Fashion can speak louder than words. Whether you’re wearing a team jersey or high-end couture, your attire can telegraph your values, status and place in the world — whether it’s the message you intended to send or not. We talk with award-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan about the power of cultural appropriation and symbolism in designs, the evolution of the power suit for men and women, and the passing of fashion icon and D.C. stalwart Oscar de la Renta.


  • Robin Givhan Fashion critic, The Washington Post


  • 13:06:39

    MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. Fashion can speak louder than words, whether you're donning a business suit, team jersey, couture gown or sweats. Your attire telegraphs your value, status and place in the world to others. Whether the message sent is the one you intended is sometimes unequivocal and sometimes open to interpretation by the beholder.

  • 13:07:20

    MS. JEN GOLBECKJoining us to talk about the power of cultural appropriation and symbolism in design, the evolution of the power suit for both men and women and the passing of a fashion icon in D.C.'s most stalwart designer Oscar de la Renta is Robin Givhan. She's fashion critic for the Washington Post where she's earned a Pulitzer Prize for her work. She writes about the economics, culture, politics and aesthetics of clothes. Robin, it's good to have you here.

  • 13:07:44

    MS. ROBIN GIVHANThank you. It's good to be here.

  • 13:07:45

    GOLBECKWe'd like to hear from you too. Please give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Robin, let's start in perhaps an unexpected place, the football field.

  • 13:07:56


  • 13:07:57

    GOLBECKIn this region, fans have been wrestling with the language, meaning and symbolism surrounding the Washington Redskins, including their logo and uniforms. This controversy came to a head this weekend when they played in Minnesota where the context of the issue came into stark relief and prompted protests. How do football and fashion in many ways mirror each other when it comes to appropriation of Native American attire and symbolism?

  • 13:08:21

    GIVHANWell, I will start by saying that I am not at all a football fan. So I don't have any real sort of vested interest in Washington's team. But I thought it was interesting because the conversation seemed to be happening in this sort of vacuum of sports. And so much of the things that -- so many of the things that were coming up kept reminding me of things that had happened within the fashion industry and the idea that you can take a caricature of a people or some aspect of a community's culture and just sort of extrapolate all kinds of creative, interesting and sometimes offensive ideas.

  • 13:09:12

    GIVHANAnd so it's happened with Orthodox Jews and Gotier (sp?) . Probably it's been now 15 years, 10 years, and had a collection that was completely inspired by their traditional dress, and even incorporated some aspects of what I think most people would consider sacred aspects of their beliefs. And Chanel is notorious for sort of dipping into both Native American culture. A while back they had words from the Quran embroidered on a dress that led to deep offense, so much so that Chanel apologized and removed the dresses from their collection.

  • 13:10:07

    GIVHANSo it's something that's been going on a lot in fashion because it's an area that's seen as just filled with creative possibilities.

  • 13:10:20

    GOLBECKWe have on a slideshow of images of models in Native American-inspired outfits, Oscar de la Renta with some of American's first ladies and innovative men's wear looks from the line Public School. So if you go to you can take a look at those. That includes a Victoria's Secret model in a long Native American headdress, which I think you had in The Washington Post recently.

  • 13:10:43

    GIVHANIndeed, Karlie Kloss to be exact.

  • 13:10:46

    GOLBECKDebate among supporters and detractors of the Washington football team has ratcheted up recently. But this question of when cultural appropriation is acceptable is one designers have tackled with varying degrees of both awareness and success. How has the issue played out both with Native Americans in particular and other cultural groups more broadly? You just spoke to some specific examples but how do you see this on a higher level?

  • 13:11:11

    GIVHANWell, I think so much plays into how we perceive cultural appropriation and whether or not we think it's successful, whether we think it's offensive. And some of it has to do with the issue of power and whether or not it's a more powerful group of people who are doing the borrowing, stealing, appropriating. And that has come up, not just with Native Americans. It has come up with African Americans, particularly when certain styles sort of develop on the street and fashion sort of swoops in and makes it a bit more luxurious and makes it a bit more extravagant.

  • 13:11:53

    GIVHANAnd suddenly something that was created by kids and, you know, essentially costs next to nothing because they don't have the resources, is now coming down a runway and has a four-figure price tag on it. One recent example was with the Cholo culture in southern California and the designers of the brand Rodarte were inspired by it. And they are from California. They grew up in that area and so it was something that they saw quite often.

  • 13:12:30

    GIVHANAnd when I saw the way that the look appeared on the runway and it had this sort of sexy revealing and I thought a little cheap look to it, I thought the biggest problem was that so much of what makes Cholo style exciting is the person wearing it, that they have this kind of swagger. And it's worn with the sense of authority and it's empowering.

  • 13:13:02

    GIVHANAnd when it comes down a runway on, you know, a skinny 17-year-old who is not feeling very empowered and is not really swaggering, it loses all of what makes it so interesting to begin with. And it just sort of looks sad and cheap, I thought. But...

  • 13:13:23

    GOLBECKAnd cheap is one of those words you want to avoid when you're selling a collection.

  • 13:13:25

    GIVHANOh, inexpensive, let's call it.

  • 13:13:28

    GOLBECKYeah. Inexpensive is one you want to avoid, too. We'd like to hear from you too. Have you refused to wear or stopped wearing a team's logo gear because you or others found it offensive? What's your line in the sand for when imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and when it's inappropriate? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at

  • 13:13:55

    GOLBECKRobin, if creativity is fueled by inspiration, which can often be sparked by something unfamiliar to a person, how tough is it for a designer to recognize when they've crossed a line with a garment or logo and how does power play into that equation when they're making the decision?

  • 13:14:12

    GIVHANYeah, I think it's really hard for a designer to know when they've crossed a line because, you know, particularly now, every designer, whether it's a high-end designer, whether it's Zara, they are playing on a global stage. And with the less expensive -- we won't call it cheap -- merchandise, it has an even faster churn. And so things are coming into the marketplace super, super fast. And I think it's almost inevitable when you have a designer who might be based in the U.S. who might be producing in China, who might be selling in Italy, to at some point have a collision with cultural values and unwittingly offend someone.

  • 13:15:00

    GIVHANI think that the key is to always try and make sure that the level of the design is at the highest possible level because I do think skill and quality matter, that people tend to be less offended by something that they deem to be good versus a poorly executed version of something.

  • 13:15:26

    GIVHANBut I also think that at a certain point you will have an occasion when you just have to stand down and say, we screwed up. We didn't know. And despite our best research, we still didn't know and we're sorry.

  • 13:15:40

    GOLBECKIs there a distinction worth making between a designer borrowing a technique or a fabric versus their flat out imitating traditional dress?

  • 13:15:49

    GIVHANYeah, I mean, one of the most interesting things that came up when I was reporting the Redskin story was this idea of something called cultural authentication, which a professor at the University of Minnesota brought up. And it is this idea that you are inspired by something from culture A and you take it and you change it so profoundly and absorb it so deeply into your own culture and rename it and -- that it becomes something completely new. And the original continues to exist and continues to have all of the meaning that it did. But there is this new thing that also now has a voice and also has meaning and is also very much tied to a group of people.

  • 13:16:43

    GIVHANI was just going to say, the example of that that I thought was probably the closest that has come up in recent years that people might be familiar with was just when hip hop artists in the '90s sort of took these very country club kinds of looks, like rugby shirts and polo shirts and sailing jackets and changed the silhouette, changed the proportions and really made them their own and created something completely different.

  • 13:17:11

    GOLBECKAnd I have a sort of weak example that I don't want to compare it to like borrowing Native American culture, but I grew up in the '90s, right, high school and college in the '90s. And it was like total grunge era. And I was way into it, right. I had, like, the flannel shirts and ripped jeans...

  • 13:17:25

    GIVHANMarc Jacobs would be so proud.

  • 13:17:29

    GOLBECKThat's great. I would like to do him proud. So, I mean, I still have some of this stuff, right, these kind of beat up flannels that I wore in, you know, 1994. And then, a few years ago, I started seeing, like, American Eagle Outfitters and Aeropostle, like, had these flannels for girls to wear. And I took my niece in and she's like, that's really cool. And I'm like, you don't know what this means. Like grunge was a whole thing and it had a meaning and it wasn't just this cool shirt you put on.

  • 13:17:55

    GOLBECKAnd I know that that's a very weak example of these much bigger cultural issues we're talking about, but does that sort of capture this idea that there's a meaning there that's very important to people in the initial incarnation? And someone sees it and they don't know that meaning but they're like, that looks cool and I'm going to put that on. And that can -- you know, I don't know that I'd say I was offended but I really wanted to defend the thing that had all that kind of meaning.

  • 13:18:20

    GIVHANSure. I think it was a very natural reaction. And one of the questions for me is, you know, where does the meaning lie when you start talking about things that are sacred to a group of people? You start to ask yourself, well, is the sacredness in the object itself or is it in your memories of what that object has represented throughout your lifetime? Is the sacredness in the belief that you hold in your heart and in your mind? And is the garment or the object just a representation of that?

  • 13:18:59

    GIVHANAnd, you know, one of the interesting things obviously always comes down to sort of religious objects. And a reader actually had sent me an email bringing up this idea that, you know, it should be -- the rule should be if something is inappropriate for someone who is observant of a particular religion, then it should be inappropriate and offensive to everyone else. And I think that's a really tricky thing because the idea that places and objects are sort of off in the midst, I think we can look throughout history and we see that that's gotten us into a lot of trouble.

  • 13:19:40

    GOLBECKWe have a couple thoughts on the Washington NFL team. We had Felice -- I'm sorry, Janet send us a comment about the logo and she said, "They should change it to a loaded potato skin." That's the only way it would be acceptable is if you have a red potato skin." Probably wouldn't sell, though. And if you'll put your headphones on, we have a call from Felicia in Alexandria, Va. Felicia, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:20:06

    FELICIAHi there. So I also am a lifelong Washington football team fan and so is my family. And I have a lot of swag, lots of things with the logo and I have stopped wearing any of it. I haven't now for two years. And, you know, I used to be proud to wear it and it's shameful now to me to be seen wearing anything with that name or logo.

  • 13:20:33

    GOLBECKFelicia, thanks for your call. And I can tell by the way you name the Washington football team that you obviously are sensitive to this issue. And Robin, I think this raises issues -- you know, Felicia's point that she now feels real shameful wearing this, that it's our perceptions as a culture where, you know, 10 or 15 years ago there weren't a lot of people in D. C. talking about this issue. And now it's an issue that won't go away, as hard as some people are trying to make it go away. We have these shifting sensibilities that affect our fashion too.

  • 13:21:02

    GIVHANYeah, I mean, it depends on timing. It depends on the political climate how -- whether or not things are offensive. You know, I was reminded of the African American designer Patrick Kelly who passed away some time ago. But one of his sort of motivating creative elements was his use of this sort of very offensive imagery from, you know, the pre-Civil War Jim Crow and after years of, you know, sort of the mammy imagery and golliwogs and pickaninnies and things like that. And he was very aggressive in taking those images and incorporating them into his work.

  • 13:21:47

    GIVHANAnd it was both -- it was a political statement, it was an aesthetic statement but it also was, in a way, sort of an honoring of history. And, you know, it was incredibly complicated and there were people who were certainly jarred by it and perhaps even offended. But I do think that his use of it was interesting because of the timing, because of the way our culture had changed and because of who he was.

  • 13:22:18

    GOLBECKWe're going to take a quick break, but we'd like to hear from you, too. Do the morals of a designer or the clothes manufacturing or retailer influence your shopping decisions? Let us know why or why not. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. We'll be back in just a moment. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo.

  • 13:23:00

    GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm talking with Robin Givhan about fashion authenticity and perception. If you'd like to join us, give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or sent us a tweet to @kojoshow. Robin, you've talked with Kojo before about the rise of so-called fast fashion, and we mentioned that before the break. In the last few months that's been something that's really been in the news because companies like Zara and Urban Outfitters have sparked some outcry with pieces that they have brought into their stores. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:23:37

    GIVHANWell, it was sort of a piece of the whole Redskin Native American style question. And some of it was, you know, not so very long ago. Urban Outfitters had to remove sort of almost like a child's little headdress that they had in the store. And Zara was in the position of being accused of basically selling T-shirts that looked like they had, you know, sort of a Nazi era Star of David stamp on them.

  • 13:24:13

    GOLBECKYeah, these black and white striped shirts with a...

  • 13:24:16

    GIVHAN...with a big gold star on it.

  • 13:24:16 on it.

  • 13:24:18

    GIVHANAnd, you know, Zara said that, well, no, these are supposed to be sheriff's badges. And that's what this whole line is about. But that's not the way that they were interpreted when people saw them online and I believe when people saw them in the stores. And they issued an apology. And I think in both cases they were examples of how -- you know, these questions don't just exist at the very top of the fashion pyramid where you have these designers who are thinking deep and profound intellectual thoughts about what their next collection is going to be.

  • 13:24:52

    GIVHANYou know, these are clothes that are meant to appeal to the masses. But again, you know, these are also companies that are coming from very different cultural perspectives. And what seems completely fine to one pair of eyes can be very disturbing to another pair.

  • 13:25:11

    GOLBECKAnd another story that went along with this is that quite recently Urban Outfitters had put out a Kent State sweatshirt that was sort of pink and dyed with what looked very clearly to me like imitation blood spatters. And there was a huge reaction to this as, you know, the Kent State massacre -- I think it was close to the anniversary of that. And they said, no, you know, that's just the dying that we're doing. It wasn't intended at all. And it sort of raises this question -- you know, I think I believe Zara that they didn't intend it to look like a concentration camp uniform.

  • 13:25:44

    GOLBECKBut I wonder with Urban Outfitters who really tries to kind of push boundaries, if they actually had no one in the process who thought, this Kent State University shirt really looks like maybe there's some blood spatters on it, or if it made it through the whole process with no one picking up on that. I guess I question their honesty.

  • 13:26:03

    GIVHANYeah, I often think to myself, how is it possible that no one along the chain of conversation weighs these issues. And yet I never seize to be amazed that oftentimes no one along the chain of conversation raises the issues.

  • 13:26:22

    GIVHANYou know, I think sometimes it definitely does become a case of, you know, sort of operating in a vacuum where you're having a conversation in an echo chamber. And everyone just keeps reinforcing the standard line. But I do think that absolutely, you know, part of what sells fashion is controversy and buzz and a sense of the subversive and the daring. So sometimes are they pushing the envelope expecting that there's going to be some kind of backlash? Yes, they absolutely are. I think it's -- you know, it's a delicate balance between just the right amount of backlash to gin up some publicity and when you step over too far and the backlash becomes an outcry.

  • 13:27:15

    GOLBECKAnd we have a call on that note from Kevin Baltimore. Kevin, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:27:20

    KEVINHi. I have a comment that sort of illustrates exactly what you're saying. A lot of times people who are starting out in fashion, they are in venues like, you know, designing for major musicians. And, you know, maybe musicians like onstage, their costumes are really outrageous, but that's where a lot of people, you know, designers and everything, they get a start there.

  • 13:27:42

    KEVINAnd of course you have somebody -- you know, you also have the opposite of being offensive. And some stars like, you know, when Madonna did "Just Like a Prayer," that whole album, it was like offensive to the Catholic Church and they hated it but she didn't care. She sold records, she sold all kinds of, you know, wear that she was -- fashion that was related to the album and everything like that, but very successful. And she just basically didn't care and just gave them the finger kind of metaphor.

  • 13:28:12

    GOLBECKKevin, thanks for your call. Robin, your thoughts on Kevin's comments.

  • 13:28:16

    GIVHANYeah, I mean, I have to say I would much rather live in a world where people do take risks and, you know, push the line of what is acceptable in the hopes of creating something that is really dazzling or forcing us to think about things in new and provocative and progressive ways versus a world in which everyone is so afraid of offending someone else that we end up with, you know, black turtlenecks and gray pants.

  • 13:28:50

    GOLBECKAnd I wonder, on this same line of thought, Madonna was using this kind of Catholic and Christian iconography, but that's something that we see incorporated a lot into fashion and in ways that aren't intended at all to respect it, right, that are, in fact, intended to push buttons. And I wonder how the fact that you kind of get away with that without -- you know, I'm sure there are some people that are offended by it but in popular culture you see a lot of this kind of Christian icons for fashion without the religious aspect. Is that something that's easier to get away with because of this power dynamic you were talking about before?

  • 13:29:26

    GIVHANYeah, I think some of it has to do with the power dynamic for sure. I think some of it has to do with the fact that the very people who are doing it are Christian. I mean, the fact that Madonna was Catholic and she was sort of playing around with a lot of Catholic imagery and in many ways there was such a personal aspect of that that there was, I think, a lot more leeway. I think when it becomes a case of you are challenging someone else's beliefs through your aesthetic point of view that it becomes a more challenging thing to pull off well.

  • 13:30:10

    GIVHANI mean, one of the reasons by Patrick Kelley could embrace and manipulate imagery that would have been -- that was deemed offensive by many people was because it was his history that he was manipulating. It wasn't someone else's.

  • 13:30:31

    GOLBECKWe have a couple more calls on the Washington football team issue. And we'd like to encourage you to call too, whether it's about the Washington football team or fashion more broadly. You can give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. We have a couple calls on this issue right now. And let's start with Sue in Timonium, Md. Sue, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:30:52

    SUEHi. A couple things I wanted to say. One is that I'm very offended by the use of Indian symbols in clothing because I feel it's very inappropriate for Americans to make money off of a culture that they have destroyed. And also because Indians could teach us so much about living in a way that does not cause climate change, that we need to enshrine them rather than use them and make money off of them.

  • 13:31:24

    GOLBECKSue, thanks for your call. I'd like to follow that up with a call from Cody in College Park on this same issue and then have you, Robin, comment on both. Cody in College Park, you're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:31:35

    CODYHi, can you hear me?

  • 13:31:36

    GOLBECKI can.

  • 13:31:37

    CODYHi. So I was hoping that you all could help me connect the dots. I gather, and I understand, the Washington football team name is offensive because the word itself has a long problematic history as a term used to dehumanize, you know, the indigenous people of this continent. And the use of their -- of a stereotype caricature as a mascot involves evoking a whole lot of savage warrior imagery. And I get that that is, you know, a stereotyping and a caricaturing of the people and the use of a word with a long problematic history.

  • 13:32:11

    CODYBut I'm having trouble connecting that to, like the example given earlier of a fashion designer finding say, you know, Quran scripts -- you know, the calligraphy finding that aesthetically pleasing and incorporating that into a design. And I'm having trouble seeing them as examples of this same type of thing. And so I was hoping that maybe you all could discuss that and help me flush out that connection.

  • 13:32:39

    GOLBECKCody, thanks for your call. Robin, your thoughts.

  • 13:32:41

    GIVHANYeah, I mean, I think there are a couple more dots in between the idea of the Redskin logo being deemed offensive and the example of the Quran. I mean, I think what happens along the way is that you take something that is a caricature and you embrace that and use it as a way of -- and use it in a way that is offensive to the original people. And then sort of the next step to that, I think, is when you take something that is perhaps deemed very sacred and very -- and is deeply valued by people, either cultural identity, and you try to incorporate that into some sort of fashion notion, something that you might put on a dress or a T-shirt or a backpack.

  • 13:33:40

    GIVHANAnd the example of the Quran and Chanel was related to the idea of, again, taking something that is deeply held and deemed of profound sacred value to a group of people and using it in a way that you think is completely inoffensive and, in fact, you think it's actually quite beautiful. But you have, you know, violated one of the principles or one of the beliefs or one of the traditions of the people for whom this is something that is very near and dear.

  • 13:34:17

    GIVHANAnd with the other caller, I mean, the only thing that I would say is that I think that it's very dangerous to sort of start saying that one group of people's terrible history and terrible treatment throughout history means that their culture is off limits and should be placed in a glass dome. Because, you know, we don't want to have a battle of who has been treated the worst by history. I mean, that's sort of not very constructive. And I don't think that any history -- any culture can survive and grow and thrive if it's encased in glass.

  • 13:35:02

    GOLBECKIn one unquestionable case of cultural offense, designer John Galliano went on a drunken anti-Semitic rant in 2011. And he's just recently re-entered the world of fashion in a big way. What are the implications of his new job both within the industry and here in D. C.?

  • 13:35:19

    GIVHANWell, it certainly was baffling to the industry just from a purely aesthetic sense because his style, which is quite romantic and floral and flouncy and full of (word?) dresses and theatrical is the complete opposite of what Maison Martin Margiela, where he's not the creative director, has always been. It is a much more tailored, much more minimal, much more classic brand.

  • 13:35:53

    GIVHANAnd I also think just because of his history and the anti-Semitic remarks that he made which got him fired from his original job, I think it raises the question of, you know, when is forgiveness given? And what does someone have to do in order for others in the wider population to believe that they are sincere in their apologies? And I think everyone sort of comes in with a very different answer.

  • 13:36:27

    GIVHANAnd here in Washington, you know, one retailer was hosting a pop-up shop of Martin Margiela and, you know, was not ready to give that kind of space and that much of her personal boutique over to some -- to a company whose decision she had difficulties with.

  • 13:36:51

    GOLBECKAnd I can imagine in D. C. if someone were to come in wearing one of these dresses that it's going to take a very long time before someone on the other side of the aisle doesn't have something negative to say about the political decision to wear something by a designer who has made such an offensive statement.

  • 13:37:08

    GIVHANYeah, I mean, it will be interesting to see what he does creatively in his new role. But I do think that it was one of the few events that happened in fashion, one of the few sort of personnel basically changes that happened in fashion that trickled out and to the broader population and had people discussing really, you know, what it meant when you have someone who is clearly not lucid when they're talking. And he was very public about his addictions to alcohol and to medication. And just how that played into it and how much responsibility he has to accept, how much responsibility perhaps his employer needed to accept for a situation that helped sort of create some of his issues.

  • 13:38:11

    GOLBECKBefore he landed his new job, one of the first people willing to give Galliano a second chance was Oscar de la Renta. The designer who very sadly passed away last month became an American icon despite roots elsewhere in the world. Can you describe for us this base he carved out for himself within the industry and what defined his aesthetic?

  • 13:38:30

    GIVHANWell, he was part of that generation of American designers who really emerged in the '60s and '70s from the shadows of manufacturers and these sort of brand names that didn't really have a designer behind them, a known designer behind them. I mean, they worked in the shadows. And everything emanated from Paris. And he was really instrumental in helping to put the American fashion industry on the international map.

  • 13:39:01

    GIVHANAnd he did that because he had a deep history in the construction of garments from his time spent working in Europe. So much of the technique that he applied to fashion was sort of French in its origin. But he was very much an American designer in the sense that he came to the U.S. because he believed in ready-to-wear. He believed that that was the future of fashion as opposed to couture. And he was able to connect with a group of women who, at the time, were really helping to sort of set the trends and for the fashion industry here and for other women.

  • 13:39:48

    GIVHANAnd he connected with them, I think, not just through his own charm and charisma but because he understood this very fundamental thing, which is that women want to look pretty. It doesn't matter if they're 20 or if they're 80, it doesn't matter if they're political or if they're purely social in their sort of professional lives, that women want to look their best. And he really was able to do that with his work. You know, it was never about him as a designer.

  • 13:40:25

    GIVHANIt wasn't about him showing off how, you know, what great technique he had or how creative and avant-garde he could be. It was always just about, how can I make women look their best? What can my clothes do to help them their best?

  • 13:40:44

    GOLBECKWe have to take a quick break. But there's a lot more to say about Oscar de la Renta and the role his fashion has played in D.C. So stay with us. And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. I'm Jen Golbeck and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 13:41:22

    GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Robin Givhan about authenticity, perception and new twists in fashion. And we'd like to hear from you as well. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Before the break, we were talking about Oscar de la Renta, and during the break, too, actually.

  • 13:41:43

    GOLBECKOne thing that stood out about de la Renta in this town is that even D.C. wonks who might claim they couldn't name a single designer knew who he was. What made his clothing appeal to D.C.'s first ladies and power brokers?

  • 13:41:57

    GIVHANI think he had a really clear sense of what it meant to be appropriate. You know, you did not go to Oscar de la Renta for a sexpot dress. You didn't go to him for something that was going to be avant-garde and leave people scratching their head in confusion. You really went to him when you wanted to look classy and beautiful. And, you know, for a lot of first ladies, I think one of the reasons why he appealed to them was because, you know, I kind of describe him as sort of fully-vetted glamour. That no one was going to call you out for wearing an Oscar de la Renta dress, even if it was a $4,000 dress. You could get away with $4,000 worth of Oscar on your back, but not that much Chanel on your back.

  • 13:42:47

    GIVHANI mean, it was -- in part, there was a regalness to the clothes. But they weren't stuffy. They weren't too ostentatious. Particularly his daywear, it was very tailored. It was -- it could look great on Capitol Hill. But it could also look perfect for a dinner party.

  • 13:43:12

    GOLBECKWe have a lot of callers who want to talk about all kinds of different things. And, again, we'd still like to hear from you at 1-800-433-8850. But let's start with Michael in Washington, D.C. Michael, thanks for holding. You're on the air.

  • 13:43:26

    MICHAELYes, hello. Thank you for having me. I would just like to say, first, that this is a very important and serious topic, especially now that D.C. is going through this, what I think, is a big turn in the fashion. And I think that we have more emerging designers that are coming up in D.C. Originally, I am from Brooklyn, N.Y., and very much into fashion. So you did mention a question earlier and that was in regards to not wearing something that you thought was offensiveness. My answer is, I would definitely not wear anything that I thought was offensive. And as an up-and-coming fashion designer myself, my wife and I, we put together traditional Japanese garments and we fuse them with traditional Hollandais Wax Fabrics.

  • 13:44:24

    MICHAELSo we don’t' take anything away from the Japanese culture. However, we have to make sure that we don't offend anyone that's Japanese. So what we do -- occasionally, we run into is people who want us to modify the garment. And one specific is some women want their cleavage to show. The good thing is that they're designed so that it would be very, very hard for us to modify that. And we keep the traditional sewing techniques that are involved in our garments. So that's really all I have to say, so.

  • 13:45:00

    GOLBECKThanks for your call, Michael. So this is an interesting way that he's talked about not offending the Japanese by not kind of sexifying what are traditional garments from that culture.

  • 13:45:12

    GIVHANYeah, I mean, I think that's admirable. But I also think that, you know, if you -- if you're a designer and, you know, the fundamental thing in your mind is not to offend anyone, I think you are making it very difficult to be as creative as possible. I don't think that you should, obviously, you know, set out to offend and set out to create garments that are, you know, completely the opposite of what the original cultural or traditional garb is that might have inspired you. But I do think that you need to make sure that you're adhering to your vision. And, I mean, I sound like Tim Gunn on "Project Runway."

  • 13:46:06

    GOLBECKI was just thinking that.

  • 13:46:07

    GIVHANBut, you do need to adhere to your vision. Because that, ultimately, is what makes a designer successful. And it's what makes their work stand out. So, you know, too many hands in the pot, all trying to make sure that rules number one through twenty are adhered to, you know, can make for some very muddled clothes. Which I'm sure Michael's are not. I just want to say that.

  • 13:46:34

    GOLBECKThank you. We have a call from Catherine. Catherine, thanks for holding. You've been there for a while. You're on the air. Go ahead.

  • 13:46:42

    CATHERINEOh, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I will be quick with a comment. First of all, I wanted to give my appreciation to Ms. Givhan for her excellent work in The Washington Post covering style. I know she went away for a period. But I'm very, very glad she's back. And I am...

  • 13:46:59

    GIVHANThank you.

  • 13:47:01

    CATHERINE...pretty much does what JCrew tells me to do. So (word?) really have any appreciation for the real power that style does have over a culture and who we are individually. So I think her for her keen observations and also, again, for your nice job hosting the show. So real quickly, I just wanted to comment on -- I appreciate the comment that really -- or the theme that Ms. Givhan is making here that political correctness or caution can go too far and kind of homogenize what we wear too much. But it's my view, and I think this is sending out of an article you wrote last weekend, which is that, you know, our consideration for other people's feelings about what we're wearing can never go too far. So we can be cautious-er (sic) , but consideration can always be rewarded.

  • 13:47:54

    CATHERINEAnd I think you made a very, very, very good point last weekend. And I think it's a particularly poignant discussion you had when you were looking at the sacred wear that was used by some models. You've already raised it in earlier discussions on particularly traditional headdresses and sacred wear of Native Americans. And I think you made a really interesting point, which is when, to me it was really, that when you're co-opting maybe sacred wear -- you had other examples -- that's really not yours to use as a personal currency or to develop revenue. Then you really have to question, you know, whether or not what you're doing is right and disrespectful.

  • 13:48:40

    CATHERINEAnd I thought it was an interesting article that drew the line and made the argument even more clearly for me, why the Washington Redskin -- team name, I'm not even going to use it -- is so inappropriate. And I don't -- I guess the one question I'd have is, what could possibly be gained by continuing down this path, to continue to defend the use of these symbols and the name itself? And I'll take the answer off the air.

  • 13:49:08

    GOLBECKThanks, Catherine. What do you (word?) , Robin? She raised -- she raised a lot of issues there.

  • 13:49:12

    GIVHANYeah. Well, first, I would just say that, you know, the wearing of JCrew is not a capitulation to having no interest in fashion.

  • 13:49:20

    GOLBECKMichelle Obama looks great in her JCrew.

  • 13:49:22

    GIVHANYeah. And I think JCrew has definitely upped the fashion ante of the masses to quite a degree. That said, you know, I don't know what is to be gained. And I don't know that anything is to be gained by the continued use of the Washington football team mascot. I think there's a lot to be gained by a continued conversation about its appropriateness or inappropriateness, its offensiveness or lack of, you know, offense. You know, I think in the conversation, it helps us as, you know, another caller said, you know, sort of connect these dots between the ways in which we engage fashion and a whole other -- in whole other areas and in many other ways.

  • 13:50:13

    GIVHANAnd why we consider certain things to be offensive and why we consider other things to be perfectly fine. You know, I was sort of struck by the fact that when Chanel had its runway show in Texas, with its Texas history theme, that there was a strong reaction to the models coming down the runway in the feathered headdresses. But there was no reaction to a little boy coming down the runway, holding a bedazzled handgun. So, you know, I think, you know, that's food for thought. Why did one disturb us so much more?

  • 13:50:48

    GOLBECKLet's take a call from Debra in Silver Spring. Debra, thanks for holding. You're on the air.

  • 13:50:53

    DEBRAHi. Thanks for taking my call. My comment is actually about Chanel, so it's interesting that you just mentioned the company. I was the biggest fan of Chanel cosmetics, particularly their lipstick, for 15 years. It was all I would wear, until last year when I read the biography that talked about the fact that Chanel was a Nazi sympathizer and actually worked to recruit spies for the Nazi Party. Every time I put the lipstick on, it's just kind of ruined it for me, because I kept thinking, let me put on my Nazi lipstick. And I got rid of everything. And I won't buy it anymore, even though she has been gone for years. And that's -- that's it. Take my comments off the air.

  • 13:51:37

    GOLBECKThanks, Debra. I have to confess that I really love my Chanel lipstick also, but haven't read that biography. So what are your thoughts? I mean this gets a little bit to the Galliano conversation that we were having, though I think on a bigger scale.

  • 13:51:50


  • 13:51:50

    GOLBECKBecause we could maybe forgive him for being intoxicated and not really thinking things through. But this is a much kind of bigger issue. And how does that, you know, affect the decisions we should make about buying a designer and how we should think about the things they design if they're really divorced from the culture that they're maybe offending in their other activities?

  • 13:52:09

    GIVHANWell, in the case of Chanel, I mean, I think it does -- it raises questions that I think every person will have a different answer to, which is sort of where you draw the line in terms of how much you connect a personality to a brand, a morality to a purchase, and where all that figures in your own sense of right and wrong. I mean, Chanel is no longer -- Coco Chanel is no longer with us. And the ownership is very different. And the designer is very different. So I can certainly respect a person's decision not to buy Chanel lipstick. I don't buy it because I think it's really expensive.

  • 13:52:54

    GIVHANBut, you know, I think it's very convoluted and complicated because these companies are run by deeply flawed humans, as all humans are. And I think that having a conversation about what that means furthers our understanding of how deeply the fashion industry affects us in very day-to-day, mundane ways.

  • 13:53:22

    GOLBECKWe're -- we've got about a minute left. But I have one last question for you. You wrote recently about a scene on the TV show, "How to Get Away with Murder," in which actress Viola Davis removes all the layers many women dawn to face the day. Do you think we're seeing some pushback within the entertainment and fashion industry on the pressures women face to always be put together?

  • 13:53:41

    GIVHANI do think they're -- I don't know if it's pushback or if it's a recognition that this is something that people are having a conversation about. When you say pushback, it makes me think that there's a certain change in philosophy or a certain change in how women are represented. But I do think that it's a conversation that is becoming more energetic. And I have to say, I like the conversation. But I also feel that there's a part of it that leaves me a little bit queasy. And it's this idea that there is a certain -- that it's better not to wear makeup, that it's better not to style your hair in a certain way, that it's more authentic, that it's realer -- is that a word even?

  • 13:54:36

    GOLBECKIt is today.

  • 13:54:36

    GIVHANOkay. And that's the only thing that I find a little bit disconcerting, that in our -- in the pushback, as you described it, there's also a certain amount of judgment as well.

  • 13:54:50

    GOLBECKThat's all the time we have. But I'd like to thank Robin Givhan, fashion critic for The Washington Post, for joining us to talk about fashion and culture. Thank you so much for being here.

  • 13:54:59

    GIVHANThank you.

  • 13:55:00

    GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck and you've been listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Have a great afternoon.

  • 13:55:30

    GOLBECKComing up tomorrow on The Politics Hour, the national red wave hits Maryland as Republican Larry Hogan takes the governor's race. In Virginia, a Republican Senate candidate comes within a percent of beating a popular Democrat. Meanwhile, D.C.'s Democratic mayoral candidate cruises to victory. It's The Politics Hour, tomorrow at noon on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at And for listeners in Ocean City, Md., it's Coastal Connection with Bryan Russo.

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