Robin Givhan

Robin Givhan: 'Femininity Is About Taking Pride In Your Appearance'

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Fashion Editor of The Washington Post shares her definition of femininity

Growing up in Detroit in the flyover industrial heart of the US, where previous generations of African-Americans had migrated from the rural south looking for a better life, no one in my family talked specifically about femininity – or masculinity, for that matter.

Instead, my parents, who had grown up in Mississippi – land of red-clay soil, kudzu vine and the derogatory Jim Crow character – talked about what 
it meant to be a lady.

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But what I've come to realise as an adult is that the qualities that were associated with being a lady speak to a powerful and personal form of femininity – one that isn't predicated just on lipstick and high heels.

Robin Givhan with André Leon Talley

My parents taught me that femininity was personal dignity, aesthetic pleasure and social armour.

When I think of femininity, I think of the surface qualities that resonate deep into my core. For example, as a 
child, I remember my mother, who died in 2012, telling me to stand up straight and not to walk as if I was 'digging potatoes'.

My mother wanted me to stop walking with my head down, with a gait that was plodding and a focus that was oblivious to my environment. She wanted me to walk tall, to glide gracefully and effortlessly.

To her, that wasn't just aesthetically more pleasing, but it also signified dignity and confidence. It was a way of disavowing burdens; nothing can drag you down. In that way, femininity was about carrying oneself with self-assuredness, as well as self-respect.

Years later, as a fashion editor, I 
was always struck by the way models moved on the runway. In particular, 
I remember the splendid Shalom Harlow, who always glided down a catwalk no matter how impossibly high her heels or outlandish her ensemble.

She embodied grace and control – and to me, femininity. I know there are those who will glare at me in disdain as I say this, but here goes: the heels, the delicate sway of her back, the glancing smile. That was classic femininity to me.

Harlow's balletic quality on the runway was a kind of performance. Her femininity was self-conscious and studied. There was nothing nonchalant about it; it was considered choreography.

Frankly, 
it looked exhausting.

But it exuded swan-like beauty. It was feminine.

The heels, the delicate sway of her back, the glancing smile. That was classic femininity to me

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Whether it was Harlow pirouetting down a John Galliano runway or 
my mother's insistence on proud posture, femininity did seem like 
a very conscious decision. It was time-consuming.

My dear mother was always concerned that my hair was neat 
and proper. Sometimes she'd look 
at my just-rolled-out-of-bed mop 
and sigh, 'You need to get a hairstyle.'

She wasn't obsessed with perfect 
hair or the latest trendy cut, but 
what she did care about was making 
sure that I looked like I'd made 
an effort, that I cared about my appearance.

She believed in dressing appropriately and dressing up. It was a way of honouring the event as well 
as yourself. Femininity is about taking pride in your appearance.

For a long time, designers interpreted dressing up as striving 
for perfect artifice. Just look at 
the glamorous black and white photographs of women from the Fifties in their dinner dresses and luncheon suits.

Underneath it all, 
they wore girdles and slips and Cross Your Heart bras. Good grief!

The best thing about the arrival of hippies, waifs, grunge, deconstruction and Instagram was the recognition that we can find beauty and value in imperfections. Fashion's feminine ideal shifted seismically.

Femininity could be gap-toothed and unshaven. It could lumber down a runway. It could have imperfect proportions. 
It could be athletic and sweaty. Femininity became an expression 
of quirks and personal power. Femininity was a kind of defiance.

The fabulous designer John Bartlett at #CFDA

A photo posted by Robin Givhan (@robingivhan) on

Fashion shifted from the perfection of a Dior suit to the faded, vintage charm of a Dries van Noten dress. It shifted from the 'lady mogul' dressing of Giorgio Armani to the work-life balance of Céline. The look of femininity was being redefined.

When critics denied Michelle Obama's femininity, they denied her womanhood

For a year, I left behind many of 
my fashion duties to cover First Lady Michelle Obama. Most of my time was focused on her initiatives on nutrition and the arts, but I also noticed something about femininity, too.

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My mother admired Michelle because she seemed to have been raised by an old-fashioned mother who shared a similar belief about femininity and what it meant to 
be a lady, and how the two were intertwined.

In fielding the feedback – so often vitriolic, racist and vulgar 
– from stories about this African-American first lady, I quickly understood the imperfectly protective quality of femininity. 


My mother's ardent belief in behaving like a lady was her way of shielding 
me from a stubbornly enduring, historical bias that femininity, in its truest form, is ultimately the purview of white women (blonde, blue-eyed damsels), not black women (strong, angry, emasculating). Fashion designers clamoured to dress 
Michelle.

A generation of gym-going women pestered their personal trainers for tips on how to get her arms. An entire news cycle was devoted to her hair. But none of that made her feminine in the eyes of those determined to see her as otherwise.

She took on the role of Mum-in-Chief, fretting about the diet of the nation's children, inviting them to 
a Kids' State Dinner and dropping 
the shield of formality to perform in kitschy videos to encourage kids to eat their vegetables and study hard. But none of that made her feminine. ›

She is a wife. A mother. A daughter. But none of that made her feminine. When critics denied her femininity, they denied her womanhood.

If clothes, beauty regimens, maternal instincts, even biology, didn't make Michelle feminine in the eyes of critics, did anything? Perhaps not. But for those who admired her, Michelle's dignity made her feminine. Her refusal to be defined by anyone other than herself made her feminine.

Her belief in the power of kindness, the sanctity of grace and the value 
of self – that all made her feminine.

Femininity is beautiful, strong and glorious

The definition of femininity has expanded over the years. It is far broader for today's generation of young women than yesterday's. 
But I'm not sure that it has necessarily become more inclusive.

Femininity is beautiful, strong and glorious. It is valuable and worth protecting. It's important to see the femininity in all women, which in a way means seeing the value in them. Black women know they are feminine.

So many of them revel in the 'superficial' aspects of it – from hairstyles to shoes – and others have a relentless faith in its deeper meanings: the same ones that characterise Michelle Obama.

Worth waiting for... #rosieassoulin resort 2017

A photo posted by Robin Givhan (@robingivhan) on

As fashion evolves and the world changes, I'm certain that the industry will become more inclusive. It has to. The question is whether it will accept diversity with a warm embrace or with grudging inevitability?

And the clothes? The most feminine ones are those that highlight ease, grace and freedom – without ever forgetting the importance 
of beauty and creativity. Because without fashion's exquisite invention, all we'd be left with is yoga pants.

This essay originally appeared in the December issue of ELLE UK

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