rolled-up sleeves, the bright pink jackets. People -- and not necessarily the media -- notice Romney's hair, his Central Casting looks. And yet they don't necessarily respond to that in a positive way. I think it's worth asking why.

In many ways, the role of the president is wrapped in a thick blanket of symbolism. We have a vision in our head of what that looks like. And it's interesting to think about the tension between that vision and the reality.

It's no substitute for stories about policy positions, profiles, etc., but I think it's fair for it to be part of the mix.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Robin. First I want to offer my appreciation of your writing -- I don't always agree with you, but you have a wonderful talent with words, and I usually enjoy reading whatever you write regardless of what it is. ... Back to pantsuits -- for all the things there are to criticize Hillary for, pantsuits have got to be the least of it; most professional women -- especially those of us with children -- have learned that pantsuits are just more practical.

As there are so many more flattering and fashionable styles, I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to go back to a skirt suit. It's not about acting like a man, it's about looking professional and comfortable -- I can't tell you how many times I had to instruct an audience of mostly men, while giving a presentation in a skirt, that I needed their attention to rise up to my face.

Robin Givhan: Hey Alexandria, thanks a bunch. On to pantsuits ... Clinton started wearing them regularly during her last months in the White House. I think they're flattering on her, and yes, they're certainly practical and comfortable. It's not about trying to dress like a man, not really, but I think this whole campaign season has allowed the bits and pieces of gender stereotypes to come to the surface so the pants do become a bit of a metaphor for mixing it up in what Clinton described as the "all-boys club of presidential politics."

what I find more fascinating than the pantsuits are the bright colors, which are such a departure from what she wore when running for the Senate.


Re: Ties: I like ties -- it's the only area were men can be very colorful. But I don't agree with your comment that if politicians didn't wear ties, they wouldn't get many votes. What's wrong with a sport-coat-and-shirt look ?

Robin Givhan: Nothing's wrong with a sport coat and shirt other than it makes a man look like he's going out for coffee, rather than to go run a country. I'm talking perception. There's nothing wrong with khakis and a polo shirt either, but that doesn't ooze authority.


Anonymous: I've been trying to find a pantsuit made of asbestos to no avail. Can you help me?

Robin Givhan: I don't recommend it -- asbestos is a carcinogen.


Rockville, Md.: "Instead of doing that politician thing and pretending like you're immune to weather..." Started by television newspeople who have to stand in front of something (White House?) and pretend the weather is nice even when up to here in snow. I think they must be mad. Some get wise and wear a warm hat -- but many don't.

Robin Givhan: I think most people want a commander-in-chief who knows enough to come in from the cold ... or to get a good pair of long underwear and a proper overcoat.


New York: I have notice that Clinton started to wear more color during debates -- a way to stand out in the mist of all those dark suits. To what degree do you feel this helps to "soften" her image among voters?

Robin Givhan: The idea that Clinton, the only woman, needs to do anything to stand out on stage with the other candidates seems a bit of a stretch. But I do think the colors are meant to be more flattering and softer on camera.


Alexandria, Va.: "I also suspect that no small number of menswear designers would like to get their hands on Bill Clinton." Good heavens, why? He's usually overweight and he likes to present himself as "one of the people." If menswear designers want to see anyone wearing their fashions, you'd think it would be Bush. He is in amazing shape for a man of 61, and carries clothes well. Obviously his politics are not those of most New York fashion designers, but in terms of being an easy male shape to dress, seems like Bush would be a way better choice than Clinton.

Robin Givhan: I was talking about the spouses of the presidential candidates and, Bill Clinton dabbled in Donna Karan menswear when he was in the White House, which is pretty fashionable.


Richardson?: Dear Robin, To me you epitomize the spirit of The Post itself. I love your columns. So, all week I was waiting for your take on Bill Richardson! Was it not there, or did I just miss it? When I see him the word "slob" hovers on the edge of my consciousness. However, I am pretty dowdy myself. What does the expert have to say?

Robin Givhan: Mom? Is that you? Hey, thank you ooooh so much. I didn't write about Richardson because he wasn't one of the front-runners. But if he hangs in there long enough ... maybe. I wouldn't use the word "slob" to describe him by any means. But I wouldn't use the word "sharp" to describe his style, either.


Atlanta: I enjoy all your articles. I don't understand the hostility. I think you your articles bother people because "people" do not like to believe their opinions are ever based on a person's appearance. They like to think they are beyond that. However, in "political" articles I see many mentions of John Edwards' handsomeness, Fred Thompson's tall physique, Hillary Clinton's not-quite-feminine attire, Barack Obama's casual cool attire, etc. I don't understand the problem when you do it.

Robin Givhan: I'm just persecuted, I tell you! Persecuted. People respond passionately when you start talking about the choices folks make about their appearance. We like to think clothes don't matter because it seems so superficial -- or worse, I think, elitist -- but we do gather bits of intelligence about people based on their clothing choices, whether it's a young man who chooses to wear a do-rag on his head, a man who likes a three-piece suit or a woman in a micro-mini. we respond to those people in ways that are influenced by their attire. Our response could be completely wrong and once we get to know the person we see that appearances are deceiving. But we also know that first impressions matter ... hence the popularity of the "interview suit."


Washington: Robin -- I know this series and some of your other articles that analyzes the dress of politicians are criticized for being "silly" and "fluff" that The Washington Post shouldn't print. I wanted to say that I disagree and I love your columns and hope you continue to write them. I do not ever want to read a paper that is 100 percent serious policy-type content; you write a extremely well and provide a critical fashion eye that many of

Robin Givhan: Thank you very much.


Washington: I think your columns about the candidates were totally humiliating to all of us as intelligent citizens. Why are we trying to elect fashionistas instead of those who are best qualified to be president? The Post made a big mistake highlighting fashion in this context.

Robin Givhan: And to the Washington representative of Mensa ... I'm not sure what gave you the impression that my goal is to suggest that people should vote for a "fashionista" -- a term I never would use, by the way. But we all know that candidates use every advantage, every gesture, every nuance to communicate their message. To suggest that their appearance doesn't matter, to suggest that candidates don't alter their attire based on their audience would be disingenuous. Clothes are just another cultural signifier -- and one worth examining. Thanks!


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