Robin Givhan on Writing for ‘The Washington Post,’ Her Detroit Childhood, & More

The Pulitzer-winning fashion scribe reminisces about summers on Belle Isle, credits her Detroit high school teachers, and critiques Whitmer’s clothes
Robin Givhan
Robin Givhan

Robin Givhan, The Washington Post’s senior critic, recently realized she has now lived on the East Coast longer than she resided in Michigan. Despite this, the Detroit native — who since September 2020 has penned a weekly news column covering politics, race, business, and the arts — says she still feels connected to her regional origins. “I think the place where you grow up highly shapes how you interact with the world,” she says, defining Midwesterners as “pragmatic, warm, and welcoming.” 

Givhan, 57, should know. Her career as a fashion critic has taken her around the globe, first working for the Detroit Free Press and putting in stints at the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, The Daily Beast, and Newsweek. But she is best known for her tenures at the Post, where she first worked starting in 1995 and has worked on and off for most of the 27 years since.

In 2006, Givhan won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, with the committee citing her “witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism.” At the Post, she gained a following writing about the styles of both male and female politicians, including the cultural and social shifts that occurred with the first Black family in the White House. (Along with the Post photo staff, she authored Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady.)

These days, in her column called “Perspective,” she applies her thought-provoking style to a broad array of topics. Recent work examined the power of vulnerability and courage shaped by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and how Ketanji Brown Jackson is defying stereotypes as the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court. 

Givhan, who earned her master’s degree in journalism at the University of Michigan, chatted with Hour Detroit about her Detroit childhood as the daughter of a postal worker and a YMCA youth director, her early career, and how she approaches her column each week.

Hour Detroit: Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist or writer?

Robin Givhan: I really did not think I would go into journalism. I just really loved writing and had a special affection for my English teachers at Renaissance High School. They made literature come to life and encouraged us to write. We would keep a journal that was not graded. Just a place to be expressive. I thought I would be premed in college. But I liked writing with the yearbook, and I was always curious about the news. I remember watching [retired WXYZ news anchor] Diana Lewis growing up. It was part of my consciousness, as my parents were big news consumers. 

How do you remember your years in Detroit?

When I was growing up, Detroit was a medium-sized city that had a lot to recommend it but had its ebbs and flows. It was clearly reliant on the auto industry, and so as its fortune went up and down, so did the city. It had an amazing music scene, great food and great summers on Belle Isle, ethnic festivals at Hart Plaza, and dancing at St. Andrew’s. As a young journalist at the Detroit Free Press, Detroit still had real vigor. My first real apartment all by myself was at River Place, this converted warehouse industrial space. 

How did you end up writing about fashion?

Randomly! I joke that friends from high school and college have photographic evidence that I was not a fashion plate. My first job was in the entertainment section for the Free Press. I reviewed terrible movies, concerts, and theatrical productions. I got the backwash of everything. Then, in the early ’90s, I started covering menswear part time. I loved it because at that point it was a much smaller part — it still is — of the industry. Menswear designers were much more accessible. They would talk about the construction of their clothes, so it really taught me a lot about the mechanics of the industry: what it meant to be a designer running a business and the nuances of tailoring and how clothing is constructed. It was a great way to start. I got a real understanding of the foundations of fashion without all the smoke and mirrors and fluff and drama and noise that accompanies the women’s industry.

How did your fashion writing change at The Washington Post?

The Post has never had a separate section for fashion. It was part of the Lifestyle section, which includes film and all kinds of features. The result was fashion had to hold its own next to a story about a political personality or an up-and-coming visual artist. Fashion could also be serendipitously discovered by readers who came to the section for other things, and I think that encouraged me to always write about fashion in the most expansive way I could. Being in Washington, politics just seeps into everything. It is the local industry.

What do you make of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s style?

She likes a bit of leather. Someone had written this entire Twitter thread, the goal of which I believe was to get me to write about Gov. Whitmer. But by the time I got to the end of this Twitter thread, I was like, “Honestly, I don’t know what else I could say.” They were captivated by her use of leather. They had not seen a politician with that much leather in her wardrobe. I get it and I love it. I love when anyone has a genuine enthusiasm for fashion and style and indulges that and plays with that.

What do you make of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wearing purple wigs and thigh-high white boots, among other outfits?

For me, a lot of Kyrsten’s public image is quite disingenuous. We are all intelligent creatures, and so we recognize the parameters and we know when we are stepping outside of them. Everyone should have that freedom and mobility, but to say that the parameters don’t exist or to pretend that you have not moved outside of them — then you are gaslighting.

Fashion journalists are often accused of policing female politicians. What do
you say to that?

I don’t feel like I am policing their clothing. I am trying to understand the communicative abilities of clothing. Men’s attire can speak just as clearly as women’s attire can. Case in point: Male politicians love to take off their jackets and roll up their sleeves as a universal sign of “I am now going to speak earnestly to you.” People notice it more often and respond in a more impassioned way when it is about women, not men. I still write about men as well, as I continue to have a soft spot in my heart for menswear.

You are obviously not afraid of criticism. Has it gotten worse in these times?

Yes. What is frustrating is when people want to attack a column and oftentimes it is not because of what the column says, just the subject. The subject serves as this match that ignites the fuel, and they start responding in the comments or sending emails or leaving voicemails that are just rants about this thing over there. My column is just an excuse to unleash. 

How did you end up going from being a fashion critic to writing your general-interest column?

During the pandemic, when everything just came to a screeching halt, fashion did, too. The Post always let me divert from fashion, but now there were so many other compelling things to write about. It was this avalanche of news, from politics to the pandemic to the social justice protest to just people trying to figure out how to deal with a very strange abnormal. That window allowed me to fully invest in exploring these other topics. It was time. I was ready to step into this bigger role. As I started doing this other kind of coverage, I realized that fashion had taught me a lot about the power of observation and taught me the power in a single image. It taught me the way all these social and cultural dots come together to form a picture.

How has being a Black female journalist defined your career?

That is always a difficult question to answer because I don’t have another point of comparison. I do think I bring my own context. I wrote about Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones. As a Black woman, I am very much aware of that stereotype of the angry Black woman, and I know what that means in the way that Black women have to navigate their emotions, in the same way that I think all women know what it means when a man tells you to calm down or “Why don’t you give me a smile?” You want to punch them in the face. When I was writing about Cooper-Jones, that notion of the angry Black woman certainly was in the back of my mind. But I was also thinking of my own mother and how justifiably furious she would have been and how determined she’d be to get some kind of justice for her son. That understanding helped me understand the power in her refusal to be politic in thanking the Justice Department for prosecuting his killers.

What’s your advice when it comes to clothing for female political candidates?

Voters can sniff out authenticity. You don’t want to come in looking like you were having lunch in the city when you will be walking through a muddy field to get to a stage. You want to be dressed appropriately to the situation. No one wants someone looking like they are in costume trying to play to the crowd. That is a bit of a game of subterfuge.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more stories in our digital edition