Writers’ duds tell tales, au­thor says

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST/TELEVISION - VANESSA FRIED­MAN

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 re­cently by Harper De­sign.

What? 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.

ut 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,” New­man said. “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 Ce­line 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, 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 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 he did); 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 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). 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.

It makes sense: When you spend a fair amount of time think­ing about why a char­ac­ter would wear some­thing, or what marks a char­ac­ter — his or her value sys­tem — it would be al­most im­pos­si­ble for that same kind of think­ing and anal­y­sis not to fil­ter down into your own wardrobe, whether or not the ef­fect was de­lib­er­ate.

Joan Did­ion ap­pears on the cover of Leg­endary Au­thors and the Clothes They Wore by Terry New­man.

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