How to dress like a writer

The author as a fashion icon.

The first time I heard Zadie Smith read was during a literature festival in Dublin in the early 2000s. I’ve forgotten the text, but what I haven’t forgotten is what she was wearing. Smith, who was 28 years old at the time, stood in a room brimming with academia wearing a simple denim jacket and a turban. It was refreshing, unexpected and really quite brave. Not long after, I met the Norwegian poet Knut Ødegård wearing a blazer and bow tie that looked like a merry canary under his collar. That’s when I peaked down at myself and realized there was room for improvement, not only in terms of what I wrote, but how I presented myself.

Zadie Smith with the head scarf that has become her signature. Photo: Dominique Nabakov.

“Literary people today are usually an adequately dressed grey mass of half-successful scholarship recipients,” Norwegian journalist Audun Vinger wrote earlier this fall, claiming that most authors today have no clue how to dress. The starting point for Vinger’s comment was the book Legendary Authors and The Clothes They Wore by the fashion journalist and editor Terry Newman, which immediately sent me into one-click-mode on Amazon. After having spent time with a great deal of writers over the years, I have to agree with Vinger – though the writing is often elegant, the outfits are usually not.

Terry Newman’s book is full of great outfits. That’s is how it’s done, I thought, gazing down at Samuel Beckett’s sheepskin jacket, Simone de Beauvoir’s headband, Dona Tartt’s ladies tux and Truman Capote’s white hat. Then I started to actually read. I looked at the pictures again, not the people in them, only the clothes, after all, what’s what the book is about. How special were the sartorial efforts of Sylvia Plath, Dorothy Parker, John Updike and Virginia Woolf?

A simple polo neck and a gamin hair cut is all it takes to look great, as Francoise Sagan demonstrates in this photo. It also helps to actually be French. Photo: Burt Glinn.

Not that special, as it turns out. On the book cover, Joan Didion is standing with her hair loose and a cigarette in her hand in front of a white Corvette Stingray. She looks absolutely amazing, but her dress is long and shapeless, the kind of garment that only works on very skinny people, perhaps the least remarkable aspect of the photo. Virginia Woolf, whose sense of style Newman describes as “intellectual, nonchalant and eccentric”, was in fact quite insecure when it came to her own appearance, her friends described her as sloppy dresser. There is, in all honesty, very little evidence that the authors Newman writes about were particularly concerned with how they dressed. The pages are filled with author’s quotes, but almost none of them are about clothes.

No author dressed better than Samuel Beckett, while Susan Sontag was extremely photogenic. I don’t know how much thought they put into their outfits when these pictures were taken, but they both look great. Photo Gisele Freund and Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.

Some authors really deserve the term style icons. Samuel Beckett had an outstanding physique and looked fabulous in almost everything he wore, whether it was a duffelcoat, a tweed jacket or a simple shirt. (He also, based on a photo on the website, looked really good in no clothes at all.) In an interview in the latest issue of Apartamento magazine, the writer and journalist Gay Talese talks about the calamity of wearing a double-breasted suit, especially in situations where one has to sit, the kind of know-how I thought only stylists carried around.

The American journalist and the author Gay Talese has made the tailored suit for his trademark. Photo: Robyn Twombly

It’s certainly true that authors dressed better in the past, but my God, so did journalists and look at us now. The truth is, most professionals dress worse than they did half a century a go, when men wore suits every day and women walked to the office in a hat, but therein lays the obvious advantage of the author. No one really expects much from them. They’re not supposed to care about fashion; they’re supposed emerge themselves in far more important questions than the hem of a skirt or the collar of a coat.

Simone de Beauvoir may have worn her hair like that because it was practical, but it became on of her trademarks.

Cindy Crawford said that Richard Avedon gave her some great advice when it came to posing. Think of something specific when you are in front of the camera, Avedon said, you must always have a thought in your head. He was right, of course, because it’s not really the clothes that make the people in Terry Newman’s book look so intriguing, but rather their ideas, attitude and body language – in short everything that makes up a personality. Character is the key to looking great, Newman writes, which is why Joan Didion became a campaign model for Céline at the age of 81 – not because she was a style icon, but because she is a cultural icon. Fifty years after the photo session in front of the Corvette, she is more fashionable than ever. And it’s not about the dress.

Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore by Terry Newman, HarperDesign, 2017. Header photo: Albert Camus by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

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