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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Irish 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 Janine of Guermantes Vintage

“For me vintage clothing fuses these two ideas — the power of a transportive essential memory, and the magic and sublime quality of art, the mythic quality that clothing can impart to its wearer.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.49.20 PMFor the longest time, I associated the term “vintage” with only the most accessible of period garments. I often come upon cotton shift dresses from the 1960s in my local thrift store, even 1950s dresses can be purchased at any local Buffalo Exchange! And yet, in all the times I used to speak about vintage clothing, I never once considered pieces from the 1920s or 1930s, instead assigning those rare items a museum-worthy status. il_fullxfull.989183928_g9uhThe garments and accessories from these bygone eras were unattainable in my mind, meant to be admired but never worn… That is, until I came across @guermantesvintage, the Instagram for the Etsy store of the same name. No cotton 1960s shifts here, shop owner Janine’s store is reserved for only the most rare and divine of pieces, hand-selected by Janine herself with many coming from her personal collection. Heartbreakingly beautiful, mouth-watering sweet, emotion-invokingly beautiful–only a few of the  phrases that come to mind every time I browse Janine’s Instagram or online shop where at any one time, one can find a 1930s Vionnet day dress or a 1920s Halloween costume. Janine’s discerning eye is as playful as it is seductive and her collection runs the gamut from 1970s Zunitoon rings (“Zuni tribe Native-American made silver and inlaid stone rings depicting popular cartoon characters”) to exceptionally-rare WWII silk lingerie sets sent home by soldiers stationed overseas to their sweethearts at home. Janine most recently made her archives available on an online museum and, lucky for us, she recently took the time to answer some questions from The Art of Dress!

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 10.04.12 PMWhy is the study of fashion and dress history important to you? When I first started my business back in 2012 I was really inspired by Proust’s ideas about memory, and the power of an object (like the famous Madeleines, for example) to have a transportive power. I feel that historic textiles has a similar effect and power. Clothing is pregnant with cultural information and additionally carries the mark and essence of those who created and owned it.

Proust also notably wrote about the transportive power of clothing through his narrator’s obsession with the Duchesse de Guermantes (who, by the way, was inspired by the real-life Countess Greffulhe, whose incredible wardrobe was the subject of twin exhibitions in Paris and in New York this past year! I nearly cried when I saw it!) This obsession was hinged largely on her exquisite clothing, which was as powerful to him as a great work of art.Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 10.04.55 PM

For me vintage clothing fuses these two ideas — the power of a transportive essential memory, and the magic and sublime quality of art, the mythic quality that clothing can impart to its wearer. I get a lot of questions about the name “Guermantes.” The name represents my feelings about vintage textiles and their importance, both as signifiers and as art objects.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 9.44.34 PMIn your opinion, is fashion art? I personally do see pieces in my collection as art, definitely. but I don’t think the label of “art” in this case so significant. Textiles are incredibly important, fascinating, and beautiful, whether they are referred to specifically as ART or not. In my experience, fashion and textiles are at least as moving and emotionally and aesthetically impactful as great works of fine art.

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1930s Halloween costume recently for sale on GuermantesVintage on Etsy.

Favorite fashion designer, past and present: I’m not big into labels and designers, generally, and I admit I don’t follow modern fashion at all. I do really love Lanvin’s robes de style and Worth’s evening gowns. But in my own collecting I definitely prefer unusual examples of everyday clothing, often handmade by the original owner. I’m obsessed with antique circus and Halloween costumes for example. My current holy grail item is an original lingerie set made of silk WWII escape maps. I’ve been looking for one for the longest time. I only know of a couple examples: one set owned by the Imperial War Museum, and a few pieces in the Museum of London collection. I have a huge collection of WWII lingerie from east Asia, which soldiers stationed abroad would send home to their sweethearts. Those pieces are so much more special to me than any of the designer pieces I’ve had.

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One of many rare sets of WWII lingerie sets in Janine’s personal collection.

If you could recommend one fashion or dress history related book to Art of Dress followers, what would it be? I love Beauty in Exile, by Alexandre Vassiliev. It’s a great book about the impact and contribution of Russian emigrees to the fashion world in the early 20th century. I was a Russian major in college so it’s really the perfect book for me. A lot of designers and houses that were quite influential and created beautiful work have largely been forgotten.

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1920s dress featured in the online museum at GuermantesVintage.com.

If you could recommend one movie for the period costumes alone, what would it be? Salome (1923) comes to mind. The overall aesthetic of that movie is really surreal and cool. Very unusual costumes and set design. The costumes were designed by Natacha Rambova and inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play.