When she was at Radcliffe, Gertrude Stein always wore black and refused to wear a corset. Samuel Beckett liked Wallabee boots and Aran sweaters and settled on his hairstyle when he was 17. Edith Sitwell bought furnishing fabrics and had them made into dresses. William Burroughs “branded himself” in a suit and tie. Zadie Smith is rarely photographed without her head wrap.
These are some of the telling details in what may be the most counterintuitive book of summer thus far, “Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore,” published this week by Harper Design.
What? you say. Writers and the clothes they wore? But isn’t one of the great benefits of being a writer that what you wear doesn’t matter, because you are hidden away in your house? That it’s your words that go into the world, and your image remains behind? That you can roll up to your desk and write in your pajamas and fuzzy Elmo slippers and no one has to know?
That is pretty much how it is presented on TV, after all.
Yet that stereotype is as much a fiction as any fiction, according to the British journalist and lecturer Terry Newman, whose surprisingly convincing thesis is that the sartorial choices authors make are deeply connected to the narrative choices they make — or, as Beckett put it, “the fabric of language” they use. And that as a result, in developing their own idiosyncratic style signatures, they created trends that fashion itself seized on, was inspired by and still finds a fertile source of ideation today.
Put another way: Want to understand the genesis of many of those items hanging in your closet? Cherchez the writer.
“In the beginning, I thought perhaps people would think I was a bit crazy to pick all these literary heavyweights and write about their clothes,” Ms. Newman said by phone from Britain when I called to ask her about it. “And I did think, ‘Well, is my premise correct?’”
She became interested in the topic because of her twin fascinations for fashion and reading and, originally, just sat down and made a list of her favorite authors (as opposed to, say, simply the authors with the clearest connection to fashion, like Joan Didion, recent star of a Céline campaign, though she is also in the book).
Out of the 50 writers included in the book — from T. S. Eliot and George Sand to Malcolm Gladwell and Joyce Carol Oates — there wasn’t one, Ms. Newman said, who didn’t prove a rich subject as she combed through their writing and interviews. Though they often overtly rejected the diktats of the runway, in doing so they drafted diktats of their own.
Authors may be a more authentic case study for understanding the sometimes subconscious connections between identity and image than any politician or celebrity — than anyone with a job that nominally requires regular public appearances and hence demands awareness of the tools of nonverbal communication. After all, they have no stylists, or even a nominal dress code. And yet every so often, when a book appears, they have to represent themselves in the world.
“I always differentiate between the ‘writer’ and the ‘author,’” said Molly Stern, publisher of the Crown, Hogarth and Archetype imprints. “The ‘author’ performs the professional role; the ‘writer,’ the creative one.” Clothes can act as a bridge between the two.
Some of the authors Ms. Newman looked at are more obvious about their sartorial signatures than others: Tom Wolfe, for example, with his white suits and spats (though Mark Twain did the white suit thing before him); Fran Lebowitz with her masculine tailoring (though again, George Sand got there first). Yet even in the case of less obvious names like David Foster Wallace there is synergy between what is on the page and what was on the person. Or between his kinetic, original prose, and what Ms. Newman calls his “hell, yeah” bandanna, which he was rarely seen without.
In the same way that pet owners sometimes come to resemble their animals, writers often come to resemble their discourse (or, in the case of John Updike, their main character — which is to say, suburbia). Ms. Stern refers to it as a “stylistic earmark.” And she is not referring to just those authors who are part of the “write what you know” contingent, or those who use their own life as fodder for their imagination.
This is something Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher thrillers (who is not in Ms. Newman’s book, but is arguably legendary in the genre world), also acknowledged in a piece for The Financial Times about the decision to create a hero who doesn’t have a wardrobe but rather buys what he needs for as little as possible, wears it, discards it and replaces it as necessary. While on book tour, Mr. Child wrote, he ended up adopting the same strategy.
“Fiction started to spill over into reality,” he wrote. “And gradually I became Jack Reacher, at least as far as clothes were concerned. I buy cheap stuff in New York and junk it stop by stop, replacing it with whatever I can find.”
Ms. Stern said: “It used to be that the author photo created the image, so how you dressed for that was very important. But now it’s much more dynamic because social media has made it impossible for even authors not to be aware of how they present in the world. And you have to think very carefully about all the permutations of that.”
As Ms. Newman discovered, Virginia Woolf actually had a name for this awareness: “frock consciousness.” She used it to refer to the way she employed clothing to denote character, and changes in character, particularly as they applied to her book “Mrs. Dalloway.” But really, it’s a (not surprisingly) perfect turn of phrase that could apply to us all.