25 Writers on Fashion, Clothing, and Style


In light of all the recent Joan Didion fetishization — Pack like Joan! Eat like Joan! Get a pair of her glasses on Kickstarter! — it’s fascinating to visit the exhibit Didion by Wasser, now at New York’s Danziger Gallery. In a small room dedicated to Julian Wasser’s iconic shoot featuring Didion and her Corvette Stingray, you’ll find tear sheets and shots of Didion smiling, laughing, looking uncomfortable and, well, seeming like a regular person. (She is also most comfortable when she has a cigarette.) It feels like spying on the writer’s impeccably crafted image.

Seeing Didion laugh made me think about what it means for writers to have personal style — whether it’s their own fashion choices or the clothing they write about. Some of our most iconic writers have turned their attention to fashion; here’s our compilation of 25 essential stories.

John Cheever on whether you should wear your overcoat

In Blake Bailey’s wonderful biography Cheever: A Life , he dives deep into the writer’s feelings about overcoats:

“That winter Cheever took long, staggering walks along Commonwealth Avenue, rarely wearing an overcoat despite freezing weather (his father had warned him that overcoats make one look Irish). Finally he sat next to a bum and the two huddled together, sharing a bottle of fortified wine. When a policeman threatened to arrest him, Cheever gave the man a look of bleary, aristocratic reproach: ‘My name is John Cheever,’ he drawled (Cheevah). ‘You’re out of your mind.'”

Leanne Shapton on falling in love with a dress

In this excerpt from Women In Clothes, Shapton writes about the ultimate (perceived) faux pas; two women with the same dress.

“By this time the dress felt like a part of me. I’d forgotten about it, which I took to be a sign of its true integration into my wardrobe, the way that, in Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald has a character say something like: If you are conscious of what you are wearing at a party, you made the wrong choice. “

F. Scott Fitzgerald on shirts

In this iconic scene from The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald turns his attention to Gatsby’s shirts, and all his lavish wardrobe means:

“He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. ‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.’”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on fashion and being taken seriously

From her 2014 Elle piece, “Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion?”

“I had learned a lesson about Western culture: Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance. For serious women writers in particular, it was better not to dress well at all, and if you did, then it was best to pretend that you had not put much thought into it. If you spoke of fashion, it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers. The further your choices were from the mainstream, the better. The only circumstance under which caring about clothes was acceptable was when making a statement, creating an image of some sort to be edgy, eclectic, counterculture. It could not merely be about taking pleasure in clothes.”

Sylvia Plath on dresses

From The Unabridged Diaries of Sylvia Plath (but if you want more details on Plath and clothes, do see Elizabeth Winder’s excellent Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 ):

“To take, from the closet occasionally, your yellow dress, not yet worn, and hold it up against your dark tan, and smile, and say, “Oh, Dick, how wonderful to see you. Stop; don’t move. Just let me look at you.” Two days more of living, and then Dick.”

Dorothy Parker on the chic women of Vogue

Taken from her Paris Review interview:

“I wrote captions. “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women—the nicest women I ever met—but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers—my old job—they’re recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs “—for the friend who has everything.” Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.”

Tom Wolfe on his white suit

From a feature in The Guardian:

“The suit (he now has 40 or so of them) served many purposes: it got under the skin of the natives (early on, Wolfe’s most truculent sparring partner, Norman Mailer, declared: ‘In my mind, there is something silly about a man who wears a white suit all the time, particularly in New York’), it disarmed his subjects, and, most of all, it gave him something to write up to. As he is fond of pointing out: ‘If most writers are honest with themselves, this is the difference they want to make: before they were not noticed, now they are.’ All he needed to find was a voice that had the same exclamatory élan as his tailoring.”

David Foster Wallace on his bandana

From Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky, the book that inspired Sundance hit The End of the Tour :

“I started wearing bandannas in Tucson because it was a hundred degrees all the time. When it’s really hot, I would perspire so much that I would drip on the page. Actually, I started wearing it that year, and then it became a big help in Yaddo in ’87 because I would drip into the typewriter, and I was worried that I would get a shock. And then I discovered that I felt better with them on. And then I dated a woman who…said there were these various chakras, and one of the big ones was what she called the spout hole, at the very top of your cranium. And in a lot of cultures, it was considered better to keep your head covered. And then I began thinking about the phrase, Keeping your head together, you know? …. It’s a security blanket for me… It makes me… feel kind of creepy that people view it as an affectation or trademark or something. It’s more just a foible, it’s the recognition of a weakness, which is that I’m just kind of worried my head’s going to explode.”

Gay Talese on the workday uniform

From his Paris Review interview:

“So I go from the third floor, which is our bedroom, to the fourth floor, where I keep my clothes. I get dressed as if I’m going to an office. I wear a tie… Yes. I dress as if I’m going to an office in midtown or on Wall Street or at a law firm, even though what I am really doing is going downstairs to my bunker. In the bunker there’s a little refrigerator, and I have orange juice and muffins and coffee. Then I change my clothes… That’s right. I have an ascot and sweaters. I have a scarf. “

Henry David Thoreau on our awful taste in clothes

From Walden, naturally:

“The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires to-day. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable. Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is skin-deep and unalterable.”

Mark Twain quips on clothes

Its origin is a mystery. Is it a Mark Twain maxim?

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”

Sir Thomas More on why we are all fashion sheeple

From Utopia:

“[How can anyone] be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woolen thread than theirs. After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned it into anything better than a sheep.”

Joan Didion’s packing list

From The White Album, as seen in Vogue:

TO PACK AND WEAR: 2 skirts 2 jerseys or leotards 1 pullover sweater 2 pair shoes stockings bra nightgown, robe, slippers cigarettes bourbon bag with: shampoo toothbrush and paste Basis soap, razor deodorant aspirin prescriptions Tampax face cream powder baby oil

TO CARRY: mohair throw typewriter 2 legal pads and pens files house key

James Ellroy on sartorial order

From his Paris Review interview:

“No, but this pad is perfectly outfitted. Some people find my place appalling. It’s too neat and clean. Nothing’s out of place. If you look in my clothes closet, you’ll see that everything is arrayed by fabric, style, and color. I’ll do anything I can to simplify my life.”

L.M. Montgomery on how to be good

From Anne of Green Gables:

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

Dream Hampton on Esperanza Spalding

From a December 2012 Smithsonian Magazine profile:

“Her youth and beauty and progressive fashion — she accepted her Grammy in a deconstructed citron chiffon dress and a very intentional afro coaxed into a pompadour-were also an undeniable part of her appeal. Village Voice music critic Greg Tate calls Spalding the ‘sexiest and best thing to happen to jazz since Wynton.'”

Judith Thurman on Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo.

From her New Yorker profile:

“They are both idealists whose work devoutly affirms that it matters what one wears — something pure in its distinction — and in that sense they have a common ancestor. He was an aging and spindly Spanish samurai who, like Kawakubo in her faintly obscene trompe-l’oeil bikini, was never afraid to cut an absurd yet heroic figure in a cynical world: the ridiculous made sublime.”

Elizabeth Hawes tells us that fashion is spinach

From Anything But Love:

“There is a sound reason why one and a half billion dollars are spent for cosmetics in your country every year, and only half that sum for education: There are no naturally pretty girls in the United States.”

Lisa Birnbach on the sensible preppy

From The Official Preppy Handbook:

“Prep clothes are sensible: rain clothes keep you dry; winter clothes keep you warm; collars are buttoned down so they don’t flap in your face when you’re playing polo. Layering is a natural response to varying weather conditions.”

Jane Austen on temptation

From The Letters of Jane Austen:

“For in a linendraper’s shop to which I went for checked muslin, and for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty-colored muslin, and bought ten yards of it on the chance of you liking it.”

Alexander Chee on performance

From MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction:

“I was also interested in this question of whether I had a novel in me, and I showed up to that lunch cocky, with blue hair and a ripped t-shirt. My tweed-jacketed new friend smiled in the dark pub as he sipped his water, and we somehow got onto the topic of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Underneath my performance of assured sarcasm and San Francisco queer punk cockiness, I took mental notes as he told me stories about Michael Cunningham, one of the few male writers I admired (I held male writers in very low esteem then).”

Toni Morrison on color in Beloved

From her Paris Review interview:

“I stripped Beloved of color so that there are only the small moments when Sethe runs amok buying ribbons and bows, enjoying herself the way children enjoy that kind of color. The whole business of color was why slavery was able to last such a long time. It wasn’t as though you had a class of convicts who could dress themselves up and pass themselves off. No, these were people marked because of their skin color, as well as other features. So color is a signifying mark. Baby Suggs dreams of color and says, ‘Bring me a little lavender.’ It is a kind of luxury. We are so inundated with color and visuals. I just wanted to pull it back so that one could feel that hunger and that delight.”

Janet Malcolm on Eileen Fisher

From her New Yorker feature:

“The sweater is a remarkable garment. On the hanger it looks like nothing — it is buttonless and ribbed and boxy — but when worn it becomes almost uncannily flattering. Everyone who wears it looks good in it.”

Diane von Furstenberg on design

From her autobiography, The Woman I Wanted to Be:

“I design for the woman I wanted to be, the woman I used to be and to some degree, the woman I’m still a little piece of.”

Jennifer Egan on modeling

From her 1996 New York Times Magazine profile of model James King:

“In the fashion world, models are always ‘girls.’ Successful models are ‘big girls.’ Stars like [Kate] Moss and [Naomi] Campbell and [Linda] Evangelista are ‘huge girls.’ Diminutive though the term may sound for a 30-year-old like Evangelista, who has made millions during her career, ‘girl’ captures the peculiar role played by a model of any age. Backstage at a show or at a shooting in a loft, ‘girl’ suggests, as it is meant to, someone more beautiful and less complicated than a woman.”