Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore by Terry Newman

“You never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.” –Tom Wolfe

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Joan Didion photographed by Julian Wasser, 1968. ©JULIAN WASSER

I have always maintained that my favorite fashion accessory is a book. For myself–and I am sure billions of others throughout history–books have proven a defining force in my life, undoubtedly inspiring my foray into the field of fashion history. And yet, while I have many times pondered “Where would be without literature?,” I have never really taken the time to ask: “Where would fashion be without literature?” A question posed by one of Dame Fashion’s most colorful personalities, the incomparable Diana Vreeland, in her memoirs D.V.. and aptly quoted by author Terry Newman in the beginning of her new book Legendary Authors and the Clothes they Wore (Harper Collins, 2017).

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The French writer Marcel Proust (1871-1922), France, 1900. © COLAIMAGES / ALAMY

To say I have not considered the relationship between fashion and literature is not entirely true. No fashion historian’s education is complete without a study of Marcel Proust’s seminal work À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927). Not only is his 3000 page, seven-volume masterpiece widely acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of all time, it is also an invaluable resource for early twentieth-century fashion. In this stunning feat of storytelling, fashion plays a central role in the lives of vividly portrayed characters, many of whom are inspired by real-life men and women. The character Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes, for instance, is famously based on Élisabeth de Caraman-Chimay, the Countess Greffulhe (1860–1952), whose indelible fashion sense and exquisite collection of extant clothing were recently the subject of an exhibition at The Museum at FIT. Newman reminds us, however, that Proust was not a mere observer and recorder of the fashionable life, but an active participant: “Proust was a belle époque dandy who wore beautifully laundered white gloves and a cattleya orchid boutonniere, an extravagance purchased daily from the expensive Parisian florist Lauchaume on Rue Royal.”

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Colette – French Novelist (1873-1954), 1925. © PICTORIAL PRESS LTD / ALAMY


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Tom Wolfe, 1976.  © EVERETT COLLECTION HISTORICAL / ALAMY

To relate Proust and fashion makes perfect sense. And there are other authors such as Oscar Wilde, Colette and Tom Wolfe who are synonymous with their indelible sense of personal style. But to consider the importance of clothing to Sylvia Platt? David Foster Wallace? Gertrude Stein? Newman’s book is a revelation in more ways then one, taking the reader on a fascinating sartorial journey where she asks us to reconsider our favorite authors within the context of, not only the pivotal role clothing has played in their written work, but what they themselves wore. “More often than not, they wore their hearts and words on their sleeves,” Newman writes.

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Virginia Woolfe, 1927. Public domain via Wikicommons.

The book alternates brief thematic groupings of “Signature Looks” (authors associated with glasses, suits, hair and hats) with more in-depth chapters dedicated to individual authors. While each chapter is punctuated with excerpts from the author’s famous poems, novels or articles in which clothing has played a role, the highlights for myself were the fascinating anecdotes and insights into each author’s personal relationship to clothing. For instance, James Joyce, suffering from iritis and glaucoma in his old age, took to writing in a white suit, believing it helped to reflect the words he wrote on the page. Virginia Wolfe was a writer for British Vogue in the 1920s and was fascinated by clothing: “I must remember to write about my clothes next time I have an impulse to write,” she wrote in The Diary of Virginia Woolf in 1925, “My love of clothes interests me profoundly: only it is not love; & what it is I must discover.”

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English writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), © SPUTNIK / ALAMY

While Newman reveals that some authors are indeed “fashionable” in the clothing they wore/wear–Zadie Smith made Vanity Fair‘s 2016 International Best-Dressed List– most, like Smith herself, have created an enduring style beyond the confines of the new, luxurious and “in” to create a look entirely their own. “You will always be in fashion if you are true to yourself, and only if you are true to yourself,” wrote the incomparable Maya Angelou in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993). They are words which echo the great Oscar Wilde who wrote in An Ideal Husband (1895): “Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.” Wilde saw fashion as a “form of ugliness” and he thwarted it by instead evoking a romanticized, bygone era with ensembles that included velvet blazers and capes, silk stockings and breeches. As a member of the Rational Dress Society, Wilde promoted beautiful and practical clothing that, for women in particular, rejected the rigid structures of the corset and bustle.

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Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927. Photographer unknown. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

I was not in the least surprised to learn that the trail-blazing Gertrude Stein also rejected the corset as early as the 1890s when she attended college. The definition of a modern woman, Stein was a distinguished writer in her own right, in addition to being one of history’s most important art patrons and collectors. Her and her brother’s early twentieth-century Parisian salon championed the avant-garde and brought together the brightest and most influential of artists and writers such as Picasso (whom she claims to have discovered), Matisse and Hemingway. While I was aware of Stein’s influence and many enthralling relationships–the love story between herself and her life-partner Alice B. Toklas alone!– I was not in the least expecting to learn about Stein’s relationship to fashion. Not only was Stein’s understated wardrobe deceptively fashion-conscious, it also turns out it was Pierre Balmain haute couture!

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A letter from Pierre Balmain to Gertrude Stein, 1944. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers,
Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library.

As Newman reveals in her book, Stein and Toklas were not only some of the first patrons of haute couturier Balmain, they were also his dear friends. And while Newman only briefly touches on this compelling relationship, I just had to know more…

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Pierre Balmain suit owned by Gertrude Stein, 1946. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2017.

A digitized manuscript collection at Yale University’s Beinecke Library lays bare a close friendship between Balmain and Stein, with letters from the designer to his “Cheri” over the five year period before Stein’s death. Stein, Toklas and Balmain met around 1940 during WWII in Aix-les-Bains where a then-unknown Balmain made blouses for his mother’s dress shop. It was not long after their introduction that he began custom-making the couple’s wardrobes. “My dear Gertrude,” begins a letter dated December 20, 1944, “I have seen in life some pictures of you and Alice and was proud to see that the two of you wore Balmain’s clothes–my mother must have said to you that I shall have next Spring my own dress shop.” Not only were Stein and Toklas front-row at the designer’s first fashion show in October of 1945, they were among the only people attending privileged enough to be wearing his work!

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Gertrude Stein wearing Balmain suit, photographed by Horst P. Horst, 1946. © Horst P. Horst Estate, Miami.

Stein’s unique relationship to Balmain –and her sincere appreciation for his clothing–is immortalized in a series of photographs commissioned for Vogue magazine in 1946 by contributor Rosamond Bernier (glimpsed below at right with illustrator Eric) and photographed by Horst P. Horst, two of which I have featured here. In the first image, the 5’1″ Stein’s presence is apt. Surrounded on both sides by her valuable Cubist art and starring straight at the camera, she cuts a striking, stoic figure in her brown velvet Balmain suit. Amazingly, the suit survives in the collection of the V&A London (shown above but more information found here.) The second photograph is perhaps the most well-known and captures a joyful Stein doing what she does best: admiring art. When considered within the context of her love for and patronage of art, Stein’s revelry in Balmain’s finely-made clothing makes perfect sense. To truly appreciate beauty, is to appreciate it in all its forms.

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Gertrude Stein at Balmain Fashion Show, photographed by Horst P. Horst, 1946. © Horst P. Horst Estate, Miami.

In conclusion, Newman’s book is a fascinatingly fresh take on an under-appreciated relationship, revealing a new perspective of the books we have read and the author’s who wrote them. The further research I did into Stein and Balmain’s relationship is just one signifier that not only is Newman’s book important–its too short! Newman scratched the surface on a subject that is ripe for scholarly attention and there are undoubtedly many more Stein and Balmain-like relationships to uncover and explore.

My favorite part about this book: it inspired me–and will inspire you– to keep reading! I have already ordered books from Arthur Rimbaud, Colette, Gertrude Stein and the memoir of Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s lover. So get to reading and might I suggest starting with Legendary Authors and the Clothes they Wore?

AT LEFT, EDITH WHARTON (1862-1937). PHOTOGRAPHED AT HER HOME IN FRANCE WITH HER TWO PET PEKINGESE DOGS, 1920S. © GRANGER HISTORICAL PICTURE ARCHIVE / ALAMY; CENTER, DJUNA BARNES US NOVELIST AND ILLUSTRATOR 1892 TO 1982 © PICTORIAL PRESS LTD / ALAMY; AT RIGHT, GEORGE SAND (1804-1876) © PHOTO RESEARCHERS, INC / ALAMY

Quotes above provided are from the book: LEGENDARY AUTHORS AND THE CLOTHES THEY WORE by Terry Newman. Text © 2017 by Terry Newman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

 

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Fashion History Talks! In conversation with author and curator Keren Ben-Horin

“Anyone who gets up in the morning and gets dressed knows that fashion is a language.” –Keren Ben-Horin

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The Fair-Isle Jumper (1923) by Stanley Cursiter. The City of Edinburgh Council. 2014 Artists Rights Society, NY/DACS, London.

T-shirts. A jacket. Blue jeans. Garments we all own–and have always owned–and yet perhaps have never really taken the time to consider. Where exactly did these staples of our everyday wardrobe come from? And what is their historical and cultural significance? A recently published book The Sweater: A History takes readers on a sartorial and around-the-world journey through the life of one of the world’s most ubiquitous garments, asking readers to re-examine a garment we might otherwise continue to take for granted.

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Vintage postcard, 1908. Collection of J.M.

As with most items of clothing, the sweater’s origin is rooted in practicability and function, being used as both protection from the elements and as a source of warmth–and weight loss. Wait, what? As the book reveals, the term sweater was coined in the 1880s from a garment used in Regency England that helped its wearers lose weight by…drum roll please…inducing sweating! Suddenly it all makes sense! Another interesting etymology discussed in the book is the origin of the term “cardigan,” which comes from the title given to James Thomas Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), a controversial British officer of the Crimean War.

 

This book is full of interesting tidbits and information, many of which were provided by the book’s editor and contributing author Keren Ben-Horin. The Art of Dress is thrilled to have Keren as the latest participant in Fashion History Talks!

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Fashionably dressed young women, mid-1920s. Collection of J.M.

Why is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? The more I study fashion history the more I appreciate the unique perspective it offers on human experiences. I get very frustrated when fashion is dismissed and thought of as frivolous and superficial, especially in academia. In my writing I use fashion to paint a narrative of social, cultural, and political change. Fashion is a very sensitive seismograph of change and it’s an accessible tool for self-expression. Anyone who gets up in the morning and gets dressed knows that fashion is a language, it’s a tactile commination tool that anyone can use to say something about who they are, what they are, and where they are in their lives.

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Woman’s Sweater, 1928 (hand-knitted wool) Schiaparelli, Elsa (1890-1973)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, PA, USA / The Bridgeman Art Library.

In your opinion, is fashion art? Fashion can be art. One of the things that I have learned working on The Sweater: A History is that when it comes to sweater design, many designers use yarn the way a painter uses brushstrokes- that is, as an artistic tool of self-expression. Throughout the book we bring so many examples of designers who not only take inspiration from art but also experiment with materials and forms to produce garments that are wearable works of art. We show designs from contemporary designers like Sandra Backlund, Julia Ramsey, Alice Lemoine, and Johan Ku, who create sweaters that are keen to wearable sculptures. Another, earlier example is of course the famous Elsa Schiaparelli, tromp l’oeil bow sweater, which she developed with an Armenian knitter. The unique technique this knitter introduced to Schiaparelli combined two strands of yarns in contrasting colors alternating between the face and the back of the fabric to create patterns, the result is a tweed-like effect which Vogue in 1927 described as “an artistic master piece,” [1] and Schiaparelli herself said it was “reminiscent of the impressionist school of painting.”[2]

 

Another example that I love is a collection of elaborate, strikingly beautiful sweaters by designer Paul B. Magit which he developed with the artist Erté. When Magit approached him with this idea to collaborate, Erte was already 93 years old! They worked together and chose twelve artworks that Erté created during his twenty-year tenure at Harper’s Bazaar. Magit interpreted them into gorgeous jacquard patterns, very technically intricate, and showed them on oversized sweaters and sweater dresses.

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Fashionably dressed young women, mid-1920s. Collection of J.M.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: Claire McCardell is my favorite American designer past and present. Her designs still look modern today. She revolutionized the ready-to-wear market and how young women dressed, I wished she was more widely recognized. My current favorite has to be shared between Raf Simon and Dries Van Noten. Although they are so different stylistically I do adore them equally!

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BBB Captain James Hogan wearing football uniform with the letter “Y”, c. 1906. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington D.C.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I recently finished the book Gods and Kings: the rise and fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano by Dana Thomas. I picked it up at the sale table in the MET store, excepting not much more than a good read. The book, however, is so well researched and it rekindled my appreciation of both designers. I learned so much about their design process, down to the details of how specific clothes were conceived. It sent me down the rabbit hole that’s YouTube to watch old videos of runway shows.

If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? I would say Orlando with Tilda Swinton has wonderful period costumes. Another movie of hers that I love not only for the costumes (although not a period movie) is I Am Love. Her wardrobe was designed by Raf Simons and it perfectly reflects the restraint and severity of the character.

FINAL COVERcroppedThe Sweater: A History was written by Jane Merrill, Gaile DeMeyere and Keren Ben-Horin. As with many fashion historians, Keren is a wearer of many hats–all of the fashionable variety of course. Historian, author, adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Berkeley College in New York, Keren was also a fashion designer for over a decade. She recently curated an exhibition Cutting Edges: Israeli Fashion and Design, which runs April 21-July 30, 2017 at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in Manhattan.

Citations:

[1] Vogue, December 15, 1927.

[2] Elsa Schiaparelli, Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli (London: V&A Publications, 2007)