Clothes and Prose: on literary fashion icons

Should you judge a book by its cover? Should you judge an author by his 'aesthetic lecturing costume'? Mel Campbell looks into the fashion philosophies of literary figures past and present.

Zadie Smith. Photo: Jan Postma (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Writing is a job for which, gloriously, it doesn’t matter how you dress. Many writers like to establish intellectual credibility by pointing, self-deprecatingly, to the shabby garments they wear to write. The implication is that their rich inner lives don’t require them to make an effort with outer appearances.

Indeed, in a 2014 essay for Elle magazine, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remembers how her joy in dressing well was eroded by a dispiriting realisation in young adulthood: in the West, women writers who wanted to be taken seriously must affect a disdain for fashion.

‘The only circumstance under which caring about clothes was acceptable was when making a statement, creating an image of some sort to be edgy, eclectic, counterculture,’ she recalls. ‘It could not merely be about taking pleasure in clothes.’ Only once Adichie felt established in her career did she return to wearing things that made her feel happy.

Zadie Smith is today considered something of a fashion icon, but as a bookish youth, she told The Rumpus in 2013, she ‘just wanted to live in the library and wear a sack’. Only when she went to Italy, ‘where beauty is taken seriously and enjoyed and it’s okay to enjoy it,’ did she come to ‘appreciate the idea of a beautiful fabric or a nice dress. I never cared about those things when I was young.’

But writers need to care about those things in their author headshots. And at book launches, festival panels, and the other events that help craft the public face writers present to the world. Think of Tom Wolfe, in his white linen suits and Panama hats. Donna Tartt, severe in tailored black suits with crisp white shirts. Oscar Wilde in his ‘aesthetic lecturing costuming’ of velvet jackets, floppy ties and knee breeches, with a green carnation in his buttonhole.

Virginia Woolf referred to such writerly self-presentation as ‘frock consciousness’ – and she loathed it

Virginia Woolf referred to such writerly self-presentation as ‘frock consciousness’ – and she loathed it. Woolf did adore clothes for their beauty, luxury and their role in expressing good taste – in her diaries, she describes her ‘great lust for lovely stuff’. But she recoiled from the way clothes draw attention to the body, and rejected the idea of making herself publicly present through dress. Instead, for Woolf, frock consciousness created a protective ‘envelope’ against a vulgar, populist world: using clothing not to adorn, but rather to swathe.

Oscar Wilde. Photo: Napoleon Sarony via Wikimedia Commons

Despite writing for British Vogue between 1924 and 1926, Woolf regarded journalism as ‘a beastly business’. She despised the magazine’s editor, Dorothy Todd, whose physicality she described to friends as: ‘snouted … like some primeval animal emerging from the swamp, muddy, hirsute…’

And she dreaded the public ordeal of clothes shopping. ‘Fashion has secret crannies off Hanover Square, round about Bond Street, to which it withdraws discreetly to perform its more sublime rites,’ Woolf wrote in her 1932 essay ‘Oxford Street Tide’. ‘In Oxford Street there are too many bargains … The buying and selling is too blatant and raucous.’

Zadie Smith, on the other hand, nurtures ‘a deep love for high-street clothes, that’s what I grew up on. My mother always said I make expensive clothes look cheap and cheap clothes look expensive.’

In her last known sitting for a professional photographer, in 1939, Woolf changed her blouse three times and her jacket once, trying to find the right envelope. Recently, Toni Jordan wrote a more playful account of getting an author headshot taken. Refusing to ironically belittle her appearance – ‘I think everyone should be kind toward themselves’ – Jordan instead focused on the strange malleability of a writer’s appearance through costuming, make-up and photographic direction.

The final result – which shows Jordan smiling confidently, a diamond brooch winking from her apple-green wiggle dress – definitely captures the saucy glamour many readers associate with her. But in describing the photo shoot, Jordan suggests that such images are ludicrously irrelevant to a writer’s real allure. As Siri Hustvedt ruminated in 2012, we can only see our physical selves in distorted and partial ways. Clothing, on the other hand, offers a more coherent expression of our ideas about ourselves. 

And where do we get these ideas? For Hustvedt, Hollywood stars provide inspiration. They ‘take the place of the mirror for a while,’ she writes, ‘and we see ourselves in them’. But before the movies came along, we projected ourselves onto characters in novels, too. And sometimes, authors can celebrate their own tastes in winning prose such that the two become inextricable.

Virginia Woolf. Photo from Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons

Aged six, Joan Didion fantasised about the glamour of being 24. For her, this involved wearing a sable fur coat and sunglasses. Didion has continued to pursue fanciful aesthetic ideals, even down to her latter-day career as a sunglasses model for fashion label Céline. And she’s adored for it. The ‘Didion package seems to appeal most intensely to today’s 24-year-olds

Women in Clothes, a 2014 anthology edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, surveyed more than 600 women on how and why they dress. Most of the usual American cool girls of letters are represented. But by far my favourite participant was Sydney-based writer, zine-maker and expert op-shopper Vanessa Berry, who possesses a rare talent for noticing and exploring the textures of everyday life.

Berry’s approach to dressing is contemplative to the point of magical thinking. When she wants to feel powerful she wears black, ‘like the black of a killer whale’. She saves her most amazing dresses for special occasions, so as not to exhaust their magic; she seeks to preserve her best items by using the second-best equivalents, which then become her cherished favourites.

Like her writing, Berry’s dressing combines observational details with leaps of imagination. Writing and dressing are intertwined: both publicly express something interior and deeply felt. Both convey complex, fraught feelings and sensations, both explore personal philosophies or strategies, and both allow observers to deduce character.

Writing and dressing are intertwined: both publicly express something interior and deeply felt.

Linda Grant, in her perceptive 2009 book, The Thoughtful Dresser, refers to clothes whimsically as ‘our fabric friends’ that ‘comfort and protect us: they allow us to be who we want to be’. Grant writes that clothes tell ‘the story of our lives … As if the textile itself has memory, formed as it is out of its intimate closeness with our bodies…’

Joan Didion for Celine.

Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth narrates the terrible fall from grace of beautiful, foolish Lily Bart. In the novel’s penultimate scene, Lily sits in her shabby boarding-house room with her few remaining fancy dresses, vividly reliving the occasions on which she wore them. ‘An association lurked in every fold: each fall of lace and gleam of embroidery was like a letter in the record of her past. She was startled to find how the atmosphere of her old life enveloped her.’

For Wharton, a tastemaker on matters of style and design, clothes are public status symbols: pageant costumes for Gilded Age social rituals. (Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which gave us the term ‘conspicuous consumption’, was published in 1899, just as Wharton’s literary career was kicking off.)

But for notorious misanthrope Patricia Highsmith, clothing is for masquerade. In Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr Ripley, clothing symbolises the mutability of identity. A stolen Princeton jacket propels Tom Ripley on his fateful mission to Italy, where he becomes increasingly obsessed with gilded youth Dickie Greenleaf. In a famously mortifying scene, Tom is caught trying on Dickie’s clothes.

Later, when Dickie is dead, Tom delights in acquiring his former friend's shabbily luxurious wardrobe.

‘The cuff links, the white silk shirts, even the old clothes – the worn brown belt with the brass buckle, the old brown grain-leather shoes, the kind advertised in Punch as lasting a lifetime, the old mustard-coloured coat sweater with the sagging pockets, they were all his and he loved them all.’

Of all the literary pleasures found in clothing, this has got to be among the most sensual. And the most perverse.

Portrait of Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, film and TV critic, and co-host of the fortnightly literature and culture podcast The Rereaders. Her first book was the non-fiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, and she’s the co-author of romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy due to be published in 2017.

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