How Great Authors Became Style Icons

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Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, Oscar Wilde, and Sylvia Plath. Photo: Getty Images

The idea of a “fashionable author” is somewhat monopolized by the Baz Luhrmann–influenced view of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, wearing three-piece suits and drop-waist dresses, or the image of Joan Didion, starring in a Céline campaign at 80 years old. Lesser-known fashion/literature crossovers include James Joyce, who worked as a cloth salesman because he was so in love with Irish tweed, and Gertrude Stein (also part of the Fitzgerald expat clan), who supported Pierre Balmain in the early days of his line. The crossovers are the premise of the new book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, by Terry Newman, out tomorrow from HarperCollins.

Newman researched the style quirks of 49 authors, from what she calls the “inevitable” writers like Virginia Woolf and the Fitzgeralds, to Samuel Beckett and Gay Talese (who has worn bespoke suits since childhood). Of course, not all authors want to be fashion icons.

“Part of the fascination of these authors, for me, was the fact that they were very much out of fashion,” Newman told the Cut. “They don’t slavishly follow fashion, which is part of their authenticity and appeal. With Nancy Mitford for example, she talks about going to see the war and then going to Dior to be fitted, and how it was different to what she had seen before … It’s like having an oral history of fashion.”

Newman said authors often influenced designers’ collections throughout history, rather than the other way around. She writes in the book’s introduction about the “grace of unfashionability.” Authors like Simone de Beauvoir and George Sand brushed off “fashion” in favor of what felt best to them. Or more bluntly, “Their headspace is somewhere else because they’re literary giants.”

Somewhat ironically, that unfashionability then inspired new generations of designers “really interested in authenticity,” according to Newman, such as Miuccia Prada and Vivienne Westwood.

“When you interview designers and you ask, ‘What’s the inspiration?’ quite often it’ll be ‘I was looking at pictures of Virginia Woolf or Edith Sitwell,’” Newman explained. “They’re the inspiration behind fashion collections because they aren’t looking at fashion from a limited perspective, it’s as a personal expression.”

Click ahead to see Maya Angelou, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath, Zora Neale Hurston, and more, with quotes from Newman on each author’s style.

Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore by Terry Newman
$20, Amazon
How Great Authors Became Style Icons