Reading is fashionable, but yet so are the authors, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Fran Lebowitz. In collaboration with Harper Collins, Terry Newman, a London based journalist and lecturer, has hand-picked fifty legendary authors who have re-defined the meaning of dress within the literary world. Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore unravels the black, white and red in every authors closet.
Hikmat Mohammed: What sparked an interest in the way authors dress?
Terry Newman: Basically, I have only ever been interested in two things and that's books and clothes. When I started thinking about writing a book, it seemed to me that writing about authors clothes would be really interesting because when I was growing up I was a voracious reader, it seemed authors themselves were just as interesting as the books they wrote. I was always fascinated by the characters that wrote the books. As well as I am in love with clothes, it just made perfect sense to write about the two of them together.
HM: What is it about a writer that makes them just as fascinating as an artist?
TN: For me a writer is a very artistic character, you know when you meet people who are really artistic and creative, they kind of can't help themselves because they are sort of compelled to do what they do, I think in that respect, a writer is much as an artist as an artist or fashion designer — you meet these people that have this thing in them that they have to do whether it is writing or designing clothes or painting a picture or sculpting something.
HM: Why do you think people still see tension between style and substance?
TN: People do sometimes feel that the clothes can be quite superficial and I have to say when I sat down and "I had to write this book." I had done a proposal, I thought, "so I am going to start now, I was going to write about Samuel Beckett," and I thought this is perhaps a mad thing to do, to talk about such amazing writers and analyse them as per their clothes, then I realised that is just kind of wrong and that is not how I feel about clothes. People do have a tendency to sort of think clothes can be quite superficial, but as you and I know, clothes reveal intense amounts about people: about their character, about their purpose, about their emotions, everything about them gets revealed in their clothes — it seemed to me to find a little bit more about these authors that I love and looking at their clothes was a really obvious choice, it is as revealing as talking to somebody. Obviously I can't talk to Samuel Beckett because he is dead, but looking at his clothes kind of gave me a better glimpse of his personality. People refer to clothes as being superficial sometimes, but I think they are kind of missing the point. It's about character and expressing yourself in the widest possible way. And you have to remember none of these authors worked with stylists, what they put on is what they wanted to put on, what they gravitated towards.
HM: Does intellectual status influences the way we perceive style?
TN: Obviously light is shone on these people because of the work they have done. I wrote the book and called it legendary authors, so in some respect their intellectual status is a given. A lot of people asked me why I wasn't writing about Jackie Collins because she is major and she obviously looks incredible or looked etc etc. The point of the book is to look at the writers that I admire the most in the world and sort of gleam a little more about them. All of them are very intellectually stimulating.
HM: There are many great authors as there are libraries in the world, what was the research process like?
TN: I had kind of written about more [authors], but I wasn't writing the Bible or anything. I had to sort of give myself a target number and I sat down originally, I wrote a list of all my favourite authors and thought these would definitely be the ones I would want to write about. There are some kind of more obvious writers in there who are more known for their style for example Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, and to a larger extent Jacqueline Susann, but I just put down my heart, my best writers on paper and I thought, "these are the ones I am going to look into." What I found was that my premise was correct, as I started researching what was most interesting was all of these authors had a style, that sort of hypophysis was correct, they all kind of had this uniqueness, but also the way they wrote about clothes and the way they used clothes in their literature was quite similar as well. They are all magnificent writers, all of them to a greater or less extent use clothes as a way of encapsulating character even more in their books, from James Joyce right through to Tom Wolfe, not one of these authors, going back to superficiality and clothes, have dismissed clothes as being superficial in their work or head, if you like. They have all used them as a way of illuminating character — that was very satisfying. The research process was very organic. I was very systematic and I just went crazy, taking a long time researching to a very large extent all of these authors to find out absolutely everything I could. I wrote much more than what is in the book, we had to cut a lot of it out because it is a book and not an encyclopaedia. There was loads and loads to say, which I was very happy making because what I feel about clothes, almost all these authors feel about clothes, they are important and interesting. They are useful for many reasons.
HM: What author were you most surprised to learn had a keen interest in fashion?
TN: I did a lot of picture research because images in the book are very important, so one of them was Gertrude Strein, who I obviously just love from her story to her attitude, I love her biography, I love her words, she is this amazing author. I did a lot of research about her and I found these postcards that Pierre Balmain had sent to her and they had a correspondence because she was kind of his mentor, I suppose, I found that really interesting because it wasn't something that I knew about. He would make clothes for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, I thought that was something fascinating that I didn't know about.
I found out stuff about James Joyce for example, obviously he was Irish and Ireland is very well known for its tweed, the fabric of Irish tweed is legendary in its own right, and I so found out that James Joyce didn't have much money, ever really, but he worked as a tweeds salesman when he was in Europe because he loved Irish tweed so much, I thought that was really interesting because James Joyce is the king of modernism, he is the absolute literary god, but the fact that he loved Irish tweed was really fascinating for me. Small things like that made me fee very happy.
HM: Do you think contemporary authors dress as well as writers from the past?
TN: I think there are a lot of writers who dress really well, but the point about these authors is that they didn't have a stylist and as I have said, if you get into the public eye these days it is almost like you are going to have a stylist or the possibility of somebody giving you some advice on what to wear to a launch or to a book signing. As a result, somebody's style can get easily diluted or swayed by an external person, with these authors in the book, that didn't exist then, they didn't have stylists to manipulate their look, it was all there and I found that very interesting and it is not a question of whether authors look good today or not, I think a lot of them do, but when you get into the public eye, you will start getting a bit groomed and for me that is not as quite as interesting as having your own particular style.