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This is a tale of the difference between fashion reporting and third-rate fashion punditry. The Obamas, you see, went on vacation. And now it's time for the Obama women (or woman and girls) to be chastised for their lapses in appropriate dress being female.

The Washington Post once again set their fashion reporter, the execrable Robin Givhan, loose to do her utmost to shame yet another woman in politics. The crime? Michelle Obama's shorts. By Givhan's account, Obama looked just fine -- not ill-fitted or sloppy.

But that doesn't make the ensemble okay.

That's right, Givhan is back to her self-appointed role policing the amount of skin shown by political women. Michelle Obama's legs don't come in for quite the amount of uncomfortable, misogynist haranguing Givhan dealt out to a quarter inch of Hillary Clinton's cleavage in 2007, but that is a tough standard to meet. After all, Clinton's decorous-yet-not-turtleneckish neckline was both grotesquely embarrassing and inappropriately sexual.

The cleavage, however, is an exceptional kind of flourish. After all, it's not a matter of what she's wearing but rather what's being revealed. It's tempting to say that the cleavage stirs the same kind of discomfort that might be churned up after spotting Rudy Giuliani with his shirt unbuttoned just a smidge too far. No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!

So that's the Givhan standard. And it appears that she has received sufficient blowback in the past for that or similar bullshit that she's now a tad defensive: There are two full paragraphs of attempted preemption in this article. The latter:

Bringing up the subject of the current first lady's shorts -- indeed even admitting to noticing them -- already has people booting up their laptops and taking big, gulping swigs of self-righteousness before firing off e-mails and tweets declaring the whole discussion pointless. But until the West Wing -- and not the East -- starts regularly fielding inquiries regarding china patterns, decorators and the menu for upcoming White House dinners and luncheons, the first lady will be burdened with matters of aesthetics. And her person remains the primary device in communicating her philosophy.

Ok. Let's lay aside for the moment that "stupid trivializing of presidents' wives is common" is not actually a legitimate defense for doing so yourself. Even taking that on its own terms, you're still responsible for the content and quality of your opinions. And when you're accusing others of self-righteousness in the midst of 1,160 words of self-righteous tut-tutting about someone else's perfectly presentable shorts, the content and quality of your opinions is instantly impeached.

In this case, Givhan's opinions boil down to: Fashion matters (defensive again! -- and on the only correct point she seems able to make, at that), and it somehow degrades the presidency for the first lady to go on vacation dressed like a person going on vacation. The sad part is, what's degraded in this article is that one viable point:

The reality is that a good portion of the culture has become loudly vocal about how clothes don't matter and how it's snobbish or shallow to suggest that they do. But clothes are part of our broader aesthetic obligation to each other. That commitment pushes homeowners to mow their lawns and not be a blight to the neighborhood. It makes them think twice before painting their houses in psychedelic stripes. The desire to be aesthetically respectful means guests give consideration to what they wear to a friend's wedding or mourners take care in how they dress for a loved one's funeral.

Certainly. But a relentless, prudish penchant for simultaneously attacking women for showing skin -- any skin, however modest -- while also slamming frumpish or unfashionable attire on women does fashion no favors and is stupid and misogynist besides. Robin Givhan's take on fashion is in its own way as pure a distillation of Village thinking as David Broder on his best day.

While Givhan is punditry at its most banal, the New York Times' Catherine St. Louis takes Malia Obama's hairstyle on that same vacation as a point in some nice reporting. Let me repeat that: Reporting.

Apparently the never-racist commenters on certain rightwing blogs thought it was inappropriate that Malia Obama spent part of the summer with her hair twisted rather than straightened. Rather than joining in the chorus, Givhan-like, St. Louis actually takes on some of the multitude of cultural issues embedded in those criticisms:

The "good hair" issue has almost always skewed toward women. Black men with highly textured hair have long had a convenient, socially acceptable option: a close trim. Many black women get into the habit of relaxing hair as girls — when the choice is made by their mother or another relative — so changing the status quo as an adult can be difficult.

For many people no matter their race or hair texture, accepting yourself "as you are" is a high bar. The history of beauty is one of dissatisfaction and transformation: brunettes become blondes; white women get their curly hair Japanese-straightened. To go from short to shoulder-length and back again, celebrities from Britney Spears to Queen Latifah use weaves, which require a stylist to sew or to glue someone else’s hair into tracks on the scalp.

She also makes clear that even a relatively in-depth, well-sourced newspaper article will not be the final word on any of these issues, drawing on interviews with at least seven people and citing a documentary film (the forthcoming Good Hair, which I'm now looking forward to), two academic books, and two websites. St. Louis allows for complexity, acknowledges that the politics of "good hair" fall more heavily on some groups than others but points to often-unseen ways hair is a broader preoccupation than we might admit, and, ultimately, uses the differing opinions and experiences she recounts to demonstrate that differing choices are acceptable, appropriate, and yes, fashionable.

It is a striking contrast. One only wishes that Robin Givhan, the purveyor of shame, would have the sense to be shamed by it.

Update: I didn't have time to include today's "spectacularly dumb" entry by Givhan, but it does give some further data points for diagnosing exactly what she thinks she's doing. What her editors think they're doing remains another question.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Aug 30, 2009 at 10:02 AM PDT.

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