What the sartorial choices of literary icons often indicate
They are reflective of their individualistic minds
I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that my love for fashion and style is incongruous with my being a writer—especially one that writes on ‘serious’ subjects. I understand where this comes from—the irredeemable image of a ‘serious’ writer in this country is that of the jholawala in a bedraggled kurta, tattered sandals, and the eponymous cloth bag slung over one shoulder. However, this construct couldn’t be further from the truth because it was ‘serious’ writers who led me to my sense of personal style.
In the beginning, there was Joan Didion—God of personal essays, masterful reportage, perfect sentences, and nuanced, restrained, and morally astute prose. It was not until I had read Slouching Towards Bethlehem that I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Shortly after the book was published, in 1968, Time magazine commissioned Julian Wasser to shoot portraits of Didion. In the most iconic of them, she stands in front of her Daytona Yellow Corvette Stingray, a cigarette in hand, in a long louche dress, her hair loose and wild, her unsmiling gaze fixed at the lens.
American authors Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne
Didion’s resting bitch face (long before the phrase was coined), flowing midi skirts, boatneck tops, and oversized sunglasses were of a piece with her heyday, the ’60s and ’70s, and the Hollywood parties she threw for her eclectic set of celebrity friends. But like her writing, Didion’s personal style is ageless. A Celine campaign from 2015, shot when she was 80, bears testament—a short white bob, sleek black dress not unlike what she wore in 1968, a statement gold pendant, and that unmistakable unsmiling gaze framed by large sunglasses.
At first glance, Didion might seem to have little in common with another writer whose prose I worship—Dorothy Parker. But they were both women who knew how to claim their space and both had an unflinching gaze that made their pictures memorable. Parker wrote acerbic truth as relentlessly as she championed civil rights. But her writing was underpinned by her lifestyle—her reign over the Algonquin Round Table and her insatiable appetite for dry martinis and wry wit. It is not for nothing that Christopher Hitchens’ profile of her in Vanity Fair was titled Rebel in Evening Clothes.
Truman Capote writes about Parker and her friend Tallulah Bankhead’s party swag in Answered Prayers—a culmination of Capote’s lifelong commitment to his lifestyle and penmanship. For the better part of my teenage years, I was in awe of the man who could write both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Eventually, I read his sketches and his profile of Marlon Brando and was reminded of Parker’s lacerating narratives about her milieu. Capote dressed up for just about everything elevating his sartorial style to an art form. Like Didion and Parker, his photographs remain iconic. He incorporated eclectic influences into his carefully curated wardrobe but was most at home in horn-rimmed glasses and a silk lapelled tuxedo.
Tallulah Bankhead and Truman Capote
The epitome of Capote’s style was the Black and White Ball he threw at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966. Dubbed the “party of the century” it split high society into two—those who were invited and those who were not. And with the who’s who mingled those you wouldn’t usually see at an upper-crust gathering—“The guest list of five hundred and forty,” wrote Gloria Steinem, “ …reflected the full range of twenty years’ writing and travel: one Maharajah, a Kansas detective, half a dozen Presidential advisors, businessmen, editors, a lot of writers and performers, some artists, four composers, several heiresses, one country doctor, and a sprinkling of royalties, with defunct titles attached to very undefunct people.” Naturally, the ball was a test of mettle for fashion and jewellery houses and milliners.
James Baldwin’s world seems a far cry from Capote’s penchant for glamour. His bitter, vigilant words remain a bulwark against racism and a sobering reminder of the indignity of millions. This true literary stylist, however, much like Capote, took to clothes to express himself. And like Capote, he knew how to pose for the camera. His single-knotted tie or scarf, elegant but cool jacket, statement overcoat, fresh flower on the lapel, and fierce eyewear could just as well have been from the Gucci runway.
For a while, I was reconciled to the idea that the alchemy between styling oneself and one’s prose was a First World phenomenon. Perhaps our modern writers were too saddled with the spartan ideals of a closed economy and a new country focused on serving its poorest citizens. Then I came across a photograph of Ismat Chughtai that hangs in my study today. Her short curly white bob, thick-rimmed glasses, and hearty defiant laugh are perfectly in sync with her mischievous rabble-rousing prose. Next to it hangs a portrait of Amrita Pritam in her last days—a similar short bob, glasses too large for her gaunt frame, and a steely gaze. In that frame, the world of difference between Didion and Pritam dissolves and I am reminded that I must put together my clothes and accessories as I hope to put together my words— individualistically and impeccably.
Photographs: Getty Images, Wikipedia (Tallulah Bankhead)