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Robin Givhan on Washington's Dowdy Fashion Reputation

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Robin Givhan
Washington Post Fashion Editor
Monday, November 1, 2010; 11:00 AM

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Robin Givhan asks if Washington's dowdy reputation is more stereotype than reality and discusses her story about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's appearance in "Vogue."

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Robin Givhan: Good afternoon and thanks for participating in the chat.

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Washington, DC: I really like and respect you and find your writing style to be particularly agreeable, which is why I articles like this one almost make me think your talents are wasted in this market - because, at the end of the day, I don't feel like you really "get" Washington. My response to this article was, as often with your articles is "doesn't she realize that people in this town just have more important things to think about." Honestly.

Robin Givhan: shall we begin with the back-handed compliment? actually i think that i "get" Washington quite well. i know that a great number of folks in this town think that fashion is unimportant in their lives. they're too busy saving the world. however, i also believe that people here are obsessed with how they appear to others. they desperately want to be taken seriously and with great gravitas. to me, that's the fascinating tension about Washington.

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Arlington, VA: Hi Robin, Great article. I am the youngest of six sisters and I think that "the dowdy factor" is something that lot of women not just in DC area struggle with but most women in the US over 40 because of children and work and other distractions. Its like dowdiness creeps up on you over the years. It becomes the easy option.

Robin Givhan: hi Arlington,

i agree with you. dowdy often grows out of a disconnect with what's happening in the culture around you. but i think it's something worth fightin against. to me dowdy means looking irrelevant, disconnected and out of touch. i don't advocate people running around chasing trends. that's for a very particular kind of fashion enthusiast. most people just want to look appropriate and current. both of those things, i think, are good for self-confidence.

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Arlington, VA: The theme of Sunday's article is one that you often address, especially when there is a new woman elected or appointed to an important post. There's no doubt that the Sen. Gillibrand featured in Vogue is more stylish than the one on the campaign stump, however, I never see you addressing the expense of dressing in the latest designer fashions. A senator or administration official, though well-paid, may not be wealthy and the cost of raising children and maintaining two homes may leave little left for major seasonal wardrobe changes. Trendier stores frequeted by younger women with designer copies usually don't offer the quality fabrics needed by professionals.

Robin Givhan: hey, i work for a newspaper! i'm very sensitive to price. and while i admire the work of a host of high end designer brands, the vast majority of them are out of my price range. but dressing in a polished and sophisticated and powerful way, doesn't mean spending truckloads of money. i'm a big proponent of places like j.crew, talbots and banana republic. i''m also a big fan of the "european" manner of shopping. which is to spend a fortune on one great suit or dress and then wearing the heck out of it.

people tend to confuse style with cost. and the fashion industry certainly doesn't do much to diminish that relationship. but it's just not true. and quite often, one of the biggest problems -- and i include men in this -- the clothes don't fit. a tailor is your best friend. there's no reason to expect a garment to fit your body perfectly straight off the rack. they're just an approximation.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: In the era of twitter and brief news bits, are we becoming more reliant on visuals to determine which celebrities and politicians we like? If so, what are some of the dangers that we may be "judging books by their covers" when it comes time to select who we want to lead us?

Robin Givhan: i'm deeply horrified by the reliance on Twitter to communicate anything of substance. but i do think that our attention span has decreased and we are prone to making snap judgements. to me that means getting a handle on public presentation is all the more important.

that said, the danger is if we try to judge someone's character based on their attire. you can't. you can get a sense of the image they want to project, the manner in which they hope you will respond to them, their place -- or desired place -- in the social hierarchy and so on. but you certainly can't tell if they are a good or bad person. you can't measure their IQ by their attire. i know a lot of brilliant women who revel in fashion. and i know a lot of bozos who think they're too smart for fashion and frankly aren't very smart at all.

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Disconnect: Hi Robin, isn't the Washingtonian's obsession with how one appears to others the reason they tend to be dowdy? Dowdy = less risk, less chance of offending anyone, etc. It's the safer choice.

Robin Givhan: i don't think dowdy is the safe choice. i think it's the lazy one. a safe choice would be classic style. for instance, i don't think a man who wears a traditional navy suit, white shirt and red tie is dowdy. i think he's playing it safe by sticking to a uniform. when hillary clinton was running for senate, she relied on a basic,, well-cut black pantsuit. not dowdy at all, but safe.

to me, dowdy is as distracting as a white house social secretary wearing comme des garcons. now, frankly, i'd rather be distracted by avant-garde japanese designers. it's a more interesting distraction than an ill-fitting suit with an unflattering hemling.

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Hartford, CT: Dear Ms. Givhan,

You wrote, "She's playing an idealized version of herself" and more in the same sum-up sentence about Senator Gillibrand's appearance in "Vogue."

That statement is central. In fact, it turns the meaning of your careful observations about the Senator's appearance in Vogue from a simple catalogue of impressions into hard evidence.

The key elements are the play and the ideal.

It would be a simple and cynical thing to dismiss Sen. Gillibrand's play as a game, to dismiss her clothes as costumes, and to impeach her as a fake, fraud, or liar. To do so would be to miss important refinements to the cold chess game that is the art of politics.

To some extent, we elect ideals. Our toleration of campaign promises never met is sure evidence of that. It is essential for the ideals we elect to remain at play, so that if-and-when an opportunity presents itself, our cherished ideals can find realization, albeit usually with some compromises along the way.

The refinement to the cold art of politics, which Senator Gillibrand shows, is careful attention to her personal dress. Clothing is basic, part of that trio of life's necessities: food, clothing, and shelter. Charity begins at home.

How can Senator Gillibrand be trusted to care for the needs of others, if she doesn't first show that she takes care of herself?

Cheers!

Robin Givhan: ah dearest Hartford,

shall we make a coffee date to discuss further? you raise intersting points. there is such a disconnect between the ideal and the real when it comes to politics. and there is something quite enticing about the image of senator gillibrand standing on the capitol plaza with her coat draped over her shoulder -- or in another picture walking through the hallways of the capitol. in our idealized vision, our lawmakers move briskly through their day looking polished and in-control and churning out laws that make this country a better place.

alas, the reality is something far different. but i do think that part of the art of politics is in selling the dream, making voter believe that you can deliver on your promises no matter how vague or pie-in-the-sky. the wardrobe comes with that.

are you promising to be senator power-professional? or senator i-feel-your-pain? personally, i don't want my elected officials looking trendy, but i do want them to look as if they take great pride in what they do, the place where they do it and the people for whom they do it for.

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Woodley Park, DC: Impressed with, per this item (Olivier Theyskens and Theory: Q & A) as the new creative director of Theory talks how much such designers and brands are thinking of creating great every day professional wear, rather than "occasion" dressing so fussed over by fashion items; professional day wear being what many of us in DC find ourselves spending most time (and money) on in our wardrobes and are looking for most satisfaction from wearing. The perfect suit, the best separates, ideas for how to put it together (in non dowdy and new ways), of much more interest to many of us here and where we spend much of our wardrobe budget.

Robin Givhan: hi woodley park,

i wrote about Olivier's capsule collection for Theory and I'm happy to see that they've decided to put him in charge of the whole shebang. I should have mentioned Theory in my earlier list of places that offer professional attire for a reasonable price.

it will be interesting to see if Theyskens can tamp down his imagination just a smidge to produce professional clothes that are still interesting.

many of the constraints that women in particular put on themselves when it comes to professional attire are of their own making. obviously, plenty of offices have dress codes and the ones that mandate things like no sleeveless dresses or pantyhose at all times, should really be reprimanded. that's just old-fashioned and ridiculous. but i digress.

i can recall when some women thought the idea that a dress could become their go-to work uniform was impossible. in their mind, if they weren't wearing a suit jacket then they didn't feel polished. clearly that has changed.

what i hope is that as more younger designers take on the role of creating professional attire and a new generation of women enter the power zone, that expectations about business clothes will shift and expand.

but don't get me wrong, i am not advocating mini-skirts in the office -- unless that office is in the Conde Nast building.

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DC: Maybe we're just expecting too much of professional women? We work long days, often while raising several children and doing our best to manage a household---sometimes with limited help from husbands/partners. On top of that, we are supposed to exercise to stay in shape; keep up with fashion trends; have the time, interest, and money to shop and find looks that work for our lifestyles, jobs, and body types; keep our hair trimmed and colored (no gray or frizz, please!); wear flattering makeup; keep our eyebrows trimmed or waxed or whatever we are supposed to be doing....

Isn't it all just a little overwhelming?

Robin Givhan: oh good Lord you make it sound like picking out a new dress is the equivalent of hauling rocks up a mountain! working out and staying fit are part of taking care of yourself. unless you plan to go naked, you will have to shop, like it or not. so if you're going to do it, why not try to find things that are flattering, stylish and pleasing to you?

there is limited time in the day but honestly, if you take a few hours at the beginning of a season -- or at the end when everything is one sale -- and make a few strategic purchases, you're done. you never have to go back to the mall to fill your closet. keeping up with trends? i'm not saying you need to be on top of th '70s vibe for spring. but in the same way that you peruse a newspaper or website informing yourself about what going on in the world of politics, economics, sports or film, a few glances at a fashion story -- and i write so very many!!! -- and you're done.

in short, you make it seem like it's such a vast investment in time, when in reality, it's just a willingness to take notice.

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most people just want to look appropriate and current.: I'd love to look current but it seems like only the dowdy stuff fits me properly. The fashionable stuff is so off on me I don't even know if I could get it tailored correctly. Am I wrong about that? Are there some rules of thumb I can keep in mind when I'm shopping for something that I know will have to be tailored?

I shop at places like LL Bean and Lands End and end up looking "matronly" as my mom likes to say. I've worn clothes I don't like for so long now I've gotten myself conditioned into believing that's all I can do.

Robin Givhan: doll face! pumpkin! you are not going to find current at places like Lands End and LL Bean. their bread and butter is classic.

i think you need to take an afternoon and go into stores you normally wouldn't and just try on pieces that are fun and that you are drawn to. you need to allow your eye to adjust.

i'm no Stacy London, but generally, when it comes to having things tailored to fit, pants should fit in the hip - and then you have the waist tailored. check jacket sleeves to make sure they're not hanging over your knuckles. hem your pants so that they just break over your shoes. and no, the same trousers you hem for flats cannot be worn with heels.

i understand what you're saying. you've psyched yourself out in terms of what you can and cannot wear. snap out of it! fashion should not be intimidating. it should be a pleasure.

oh and one final word: remember, if a garment does not fit...the problem is with the garment. not your body.

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West Coast: Hi. I moved to California a couple of years ago, where the clothing is---to say the least---casual. I return occasionally to visit family in Northern VA.

In my opinion, Washington people are not dowdy. They dress appropriately for the job and I think they look great. It's more formal and maybe more conservative than how people dress for work in Silicon Valley, but I think it looks sharper and more impressive. It's more sophisticated, too.

People of Washington: don't underestimate yourselves. You look fab.

Robin Givhan: hey west coast, thanks for those kind words.

i agree with you. most washingtonians dress appropriately for their job. frankly, if i'm paying a lawyer $700 an hour, i want him/her to look like a million bucks.

Dowdiness exists in Washington by choice. not by mandate.

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RE: "Gillibrand, with her boys, shows an idealized side of herself for the cameras in an outfit suiting today's power dressing." (Caption from photo): Ha. I'd NEVER be hanging out on the floor in a beautiful dress like that with my 2 year old around. I'd end up with something sticky on it that would't come out, and would have to pitch the dress. It seems like all my clothes end up with a toddler related stain. I don't buy expensive stuff anymore, and never buy anything that must be dry-cleaned.

Robin Givhan: hey, i SAID it was idealized! i wouldn't be sitting on the floor with a couple of toddlers in that dress either. but the dress itself was quite appropriate for a Washington work day

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Palin style?: Robin, what do you think of Palin's current style?

Robin Givhan: i find it contemporary and youthful, but not especially polished. but it is most definitely not dowdy.

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Good examples: Who are some women (D.C. or otherwise)in politics or business you consider to have a style that's both feminine and powerful? Huma Abedin is one that comes to mind for me.

Robin Givhan: for all of the grief that Vogue's Anna Wintour gets, i think that she has a style that is both feminine and powerful. now, let's for a moment ignore that vast sums that it would cost to duplicate her wardrobe.

the point is that her business uniform is a feminine dress or a colorful suit with a statement necklace. her daytime wardrobe is not particularly trendy but it's modern.

if you simply can't get past the notion that the editor of Vogue has anything to do with your life, many of the women i mentioned in my column have struck a balance between feminine and professional: Michelle Obama, Melody Barnes, Carly Fiorina.

my old college roommate -- and now finance wizard in New York -- Alexandra Lebenthal has great style, mixing power, femininity and fashion.

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Penn Quarter DC: Just for the record, I am a successful -- and "typical" -- DC person. I worked on Capitol Hill, was a political appointee in a previous administration, am a policy/political wonk. And guess what -- I LOVE FASHION!!!!!! Yes, I am a serious woman who loves fashion. And I know I am not alone. Of course there are weightier things in this world, but if life is only about so-called "serious" things? How depressing would that be?

Robin Givhan: hey Penn Quarter, rock on with your bad self! i know women like you are out there. we just need to get you more time in the spotlight to finally put the stereotypes to rest.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Dear Robin,

I have always been inspired by your intelligent and thoughtful essays on fashion. Being really interested in women-politics issue, I find your smart critique quite influential. I hope that women would start paying more attention to what they wear in different occasions. I am very disappointed with readers' angry comments on Kirsten Gillibrand's story. Why to be so angry?? I can't understand why women are getting so mad when they are told that feminine look is the way to go. Why being smart AND stylish AND feminine is a bad thing? No one is telling you to look provocative or over-dressed. It is just a matter of seeing beauty and reflecting beauty. It is about taste. I think it is a real disaster that some people believe that they can pursuit their career, whether in politics or business or even housekeeping, by being in "tasteless" clothes. Ladies, please, be wise, at least fashion-wise.

Robin Givhan: thanks for these comments. some folks get angry at the very hint of fashion. there are people who basically resent the very existence of the industry.

but to deny the impact of fashion in our lives, is to deny that we are visual people who communicate in a vast assortment of ways.

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Robin Givhan: thanks everyone for your questions and comments. it has been a real pleasure!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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