While the rest of Washington—and the country—wonders if Elena Kagan would work for good or for evil as a Supreme Court justice, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Robin Givhan has other things on her mind.
Whether Kagan leans left or right in her judicial demeanor is for court observers to debate. But in matters of style, she is unabashedly conservative.
Like, say, every other Supreme Court nominee?
The other men and women who have gone through this process have not been daring in their wardrobe choices either.
So why waste valuable real estate on the pages of the fifth-largest newspaper in the country to discuss how Kagan “put on rouge and lipstick for the formal White House announcement of her nomination,” but otherwise “embraced dowdy”? We even get the critical information that she wore “sheer black hosiery” at the press conference. It’s not as if those column inches couldn’t be filled with more in-depth reporting and analysis of more important stories. I searched in vain yesterday for a skeptical piece on Obama’s National Security Strategy.
And Givhan had actually already written this piece before—when Sonia Sotomayor was going through her confirmation hearings for the court. The two lawyers embraced the same Washington Woman style: black skirts and black pumps with jackets in either black again or in bright, simple colors (with that sheer black pantyhose on which Givhan is so fixated).
Givhan seems continually frustrated that she can’t judge Sotomayor’s and Kagan’s fitness for one of the most important jobs in the land simply by looking at their labels. In the new piece, she says in the passive voice that “[a]ll hints of personality were deftly extracted” from Sotomayor’s person, while she complained in the earlier piece that Sotomayor’s attire “offered no hints of personality” and “expressed little personality.”
How many high-powered government lawyers do communicate their individuality through their clothing? Kagan is not interviewing for a job in a creative field—as much as some might see interpreting the constitution as such. But Givhan, who was stuck moving to dreary Washington from the more fashionable New York when her beat expanded to cover the first lady, wants to see this city transformed.
Kagan’s version of middle-age seems stuck in a time warp, back when 50-something did not mean Kim Cattrall or Sharon Stone, “Cougar Town” or “Sex and the City.”
The thought of Kagan, Sotomayor, or—heaven forbid—Ruth Bader Ginsburg dressing 20 to 30 years younger than their actual ages gives me a shudder. But I suppose none of us knows exactly what they’ve got on under those black robes. (As the just-released Sex and the City 2 suggests, Muslim women wearing black burqas just might be rocking Vuitton and Valentino under there. That diaphanous film, in which the foursome take on Abu Dhabi, did a better job of connecting fashion and politics than the first clothes critic to win the Pulitzer Prize ever has. Sure, the criticism might not be on the highest level here. Carrie sees that even women’s mouths are covered in some Muslim attire. “It’s like they don’t want them to have a voice,” she muses as she watches a woman eating French fries, lifting her burqa up slightly to taste each one. But what other part of our popular culture is addressing the clash of civilizations? And as you can imagine, if you know anything about the HBO series that spawned the film series, there is certainly a clash here.)
Perhaps the strangest part of Givhan’s piece is her description of how Kagan sits.
She walked with authority and stood up straight during her visits to the Hill, but once seated and settled during audiences with senators, she didn’t bother maintaining an image of poised perfection. She sat hunched over. She sat with her legs ajar.
This is, at least, the only creative observation of the article. I don’t think I’ve heard that description of slightly open legs before. Even funnier is the caption to the picture of Kagan talking to a senator that accompanies the piece:
UNUSUAL: Most women, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, cross their legs when sitting, but not Kagan.
Weird woman! She doesn’t cross her legs! What does this say about her sexuality—and her suitability for the court?
Oddly enough, Kagan is “hunched over,” while in the previous piece Sotomayor “slouched.” But that wasn’t a bad thing to Givhan then.
The jackets had plenty of buttons so they didn’t gap if she slouched — and really, who could sit with ballerina posture during all that mind-numbing questioning and non-answering?
Maybe that’s why Givhan is so uninterested in questions of substance. They’re “mind-numbing.”
It might be facetious to point out the inconsistency here. It must be hard to write a second piece about another legal career woman who’s a dull dresser so soon. And it’s not as if Givhan is coherent in her calls for a more glamorous political class. I wrote a piece a while back about her snarky view of Carla Bruni, the woman now married to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Writing then, she complained about Bruni’s beauty.
Models already get the star athletes. The bookish debate-team captain should get the prime minister.
She didn’t approach Carla Bruni on the substance, either—Bruni is an enormously talented singer-songwriter who had a successful career after she modeled and before she met Sarkozy. It seems women can’t win with Robin Givhan. They either dress too plainly or too elegantly. In neither case does Givhan consider the context—something intelligent women do every day when they get dressed for work.