20 Famous Writers’ Sartorial Trademarks, Ranked
In Honor of the Hard Pants We Will Soon Wear Once More
As more people get vaccinated, and as we emerge—or plan to emerge, or think about planning to emerge—from our pandemic-related isolation, we will have to accept that some things have changed. Maybe our minds. Maybe our bodies. Maybe our ability to accept our powerlessness and vulnerability in the face of global disaster. (Or you know, maybe not.) But if you are hoping to emerge from your chrysalis as a finely decorated butterfly, you may be in the market for a Whole New Look. And how better to define your new Look than by copying the sartorial signature of one of your favorite writers? (Don’t actually answer that.) Hell, you could always mix-and-match. But be careful: more is not always more. (Okay, sometimes it is.)
To aid you on your (closet’s) journey of renewal and joy, I have helpfully ranked a few of the most notorious sartorial trademarks in literature, based on the complex and totally accurate system known to my colleagues as “my opinion.” Of course, a few Literary Looks certainly fell by the wayside (Djuna Barnes’ ascot, James Joyce’s eyepatch, etc.), and likely you will ultimately disagree with me that dogs count as items of clothing. Alas, no list, nor ranking, can ever please
anyone everyone. Still, I cannot be stopped:
20. Jeffrey Eugenides: The Vest
Alas, the vest is in last place. This is not because it isn’t stupendous (it is, look at it there, billowing) but because I don’t know if it’s actually real. I mean, you kinda had to be there—and by “there” I unfortunately mean “on the literary internet”—in the fall of 2011, when Jeffrey Eugenides was publishing a new novel, and therefore had new author photos, and therefore was wearing a vest in them. The vest billowed in the wind. The vest had a billboard in Times Square. The vest was SWOON-WORTHY. The vest had friends and the vest had enemies. The vest had a Twitter account. I miss the vest, and with it, the literary internet of 2011.
19. Colum McCann: The Skinny Scarves
“A few years ago, I began to wear a long looped scarf,” McCann wrote in Esquire in 2013.
If I have any sort of signature, I suppose it is that. Morning, noon, night. I have been known to wear one in summertime. I have a lucky scarf I wore to finish my most recent novel. I even wear scarves on formal occasions instead of an actual tie. It’s goofy and self-conscious, but not much worse than wearing a white suit, or glasses that can get whipped off at literary readings.
I have a wardrobe full of scarves now, just about every color under the sun. My trick is that I always cut them in two, down the middle. They’re lighter, thinner, skinnier that way. And because I’m cheap, I get two scarves for the price of one. Sometimes I even subject my friends to the second half of a favorite scarf. What greater love has a man than … okay, enough, enough already.
Well, he gets points for self-awareness, and also for consistency: he’s wearing a scarf in just about every photo I can find of him on the internet. Some of them are so skinny as to be more necklace than scarf. All of that is fine with me. But . . . scarves in the summer? I have to draw the line somewhere.
18. George R. R. Martin: The Greek Fisherman’s Cap and Suspenders
There’s no real story (that I could unearth) behind GRRM’s trademark hat and suspenders. He’s just almost always wearing them. Why not? They look good on him. Sometimes the hat is black, sometimes it is another neutral. Sometimes the hat has a turtle pin. Sometimes he wears a turtle brooch. He always looks like he should be chilling on a wharf somewhere, inhaling the briny air. Maybe he is. I like to think so.
17. David Foster Wallace: The Bandanna
The easiest writer to be for Halloween (if you’re a white dude, and let’s face it, if you’re doing this, you probably are) is David Foster Wallace. Wear your normal clothes (maybe for the second day in a row), slap on that trademark white bandanna and call it a day. As for the bandanna itself, I remain essentially neutral. According to lore, it was first a functional item for Wallace, who sweat a lot, and eventually became “a security blanket,” and was then either used or misconstrued as a marketing gimmick until he, self-consciously, stopped wearing it entirely. But not, of course, in our minds, where he must now wear it for eternity. Which is kinda bleak, if you think about it. (With your mind.)
16. Terry Pratchett: The Black Louisiana
“I like hats,” Pratchett wrote in A Slip of the Keyboard, “particularly the black wide-brimmed Louisianas which people think are called fedoras. Coming as I do from a family where the males go bald around twenty-five, I prefer to have more than a thickness of bone between my brain and God.” But the hat wasn’t always the Hat. (What Hat is?) “When I became an officially famous author, the black hat became a kind of trademark,” he wrote. “It wasn’t on purpose, but photographers liked it. ‘One with the hat on, please,’ they’d say. And you always do what the photographer wants, don’t you? And so the hat—sorry, the Hat—turned up in PR photos and I was stuck with it. It became me, according to all the photographs.” Apparently there were also “a couple of foiled attempts at hat theft.” (Of course there were.) “People ask me if I feel naked without my hat,” he wrote. “The answer is no. I feel naked without, say, my trousers, but if you walk down the street without wearing a hat, the police take very little interest at all. But, yes . . . I’ve grown very attached to the hat, over the years.” Pratchett died in 2015, but Neil Gaiman made sure that his hat (and scarf) made it to the premiere of Good Omens. (Aw.) It’s also an official pin.
15. Fran Lebowitz: The Oversized Blazer
Veteran New Yorker Fran Lebowitz has gotten the personal uniform—one of the mainstays of city living—down pat. She wears cowboy boots and straight leg blue jeans, maybe a button down or a crew neck, and on top, a slightly oversized blazer (in the winter, there’s a longer tailored coat on top, but the blazer is usually still under there). Her look has been described as “the ultimate anti-trend NYC wardrobe” and I have to say I quite agree. Revolutionary, it is not—but classic, comfortable, and chic never go out of style.
14. Hunter S. Thompson: The Kalichrome Yellow Ray-Ban 3138 Shooters
You know the ones. (Probably thanks to Johnny Depp, but still.) Featuring a Bausch & Lomb Kalichrome C Yellow lens and a handy cigarette hole in the middle, for holding your cigarette while you’re busy shooting something. Seems reasonable. (Though as you can see, Thompson himself used a real cigarette holder. At least in photographs.)
13. Octavia Butler: Kooky Patterns
As a child of the 80s, Octavia Butler’s style gives me the warm and fuzzies: she favored blazers, turtlenecks, and polos, most of them happily emblazoned with some kooky, colorful pattern. (Talk about a Patternist series, amirite? Okay, sorry.) She’s even wearing one in her Google Doodle. By the way, if you would like to celebrate Butler by crocheting your own sweater, here is a pattern for you, created by Alex Reynoso. I am not joking when I say, please get this for me for my birthday.
12. Kazuo Ishiguro: All Black Everything
Yes, as you may have noticed, Kazuo Ishiguro dresses pretty much exclusively in black. (“He hates shopping, but he wants to look cool, so at one point he just bought a thousand black T-shirts,” his daughter recently explained to Giles Harvey.) As a New Yorker, I can’t help but support this.
11. Charles Baudelaire: All Black Everything, But Make it Dandy
See also: Charles Baudelaire, the “all-black dandy,” who according to Valerie Steele, director and chief curator at the Museum at FIT, “was very much about a less-is-more look, a new aristocratic style that was very sober and refined as opposed to being highly decorative. It wasn’t about being an old-style aristocrat, but a new kind of aristocracy of the mind.” Dandyism was already a thing, but Baudelaire was the one who associated it with black. The goal, said Steele, was to be “not an old-school aristocrat but also not a money-grubbing bourgeois—in simpler terms, the equivalent of a hipster now. It had nothing whatsoever to do with being over-dressed or fancifully dressed, but, on the contrary, a very kind of minimal and austere look. And an attitude of coolness or hipness.” No denying that it works!
10. Edward Gorey: Fur Coats
Edward Gorey had quite the collection of fur coats (and also quite the collection of fur cats—coincidence??), which he liked to wear to the ballet with sneakers and jeans, a power move if I’ve ever heard of one. He also favored little gold hoops, along with whatever other assorted jewelry he took a shine to that day. He gets major points for extravagance, and for the fact that Bill Cunningham himself deigned to write about him and his coats (tracing his evolution from raccoon to wolf to beaver to mink to Russian sable), but loses some for animal cruelty. Different times, though—and in fact Gorey was a major supporter of animal rights; when he died, he left the bulk of his estate to animal welfare groups. And all of this isn’t even to mention his costume design for Dracula. A style icon indeed.
9. Jacqueline Susann: All Pucci All the Time
I mean, it’s a flex. And Jackie was flexing all the time. She wore Pucci—so much Pucci. Even the curtains in her office were Pucci. (The walls were pink patent leather.) She had a large collection of Korean wigs. She pushed the ankh. She typed on colored paper. Was there a poodle? There was. They wore matching leopard-patterned pillbox hats when they promoted “their” book together. Truman Capote likened her look to “a truck driver in drag” on the Johnny Carson Show, citing her “marvelous wigs and sleazy dresses” to argue that she was perfect for the role of Myra Breckinridge. (Ms. Susann, hearing this, called her lawyer.) Again, I have to say: different times. But I love to think of her as Michael Korda described her, in 1966, when The Valley of the Dolls was a mega-hit: “Jackie, then forty-seven, had spiky false eyelashes, a chain-smoker’s gravelly voice, and glittery dresses; her feisty, tough-broad image seemed to many like the beginning of the end—show-business vulgarity at the door of the temple of culture.” Burn it down, Jackie. Burn it all down.
8. Gay Talese: The Tailored Suits
“There are people who are greatly concerned about the environment and the well-being of Bengal tigers and yellow-headed Amazon parrots,” Talese wrote in 2007, the same year, incidentally, that he was named to the International Best-Dressed List. “And then there are people like me who worry about the professional survival of men’s custom tailors. Each year I spend large sums of money in shops that employ these craftsmen, whom I see as an endangered species.” His father was one such craftsman, and Talese learned his love of suiting from him. His collection is legendary, and so is the fact that would get fully dressed even when he wasn’t leaving the house. “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,” he told The Paris Review. “In the bunker there’s a little refrigerator, and I have orange juice and muffins and coffee. Then I change my clothes.” Yes, again.
“Putting on a beautifully designed suit elevates my spirit, extols my sense of self, and helps define me as a man to whom details matter,” Talese wrote. “Well-tailored clothing is a celebration of precision. When I’m wearing one of my custom suits, I’m in harmony with my highest ideals, my worship of great workmanship. In this period of globalization and outsourcing, of voicemail vacuousness and shopping on the Internet, there are few things more gratifying to me than standing in a clothing shop getting a second or third fitting from a tailor who is personally and pridefully engaged in what he’s doing.”
7. Donna Tartt: The Tailored Suits, For Her
All that sounds great. But forgive me, famous suited men . . . Donna does it better. Another International Best-Dressed List honoree, Tartt has said that her style icons are Louise Brooks and Harold from Harold and Maude. (Chef’s kiss emoji.) Like Talese, she has an extensive wardrobe of tailored suits, and also like Talese, she famously gets impeccably (and severely) dressed to write at her desk at home. Unlike Talese, she doesn’t really like to be photographed, which makes her intense, meticulous style all the more mysterious and alluring.
6. James Baldwin: The Sunglasses
Not one pair, but many—or at least three that I can visualize off the top of my head: the black, oversized mustang sunglasses, the slightly rounder, but also oversized, tortoiseshell goggles, and the classic Ray-Ban Generals. Baldwin always looked good, and he always looks good—his style is timeless and edgy at once, and undeniably cool. His look, as Ade ‘Acyde’ Odunlami put in in GQ, is “dandy as hell, but it’s an assured, stately kind of flamboyance. It’s East Coast swagger. It’s Harlem; it’s Cam’ron in a pink fur. It’s romantic and cool—not camp. Baldwin is projecting a self-evident truth: ‘I know my way with words because I know myself and I know exactly what I look like.’ It’s one notch below the studied arrogance of Miles Davis yet more controlled than the freewheeling closet raiding of Jimi Hendrix.” And nothing says swagger like cool shades.
5. Joan Didion: The Sunglasses
If we’re being honest with ourselves, Joan Didion has a number of iconic looks—but that’s just because there are a number of iconic photographs of her. The real iconography is something in her attitude, in the way she holds a cigarette or drapes her arm or half-scowls at the camera. But I can’t ignore the sunglasses: the large, dark, rectangular ones that have become inextricably connected to her image, not least because she’s wearing them in the photograph that graces the paperback cover of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, arguably her most famous book. (And then, of course, there’s the Celine ad.) None of this is accidental. In a 2011 essay for Vogue entitled “In Sable and Dark Glasses,” she writes about her own self-conception as a six-year-old:
Here is how I most often preferred to visualize myself [at 24]: not on a moor, not in Shubert Alley, but standing on the steps of a public building somewhere in South America (Argentina comes first to mind, although Argentina was like the sable coat, never actually seen, more concept than reality), wearing dark glasses and avoiding paparazzi. If you were to have asked me why I was standing on the steps of this public building in Argentina, I would have had a ready answer: I was standing on the steps of this public building in Argentina because I was getting a divorce. Hence the dark glasses, hence the paparazzi. I would let other six-year-olds (Brenda, say) imagine their wedding days, their princess dresses, their Juliet caps and seed pearls and clouds of white tulle: I had moved briskly on to the day of my (Buenos Aires) divorce, and the black silk mantilla the occasion would clearly require.
She was never not going to be glamorous, then. I can’t say I’m surprised.
4. Tom Wolfe: The White Suit
It’s the first thing you think of when someone says, oh I don’t know, “20 Famous Writers’ Sartorial Trademarks, Ranked.” Tom Wolfe has the distinction of sporting the most iconic, most discussed, most stain-sensitive outfit in literature. Those white suits: He wore them in public. He wore them at home. He even wore them to the gym. “Wolfe’s white suits didn’t make him look cool; they made him look odd,” wrote Robin Givhan in The Washington Post. “And what he seemed to understand was that odd was far more intriguing than cool. Odd is full of shadings and contradictions, frustrations and delights. The odd man fascinates. His personality must be unpacked; he is worth considering.” They were, she points out, “perfectly tailored but desperately out of fashion.” Especially when he paired it with that hat. But as affectations goes, it is certainly a fun one.
“Writers, whether they want to admit it or not, are in the business of calling attention to themselves,” Wolfe explained in a 1989 interview. “My own taste is counter-bohemian. My white suits came about by accident. I had a white suit made that was too hot for summer, so I wore it in December. I found that it really irritated people—I had hit upon this harmless form of aggression!” And almost 20 years later, when asked if he ever got tired of being known for his white suits, he replied, “It has done me so much good. Not long after I published my first book, I quickly found I was terrible at being interviewed. But then I’d read the piece and it would say, ‘What an interesting man; he wears white suits.’ And so it was a good 10 years where the suits were a substitute for a personality.” Now he’s just being modest.
3. Mark Twain: The Other White Suit
Wolfe is more famous for it, but like so much else, Mark Twain did it first. In 1906, he wore what would become his trademark white suit to a Congressional hearing on copyright. The next day, the headline of the New York Times story read: “MARK TWAIN IN WHITE AMUSES CONGRESSMEN. Advocates New Copyright Law and Dress Reform. WEARS LIGHT FLANNEL SUIT. Says at 71 Dark Colors Depress Him—Talks Seriously of Authors’ Right to Profits.” And what did Twain say to the Congressmen that so amused them? Something like this:
Why don’t you ask why I am wearing such apparently unseasonable cloths? I’ll tell you. I have found that when a man reaches the advanced age of 71 years as I have, the continual sight of dark clothing is likely to have a depressing effect upon him. Light-colored clothing is more pleasing to the eye and enlivens the spirit. Now, of course, I cannot compel every one to wear such clothing just for my especial benefit, so I do the next best thing and wear it myself.
Of course, before a man reaches my years, the fear of criticism might prevent him from indulging his fancy. I am not afraid of that. I am decidedly for pleasing color combinations in dress. I like to see the women’s clothes, say, at the opera. What can be more depressing than the sombre black which custom requires men to wear upon state occasions. A group of men in evening clothes looks like a flock of crows, and is just about as inspiring.
So high handed. So purposeful. So rude. You absolutely must love it.
2. Zadie Smith: The Head Wraps
As one memorable Vogue headline put it: Zadie Smith is a Serious Style Icon—Even If She Won’t Admit It. “The quirky combination of Smith’s turbans and thick bifocals with Miu Miu bias-cut dresses and Marni graphic-print separates has created something of an erudite mystique around the author,” writes Marjon Carlos. “(Is “bluestocking chic” a thing? If so, the New York University tenured professor is its poster girl.)” Indeed, she has impeccable taste, but the head wraps—often red—have become a special sort of signature (again, whether she meant them to or not). “Quite often [wearing a head wrap] has to do with my impatience with getting dressed,” Smith told Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “I like getting dressed, but I don’t want it to [take] a lot of time. The head wrap began as a way of saving time, not being bothered to do my hair in any practical way, but also as a kind of . . . symbol or allegiance with exactly that kind of African ancestry. After all, many, many more women in the world wear something on their heads than don’t, and I like to be part of that sisterhood.” Finally: a gorgeous sartorial trademark with a deeper meaning to boot.
1. Edith Wharton: The Tiny Dogs
Yes, I know dogs are not technically sartorial—unless you’re a subtly-named literary villain—but there’s no denying that Wharton turned them into accessories whenever possible. She is often photographed with a dog, more often with two, and sometimes, as you see, she’s even wearing them. This is by far the weirdest sartorial trademark on the list, and thus it receives top billing. Wharton was, of course, intensely obsessed with her dogs—every morning, she wrote her Great American Novels while gazing out at her very own doggy graveyard. She also was pretty sure she could understand them. You know, literally.
By the way, these dog shoulder pads were even immortalized (again) in that Vogue spread (you know the one), which, not for nothing, features Jeffrey Eugenides in a (different) vest. Full circle, baby!