Sure, we all know the writer’s penchant for drinking and smoking. Ernest Hemingway urged others to “write drunk; edit sober.” Joan Didion maintained that she needs “an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day.” “The drink helps,” she added, “It removes me from the pages.” Winston Churchill famously pronounced, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.” And Mark Twain offered, “As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain from smoking when awake.”
Less common amongst writers is a flair for the sartorial. And I’ve never understood why, for if these excerpts are any indication, a writer’s take on fashion might do us all some good.
Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary of suffering “from her clothes complex acutely buying 2 new sets of clothes, & being persuaded into a blue striped coat by an astute & human woman at Lewises.” She recalls the woman telling her, “’But I want you to have this — I don’t want you just because you’re in the country, to fling on anything. You’ve got to think of others’…as if she guessed all my private life.”
Jonathan Swift, famous for his satirical comments on society, addresses fashion in his work A Tale of A Tub. Though written in 17th century UK, the way in which he facetiously likens clothes to life’s wonders and dwellers assumes a snobbish disdain for fashion not uncommon in writers today. “Look on this globe of earth, you will find it to be a very complete and fashionable dress,” he writes. “What is that which some call land, but a fine coat faced with green? Or the sea, but a waistcoat of water-tabby? Proceed to the particular works of the creation, you will find how curious journeyman Nature has been.” He mocks, “What is man himself but a micro-coat, or rather a complete suit of clothes with all its trimmings?” And finally, “Is not religion a cloak; honesty a pair of shoes worn out in the dirt; self-love a surtout; vanity a shirt; and conscience a pair of breeches.”
Truman Capote, ever the elitist, had a more genuine fondness for the types of fashion unattainable to ordinary people. In Too Brief A Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, he writes, “I’ve started myself a new wardrobe — a foolhardy enterprise considering my finances. First off, I sent my measurements to Ferragamo in Florence and he has made me the most beautiful pair of black shoes…Then I’ve had three suits made out of a strange kind of flat velvet — to die.” And for “promenading the piazza,” he says, “I should adore to wear the orange-lined cloak: I do feel the need of something spectacular.”
Oscar Wilde took fashion quite seriously. In Miscellanies, he shows a distinct sensitivity towards women and their sartorial expectations, advocating for the less conservative and constricted of women’s clothes. “Now, it is quite true that as long as the lower garments are suspended from the hips a corset is an absolute necessity; the mistake lies in not suspending all apparel from the shoulders. In the latter case a corset becomes useless, the body is left free and unconfined for respiration and motion, there is more health, and consequently more beauty.” He also seems to have been ahead of his time with his keenness for clogs. “Why should clogs be despised?” he rightfully asks, “They have been made of lovely woods, and delicately inlaid with ivory, and with mother-of-pearl. A clog might be a dream of beauty, and, if not too high or too heavy, most comfortable also.”
Thomas Carlyle, the scientifically bent 18th-century Scottish writer, took a more philosophical approach towards clothing in Sartor Resartus. The narrator, Teufelsdröckh, is a philosopher of clothes, eager for people to be stripped of their clothing and looked upon as their true selves. Carlyle writes, “How, then, comes it, may the reflective mind repeat, that the grand Tissue of all Tissues, the only real Tissue, should have been quite overlooked by Science — the vestural Tissue, namely, of woolen or other Cloth; which Man’s Soul wears as its outmost wrappage and overall; wherein his whole other Tissues are included and screened, his whole Faculties work, his whole Self lives, moves, and has its being? For if, now and then, some straggling broken-winged thinker has cast an owl’s-glance into the obscure region, the most have soared over it altogether heedless; regarding Clothes as a property, not an accident, as quite natural and spontaneous, like the leaves of trees, like the plumage of birds. In all speculations they have tacitly figured mas as a Clothed Animal; whereas he is by nature a Naked Animal; and only in certain circumstances, by purpose and device, masks himself in Clothes. Shakespeare says, we are creatures that look before and after: the more surprising that we do not look round a little, and see what is passing under our very eyes.”
Fran Lebowitz, while known for sporting an unwavering getup, holds distinct convictions for acceptable fashion. For one, she laments that 90s trend of mood jewelry. “Anyone who is troubled by the inability to feel his or her own feelings is more than welcome to feel mine,” she writes. “Mood jewelry is jewelry that tells you your feelings via a heat-sensitive stone,” she continues, “And although one would think that stones would have quite enough to do, what with graves and walls and such, it seems that they have now taken on the job of informing people that they are nervous. And although one would think that a person who is nervous would be more than able to ascertain that fact without the aid of a quite unattractive ring, this is apparently not the case.” And don’t even get her started with clothes bearing pictures or writing, such as “open-necked Deco-ish shirts with a repeating pattern of middle-sized silhouettes of sailboats,” or “Blue jeans depicting the death of Marilyn Monroe in waterproof pastels.” Or actually, do get her started, if you’re looking for a good old-fashioned guffaw. “While clothes with pictures and/or writing on them are not entirely an invention of the modern age,” she writes, “They are an unpleasant indication of the general state of things. The particular general state of things that I am referring to is the general state of things that encourage people to express themselves through their clothing. Frankly, I would not be unhappy if most people expressed themselves by marching en masse into the nearest large body of water, but, barring that, I wish they would at least stop attempting to tell all by word of jacket. I mean, be realistic. If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?”
George Saunders, while not exactly the most fashion-forward writer out there, does have a little bone to pick with moccasins. In The Braindead Megaphone, he compares his distaste for particularly hollow sentences with these shoes. “[It] repulsed me the way a certain kind of moccasin-style house slipper then in vogue among my father’s friends repulsed me,” he writes, “I would never, I swore, wear slippers like that. Only old people who had given up on life could wear slippers like that.”
Prolific novelist and essayist Zadie Smith admits to scoffing at fashion when she was younger. “I considered that world not my world. My world was books and I had a lot of contempt for visual things at all. I just wanted to live in the library and wear a sack,” she recalls. As she got older, however, she began to discern the beauty in clothing, “To be in Italy, where beauty is taken seriously and enjoyed and it’s okay to enjoy it, was a big shock for me — all the way down from houses to shoes. Now, I think this also just happens with women, as you become old, that you appreciate the idea of a beautiful fabric or a nice dress.” Smith continued, “I do think that I understand the Italian phrase, ‘The eye also has its part,’ which I think is true. I hadn’t recognized it before. There’s a lot of pleasure in looking at beautiful things and considering beautiful things, and clothing is part of that. But in my youth, it was not — so it’s been a late revelation. I have a deep love for High Street clothes, that’s what I grew up on. My mother always said I make expensive clothes look cheap and cheap clothes look expensive.”
And finally, for a nice dose of self-loathing, I give you Gary Shteyngart. When asked in 2010 for his assessment of fashion today, he responded with an acute sense of discernment, “Well, first of all, a couple years ago the pubic bone started making an appearance. I’ve never seen so many pubic bones! I mean, it’s shocking. I know them so well now. Forget the asscrack — that’s been around for awhile.” And his favorite item of clothing? “Penguin shirts,” what else.