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It’s Tough Being A Fashion Writer During A Global Disaster

You can sympathize with Guy Trebay, the incredibly talented fashion writer at the New York Times. With the news focused on Haiti and Leno/Conan, no one is all that interested in fashion, even with the debut of season seven of Project Runway. So you turn on the TV, catch Anderson Cooper carrying kids to safety on CNN in his tight, black t-shirt, and think: now there’s a story.

Trebay’s analysis of Cooper as fashion-forward inspiration for other male reporters on the runways–or body-scattered rubble–of Port Au Prince had an interesting premise. It’s hard to resist a Fashion Institute of Technology museum director talking about the “semiotics of fashion” in discussing relief workers. And there’s no doubt that Cooper has distinguished himself as the go-to reporter of his generation when it comes to covering disasters. Plus, the guy looks amazing in tight, black t-shirts.

Still, it all felt a little awkward.

Viewers who watched CNN’s earthquake coverage this last week were bound to be struck by correspondents who looked a lot less like the usual disheveled examples of those in the profession than like bendable action figures.

You could call it the Anderson Cooper effect. Mr. Cooper has rarely missed an opportunity to showcase his buff physique (as anyone would know if he or she remembers his stripping to a bathing suit to quiz Michael Phelps). But Mr. Cooper isn’t the only CNN correspondent with a self-conscious taste for form-fitting charcoal T-shirts, accessorized with a tiny microphone clipped at the neck.

Trebay notes that Cooper’s sartorial choices have influenced fellow CNN reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Jason Carroll, who was accused of “looking like a guy who had done 20 quick pushups before going on air” and wearing “a T-shirt so snugly revealing it called into question whether a disaster zone is the place to flaunt one’s gym physique.”

You know that Trebay went too far when the girls at Jezebel and the boys at Queerty are calling Trebay on his fashion don’t. At Jezebel, they quipped “[w]hat I take away from this is that a journalist couldn’t get away with being a mere journalist anymore – you need to be ripped or, like Gupta, ‘newly sleek.’ If you don’t have a body that can be shown off by a tight tee, well, stay behind the camera.” At Queerty, they had some sympathy, saying “while we’d love to beat up on Guy Trebay for reporting on the most irrelevant of topics coming out of a disaster scene, he is the Times fashion scribe, and at least the conversation is not about how the deaths of tens of thousands will impact YSL’s collection.”

Anyone who is a fan of disaster fashion commentary knows that before there was Anderson Cooper, there was storm daddy Jim Cantore covering hurricanes and weather disasters for the Weather Channel. And maybe it’s progress, of some sort, that we are paying as much attention to how male journalists look as we do to how female journalists look on camera.

Still, Cooper and Gupta and Carroll aren’t himbos. Gupta’s a brain surgeon, for heaven’s sake. The fact they have great cheekbones, Bollywood-charm, or killer biceps should not distract from the fact that they are in the middle of covering a global disaster and probably a dark t-shirt is the perfect outfit for the kind of work they were doing.

Trebay definitely has a challenge, trying to put fashion in context when it doesn’t involve Jimmy Choo sling-backs or describing the new, chic hangout for Manhattan’s fashionistas.  There is also no doubt that ever since the Washington Post‘s Robin Givhan became the first fashion writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for dissecting the “semiotics of fashion” as they relate to Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney, you have to try harder to seem relevant.

But maybe a global disaster should be off-limits when it comes to fashion commentary, even if we are talking about high-paid television journalists. There’s going to be plenty of time to analyze Anderson Cooper once he returns from Haiti. And while it is interesting to think about how fashion has changed for journalists, it’s possible that should be a discussion for a New York Times Talk and not while journalists are uncovering the unraveling horror of the Haiti earthquake. Even if they are wearing tight, black t-shirts that show off great biceps.

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