Just shy of a hundred years after its initial publication, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) has been making headlines again in recent times. As of 1 January 2021, the novel entered the public domain, which garnered fresh media attention for a book that has long been a cornerstone of American literature and a shoo-in for high school reading lists the world over. With all adaptations and homages now being fair game, several new additions, a graphic novel adaptation, and even an animated film are forthcoming. There’s already been a prequel by Michael Farris Smith called Nick, and The Great Gatsby Undead, which was self-published on Amazon the day after the copyright expired and features Gatsby as a vampire.
The novel has long occupied a singular place in the public imagination. The scores of freshman it sent scrambling to SparkNotes notwithstanding, the book has sold 25 million copies since its initial publication. Some 155 000 of these were printed as a special armed forces edition during WWII, which did much to cement the novel’s reputation, alongside several film adaptations in the intervening decades. Hunter S. Thompson so revered it that as a young writer learning his craft he typed out the book in its entirety in an attempt to unravel its power.
The Great Gatsby recorded the glamour and excesses of the Roaring Twenties and cemented its author’s reputation as the foremost chronicler of the Jazz Age — a term which he coined. And while Fitzgerald will always be remembered primarily for his literary stylings, his sartorial ones were no less shabby.
Readers of Fitzgerald’s fiction will be familiar with his eye for finery. Up there with Gogol’s overcoat or O. Henry’s watch chain, Gatsby contains one of the more famous clothing-based episodes in literature. When the title character is reunited with his long-lost love, Daisy, he takes her on a tour of his West Egg mansion that culminates at his closet. It ‘held his massed suits and dressing gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high’. These were bought for him, he informs his audience, by a man in England who sends over a selection of things at the start of every season:
‘He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many coloured disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of indian blue.’F. Scott Fitzgerald
The sight of them is enough to make Daisy ‘cry stormily’, saying ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts’. And (willfully ignoring Mr Fitzgerald’s thematic concerns here for a moment) which Permanent Style-reading menswear obsessive could blame her?
Fitzgerald’s own attire was perfectly in step with the times: His dapper signatures were three-piece tweed suits, plus fours, knit ties, and a perfectly pomaded coiffure, back-combed and centre-parted.
His wife Zelda, the famed flapper and feminist icon, was similarly well turned out. Terry Newman recounts in Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore a young Zelda’s arrival in New York, a Southern belle with a trunk of frocks and lounging pants in tow. Her fashionable husband reckoned she could do with a make-over:
‘He sent her shopping with an old friend, Marie Hersey, who guided her toward the French designer Jean Patou’s effortlessly chic, slender silhouettes. It wasn’t long before Zelda’s city wardrobe took off and her small-town trousseau was left behind. Her curly bobbed hair was Marcel-waved to perfection and to parties she wore dresses trimmed with sequins and fur and tailored to make her look string-bean slim and enviously flat-chested.’Terry Newman
Indeed, the Fitzgeralds were the toast of the town, embodying in their personal life the reckless world so vividly portrayed in F. Scott’s writing. They drank, danced, and holidayed year-round, trashing hotel rooms and spending money like water along the way. Their exuberance would come to a sad end, however. Scott died of a heart attack in Hollywood at age 40; Zelda in a mental hospital in North Carolina aged 47.
In the notes to his final and unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald wrote that ‘there are no second acts in American lives’. While these words may have proven true of his own tragic end, the style and times he defined in his work as in his life are keenly remembered a century on. Like the boats at the end of Fitzgerald’s opus, we are borne back ceaselessly into his past.
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