From penciled, lacquered lips to stripper-pole, varnished toenails, Cindy Sherman epitomizes the pairing of fashion and visual art. The bold unibrow and regional clothing of Frida Kahlo evinces strength and independence in her paintings. Andy Warhol’s silver wig and black turtleneck branded his myth. Ruffled shirts and long locks evoke Romantic poets, while berets and oversized sweaters beckon Beatnik writers. Word artists illustrate their style, as well. London-based Terry Newman’s book, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, profiles 50 past and current writers whose clothing choices demonstrate her belief that, “Fashion is a history book, as well as a mirror, and the incidental assimilation of who is wearing what, where, why and when adds density to a cultural read.”
Gwynned Vitello: From Mark Twain slouched in a white suit to Patti Smith in leather jacket and jeans, we conjure a distinct sartorial image of famous writers, so it seems natural to have come up with the idea for this book. Was there a particular photo or personality that initially inspired you?
Terry Newman: Growing up, I was always fascinated by the authors, as well as the books I read. I have loved books and clothes forever! My early heroes were people like Quentin Crisp and his brave flamboyance, Joe Orton and his edgy sexuality, Simone de Beauvoir and her intellectual chic, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda for their chaotic and mesmerizing cool. Images of all these authors were in my mind’s eye when I was initially excited by the project.
Do you have a favorite book passage where a description of clothing was indelible in creating place, time and personality?
The clearest image of fashion is in Proust talking about Fortuny. Albertine’s gold and blue gown is described in raptures: “the tempting phantom of that invisible Venice… like the columns from which the oriental birds that symbolized alternately life and death were repeated in the shimmering fabric …” This is why Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé revered Proust: the magical and divine aspect of fashion is encapsulated by his writing. The moment in time he writes about—post-Bell Époque—is beautifully spotlit, when gowns were beginning to streamline and women were starting to dress in a more relaxed and fluid way; but still the clothes worn by the most fashionable, upper class women were divinely made and so beautiful.
Describe how two writers like William Burroughs and Sylvia Plath chose clothing to dress in an outward look of refined uniformity, despite their churning personal lives.
Both writers used clothes as a shield. Burroughs was the first straight-edged fashion icon. He dressed like a traveling salesman to disguise his raving edginess. He was described as a “Giacometti sculpture in a demob suit” and an “hombre invisible.” This worked well for him; it meant he could be himself without drawing attention to his wayward ways. Sylvia Plath, meanwhile, used clothes as a way of buttoning up in public. She used them to try and keep a grip on her outward sensibilities when all the while she was unraveling inside. The cherry-pie cheeriness of her 1950s dream wardrobe disguised the torment she felt inside.
As opposed to those writers, would you say that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as Jacqueline Susann, wore clothing to create a fantasy?
Jacqueline Susann is one of my favorite writers, and she was, without a doubt, camera-ready at all times. She lived for her audience and dressed to impress—without the help of a stylist. She didn’t pretend to be anything other than exactly who she was and presented this in her clothes that were smart and vivacious. I love her Pucci dresses and high, back-combed hair combination. I think the point about all the writers in Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore is that they dressed in a way that showed some aspect of their personalities and the character they exuded. They haven’t tried to be styled or uniform, and this is exactly what is appealing about their fashion sense. Even with F. Scott and Zelda—their fantastical flapper lifestyle may well have been doomed, but they dressed in a way that punctuated their aims and ambitions: to have fun and look good while doing it.
How would you compare how Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde dressed in expression of their sexuality?
Well, both Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde were unapologetic about their sexuality and projected their character via clothing in their own unique way. Of course, Wilde, who famously wore velvet and satin, was married to a woman, as well as had homosexual affairs, and he is intriguingly seductive to both sexes. Joe Orton was assertively homosexual and quite masculine, even though he wore a fur coat. He didn’t exist within the clichéd expectation of the effeminate gay man who was prevalent during the end of the 1960s, and didn’t bow down to an expected way of being gay, which, of course, we know doesn’t exist anyway. However, this was brave and pioneering of both of them during their lifetimes.
Which authors especially express a distinct moment in time?
Even though all of the writers in the book are legendary, they are all distinct in their moment in time too. If you look at Colette, for example, she writes about existing on eggless mayonnaise and meager rations during the war, as well as shoes without leather and the hopelessness of fashion magazines that showed images of clothes she had nowhere to wear due to the austerity of the time. She continued to look amazing, though, and her kohl-rimmed eyes were her signature look. It was one thing she could continue, with or without rationing, to some extent. F. Scott and Zelda are also poster icons of the roaring 20s with their fur and pearls. And although she is distinctly modern, there is an element of Patti Smith that will always speak to New York in the 70s, I think.
Because writers create mood and character with choice and arrangement of words, would you say that they are especially attuned to making particular fashion choices?
I think that writers who have a distinct voice in their writing are authentic and original, and this carries over into the clothes they wear. They are being themselves in their books, expressing an opinion or an idea, and equally, most usually without aforethought, they naturally please themselves with their clothes. Sometimes to magical effect—as per the authors in my book.
Of course, I wonder if you have a favorite, the one who created a particularly indelible image.
All of the authors in my book are favorites and have a wonderful charisma that I think is translated into the photographs that are included. One of the most captivating is of Joan Didion, the cover star as shot by Julian Wasser. This image is completely amazing. Tranquil, cool, effortless and chic. What’s not to like?
Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore is published by Harper Design.
This story was originally published in the October 2017 issue.