I have fully immersed myself in the brilliant world of the original punk poet Patti Smith. Having devoured Smith’s biographical M Train, I immediately moved onto her first novel Just Kids, consumed to the soundtrack of the 1975 debut album Horses. In both, Patti references her beatnik look, a look she has maintained with just a few modifications.
Smith took to writing after reading Little Women and, like many of us, Louisa May Alcott’s tomboy heroine Jo became her hero. The young Pattie was a lost soul in Camden, New Jersey, the small-minded town of her childhood – her boyish style standing out like a sore thumb. ‘Everything awaited me,’ she writes in Just Kids of the moment she boarded a bus to New York in 1967 at the age of twenty dressed in a black turtleneck, dungarees and large raincoat.
Her dear friend and one-time lover, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, shot the cover of Horses capturing Smith in an oversized man’s white shirt, her black jacket slung over her shoulders. It’s a powerful image: Smith’s piercing gaze penetrating the camera, combined with her androgynous style. It immortalised her look.
Which takes us to William Burroughs, the godfather of beat who famously disdained fashion and always wore a three-piece-suit replete with his signature fedora hat. Certain accessories can also define a writer – Zadie Smith’s exotic head-piece, James Joyce’s wire-framed glasses, Samuel Beckett’s Wallabees.
This is the premise of Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, recently published by Harper Design. The author Terry Newman, former editor of fashion magazines i-D and Attitude, has selected 50 of her literary icons and delved into their wardrobes to unravel the sartorial stories they tell. The illustrated profiles of prominent men and women of letter, highlights their key works and signature fashion moments, what it says about the author and its impact on the wider world of fashion.
Some are more obvious choices than others. Oscar Wilde was clearly a writer with a huge appetite for clothes, an obsession he extended to his fictional characters. ‘Fashion is what one wears oneself,’ he famously wrote in 1895 in An Ideal Husband. ‘What is unfashionable is what other people wear.’
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were huge style celebrities. What they wore and how they chose to live, their fast lifestyle, all morphed into their personal lives and the characters they created through fiction. He wore a three-piece tweed suits, a pocket handkerchief and tie; she, a southern belle having been styled by him, took to championing an effortlessly chic wardrobe by day and party dresses trimmed in sequins and fur by night.
Possibly one of the most stylish authors here is Joan Didion, who wrote for and was a regular on the pages of Vogue. ‘Her writing is infused with descriptive analysis of clothing as cultural consideration,’ writes Newman of the American writer. Didion’s essential wardrobe packing list was immortalised in her 1979 collection of essays The White Album – a list that, for years, she kept taped inside her closet door. And as a testimony to her powerful image, Juergen Teller photographed her at 81, still looking fabulous for the Céline spring 2015 fashion campaign.
What we wear says a great deal about who we are. As writers, the characters we create through clothes can also then whittle their way into our fictional characters. And visa-versa. Sometimes a strong fictional character would influence a look that sticks. Virginia Woolf would use the term ‘frock consciousness’ to refer to the way she would often employ clothing to define and change her fictional characters.
The links in Legendary Authors are sometimes a little fragile, with Newman on occasion allowing the narrative to fit the subject. Yet, this is an entertaining read for the added quotes and anecdotes on each author, as well as the brilliant archival photography. It is also hugely fun delving into the wardrobes of some of my own literary idols here. What they wear provides a glimpse into the world they inhibit and their moment in time. We are what we wear and we wear what we hope to be.
Legendary Authors and The Clothes They Wore is written by Terry Newman and published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Hardback.
All images: Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore published by HarperCollins © Alamy Picture Agency