[Editor’s note: Flavorwire is counting down our most popular features of 2010. This post comes in at position number 5. It was originally published October 12, 2010.] When it comes to writers’ fashion choices, most people know better than to judge a book by its cover. Although most authors are more closely associated with recluse-chic than aesthetic edge, there are those few who have become almost as recognizable for their stylistic sensibilities as for their literary skills. We’ve already explored the glamorous lives of fictional characters, but after the jump, check out ten great authors with equally distinctive personal styles.
Even for a Parisian author of avant-garde novels and erotica, Anaïs Nin was absurdly chic. Her signature look — pencil-thin black eyebrows and dark lips against pale skin — gave her the appearance of a silent-film screen goddess. She played with the look by setting it against bohemian styles from gypsy lace headdresses to hippie tunics, thick dangling earrings to flowing madras dresses. Nin’s carefree look perfectly complemented her laidback lifestyle and confident, serene writing.
Born into a clothes-conscious household — his father was a journeyman cloth-maker — Edmund Spenser qualifies for this list based on his glorious ruff collar alone (a miraculous feat of gravity if ever there was). The Faerie Queen author was introduced to the Elizabethan court toward the end of the 16th century, but any hopes he may have had of becoming a permanent resident were dashed when he was sent off with just a £50 pension. Despite his personal misfortunes (the death of his youngest child, the destruction of his home, and his own untimely death at 46), Spenser’s lasting image is in line with the philosophy of the time — namely, the bigger the ruff, the greater the man.
The “man in white” has perhaps the most idiosyncratic style, having, since 1962, never made a public appearance without being decked out in a bright white suit that is seemingly exempt from the effects of bad weather (either that or Wolfe has the world’s greatest dry-cleaner). As someone who has chronicled co-eds, astronauts, electric acid-testers, and Masters of the Universe, this Southern Gentleman seems to embrace the philosophy shared by many of his characters: wear what makes you identifiable as part of a unique subculture.
Edith Wharton was a lifelong member of the fashionable upper crust, but brazenly undermined the lifestyle she was born into — whether by divorcing her alcoholic husband, or occasionally writing erotica in her journal — while also redefining its tastes. She wore sumptuous gowns with lavish frills, and her two little dogs, often by her side (or, on her shoulders), were her favorite accessories. Her written descriptions of European couture houses often determined which designers became the most sought-after among the American elite, and her writings on household design influenced popular trends.
George Sand smoked tobacco, had open affairs with Chopin and Prosper Merimée, and told jokes not deemed suitable for other ladies, but she arguably caused the greatest social upset by wearing men’s clothing in public. Sand was certainly not the first female cross-dresser, but she was one of the most vocal about her political reasons for dressing the way she did. In her autobiography, she elaborated on how men’s clothes were less restricting physically (less material to lug around) and socially (disguised as a man, she had greater freedoms and could enter spaces typically closed off to women) — a prescient analysis that anticipated a fashion revolution that occurred a century later.
(Side note: Blair Waldorf identifies George Sand as the person she’d most like to have dinner with. There’s no greater fashion hats-off than that.)
Donna Tartt is frustratingly mysterious — she wrote one great book in 1992, offered only terse, elusive answers to interviewers, vanished for ten years, reemerged with another great book, which she then followed with more terse answers to interviewers. And now she’s gone again. During the decades between these books, we can admire Tartt by studying the few available photos of a woman donning a sharp, jagged bob, black suits over high-collared shirts — all angles, without a hint of softness — and expressing either a smirk or something approaching a glare. She seems slightly terrifying, a quality that’s echoed by the dangerous characters she writes about (spiteful meth dealers, college-aged murderers), but such severity just reinforces her mysterious allure.
Jonathan Ames (the character)
The fictional Jonathan Ames of Bored to Death, created by and based on the real Jonathan Ames (author of books like I Pass Like Night), is one dapper Brooklyn writer. Although he’s decently put together when roaming around Carroll Gardens with his less dapper, plaid-loving friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis), bemoaning his writer’s block or the rejection of his second novel, it’s when Ames moonlights as a private detective that his true rakishness shines through. Decked out in skinny ties, leather shoes, patterned sports coats, and a taupe mackintosh raincoat, Ames turns into a sleek, ’30s-era crime-solver straight out of the Raymond Chandler books he loves — except, in this case, he’s helping Craigslist clients find stolen bikes or expose cheating wives. Still, the costume seems to rid him of his neuroses, generating an attitudinal swagger that he otherwise lacks.
William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs’ signature look combines horn-rimmed glasses, a three-piece suit, and fedora, often accented with a cigarette or a gun in hand — in other words, he dressed like the take-no-shit, accidental murderer he was. Toward the end of his life, he completed the look with a drawn, lined face that illustrated a life of drug addiction, running from the law, and general contempt for the establishment, all of which factored into his Beat novels. Burroughs and his compatriots — Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti — live on in the styles of hipsters everywhere.
Few contemporary depictions of Jane Austen exist, and most of those that do remain disputed. In the one believed to be the most authentic representation (a watercolor by her sister), Austen wears a short-sleeved, empire-waist dress and a cap from which a few brown tendrils escape. It’s a look that has reappeared countless times in movies, bridal collections, Regency-style dances, and everyday fashion choices. Austen herself seems to have been anything but preoccupied with fashion — only those of her characters who were ostentatious or vain are depicted as having any interest in clothes — but she deserves recognition as a style icon for the durability of her simple, muted look.
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,” utters the young Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, an aphorism by which the Irish author seemed to model his own life. Wilde presented himself as an acerbic, cutting dandy through a bold wardrobe that included capes, ascots, fur-lined coats, broaches, canes, knee-length or pinstriped pants, tilted hats, and double-breasted suits, all of which was topped off by a mop of thick and shiny dark hair that any starlet would envy.