Cataloguing Carson McCullers’ Clothes: Long Coats, Vests, and Gender Fluidity
Jenn Shapland on What She Found in the Writer's Archives
I came to Carson first through her love letters, and then through her clothes. As an intern at the Ransom Center, a vault of books and manuscripts, I was given a choice of second-year projects. Anything I wanted to work on, any collection that needed cataloging, any exhibition in the works could have been my focus. After a year of detouring to push my library cart down aisles of typewriters, eyeglasses, and most amazingly—clothes every time I was on the seventh floor, I knew that I wanted to work on the personal effects collections. I was assigned the clothing, objects, and miscellaneous housewares of four writers: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Carson McCullers. Before this project, I hadn’t thought all that much about an author’s clothes. But in my hours with random assortments of garments—socks, suits, coats, hats, and vests—I became more convinced of their potential for communing with lives past.
Since I’d unearthed Annemarie’s letters and realized how insignificantly she came off in Carson’s public story, I began to cling to Carson’s mentions of places and objects for clues to who she was. Her clothes, her knickknacks, offered something I came to see as more truthful: the honesty of objects. Description can only expose so much of the self or contain so much of a memory or an experience. Photos and objects offer alternative access points to Carson’s history of identity formation and love. When I first reached for these objects, trying to understand Carson’s story, I was reaching for an embodied history, a past I could touch.
Carson’s focus on clothes in her therapy sessions and in Illumination reveals their importance to her, which I intuited while I catalogued them. Clothes gave her a way to express an identity that was fluid, a way to change who she was to the world each day. In April 1958, Carson laments to Mary her long lost status as an “it girl,” wistful for her former stylishness. In her more elegant days, she wore what she called costumes made by a friend, Joyce Davis, and her girlfriends were the most attractive around. At bars like the Blue Angel, the 21 Club, and Alice’s Candle, they gallivanted in box-pleated skirts and knee-high socks and peacoats. Named for the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film, the Blue Angel was a cabaret in Manhattan where Barbra Streisand would later perform. Carson mentions someone by the name of Crawford, but the first name is blank. Joan? I marvel. In her years in New York, when she lived on and off at February House, Carson spent her time with queer writers and tastemakers in bars and cabarets all over town. This joyful memory is undercut by “Annamarie and her agony, you know, and Gypsy, and Annette.” The drama of her twenties.
When I catalogued Carson’s clothes, I took them off the hangers or out of their boxes and laid them out on a piece of muslin on a large table. And then, for longer than I’d ever done with my own clothes, I studied them. I looked and looked: for tags and labels, any kind of brand or designer identification, fabric contents. I looked at their linings, scanned them inch by inch for tears, stains, and signs of wear—each a communication from its wearer in a previous life. I measured and photographed each piece from several angles, never very satisfied with my ability to recreate the life I saw and felt in the clothes. If librarians and archivists are eminently mockable for their obsession with the smell of books, I can profess that clothes are much more fragrant than paper.
Traces of perfumes, soaps, mothballs, body odors. From the clothes I want to say I knew what Carson smelled like, but how could I ever describe it in words? I ran my gloved hands over the rich tweed skirtsuit in teal that looks like something she’d wear to meetings in New York with her publishers. Her long, pale lime-green wool A-line coat appears to be lined in emerald silk, but it is more likely polyester. She has several elaborately embroidered jackets and vests, things worn to theater and film premieres. Certainly Carson was never one for gowns. One item seems especially out of place, out of character: a gold lamé jacket with magenta lining that still has the Saks price tags on it, from all those years ago. It is the only item in the collection that looks unworn. Perhaps it was a gift.
The clothes in Carson’s collection consist mostly of long coats, vests, and nightgowns, which, when I first encountered them, I didn’t understand at all. Why would someone donate four cotton nightgowns to an archive? In a number of photographs, she wears the long red wool coat with embroidered gold trim, a garment with which I am deeply familiar. She called it her Russian coat, I think because it made her feel somehow “Russian,” which could mean, knowing Carson’s lifelong fascination with snowy climates, a person from a cold place. But it could just as easily suggest a person with a deep understanding of Anna Karenina. Carson refers frequently to Russian writers in her letters. I photographed the red coat from a ladder, I described it in metadata, I housed it in tissue and a box all its own. Like the clothes of our loved ones do, the coat began to resemble Carson, to signify a part of her. Years into this tunnel of research, I’ve solved the mystery of the collection of nightgowns and coats: she was a sick person. She wore, predominately, nightgowns, and often put a beautiful coat over them in photos. An interview with Rex Reed from 1967 describes how “she greets her guests in long white nightgowns and tennis shoes.”
Carson revisits memories of her appearance, her elegance, in Illumination. Her friend in the last decade of her life, a French woman named Marielle Bancou, whom Carson met on the bus from Nyack to New York, designed and made all of her “nightgowns and dressing robes,” allowing her to be bedridden in style. If these were the nightgowns I catalogued, they are lightweight cotton in pale yellow, blue, and white, with simple lace collars, occasionally with ruffled sleeves. Some short sleeved, some long sleeved, one sleeveless. They have a childlike quality, something I may have worn to sleep in the summer when I was little. She writes about a gift she received from Dawn Langley Simmons, a close friend whom she met while visiting Edwin and John. Simmons gave Carson “one of her robes, a beautiful Japanese garment which I wear often. I love Japanese and Chinese robes and wear them on all state occasions. I have one, given to me by my cousin Jordan Massee, which is 2,000 years old. It was worn in the old days on protocol visits to the dowager empress, and handed down from one generation to the next.”
The age of this robe is the only lie I feel certain of in her autobiography. Having recently catalogued clothing only a few decades old, I’m highly skeptical that any fabric would remain intact that long unless elaborate preservation techniques were employed.
In Columbus, in the office of the Stark Avenue house, a silk kimono hung on a dressmaker’s dummy under a sheet of plastic, and the director told me that this was the kimono she alleged to be 2000 years old. The first thing I did after I was left alone in the house was remove this plastic. It is a dark, rosy pink, almost purple, embroidered all over with blue, pink, and green flowers and leaves. The wide beaded, embroidered lapel circles the collar, crosses, and closes at the side of the neck. I can see how wearing the garment on state occasions would make me feel distinguished, vaguely ancient. I had brought my sewing machine with me to Columbus, with coincidental plans to make a kimono, and this served as perfect inspiration. After uncovering the kimono, I opened the heavy, yellowing floral curtains, sat down at the massive desk, and looked across the room at the garment, at my own face in the mirror hanging beside it.
A year prior, surrounded, for the first time, by artists and writers at a residency in Vermont, I took to wearing a long black silk robe with magenta polka dots over my clothes every day. I had found it at a thrift store in Burlington. It was April 2015, and I’d driven from full Texas summer blue through midatlantic spring fog to a frozen, still snowing Vermont sky. The river outside my studio window slowly thawed over the course of the month, and by the end what had been solid ice was audibly rushing with snowmelt. In my first attempt to occupy the position of “writer” in public for any extended period of time, I felt the need to don what I deemed full writer drag: my robe, my knit hat, and my duck boots preceding any version of me, any writing at all, as I swept into and out of the dining room each day.
Toward the end of my stay in Vermont I sat in my robe at the desk in my studio surrounded by photos of McCullers’s clothes that I had catalogued and all the photos of Annemarie I’d printed, a serial killer’s lair. I pulled up the first draft of this book, which consisted of questions for the objects I’d catalogued, on my laptop so those who wanted to could read it on their tour around the writers’ studios. I don’t imagine anyone did. Writers’ studios tend to be much less exciting than artists’: no paint or clay, no half-assembled sculptures midroom, just a hard drive, maybe a notebook. A closed process. But this was my first studio, my first designated, if temporary, writing space, and I had papered the walls with lines I had written, one-sentence essays in india ink on paper.
I was sipping a plastic cup of red wine (having consumed half my bottle of bourbon the first night, at the bonfire, pouring it into a camping mug and continuing to drink because that’s what I assumed a writer was supposed to do at a bonfire—What Would Carson Do?—and the next day, my first day to work, I was so ill I did nothing but sit in my studio’s armchair in the fetal position, periodically spilling down the hall to throw up in the bathroom beside some poor poet’s studio. I still don’t know how those alcoholic writers do it). One of the older men in residence, a photographer with shoulder-length gray hair, came by my studio while I sat at my desk. He said he wanted to take my picture. He said it was for his wife, so she could see what I was wearing, I think to make it less weird that he was a man alone in a room with me taking my picture. I let him. It is one of those pictures of a writer at her desk, ones we see when Google Images searching for any writer, but I have never seen mine.
The desk in the Stark Avenue house’s office was not Carson’s, and in fact I find it odd that I have never seen mention of her desk. I think this one might have been Rita’s at some point. Early on, Carson had several author photos taken sitting at—more often sitting on—a desk, usually out on the porch. Each piece of furniture that peoples the house in Columbus tells a story of its own: the white slipcovered couch where she wrote Clock Without Hands, her beloved blue armchair, the organ. When I picture Carson writing, I picture her reclined, looking out a window.
From My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland. Used with the permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2020 by Jenn Shapland.