Bibliophile Style: Joan Didion

Young Joan Didion style
Image credit: Kathleen Ballard / CC BY 4.0

The fashion world — as it is written about anyway — seems overly prone to sequestration and categorisation. Oftentimes, the various camps into which we’re all divided — prep, workwear, streetwear, tailoring, high fashion, etc. — don’t spend much time talking to one another. Ostensibly, there is little cross-pollination between watch guys and clothing guys. Hypebeasts and heritage geeks don’t usually mix. And, perhaps the biggest gulf of all, menswear and womenswear seldom cross paths.

Or so it can seem anyway. In reality, these taxonomies are rarely quite so rigidly drawn. In my experience, even the most by-the-book Ivy guys or Americana adherents on Instagram will often follow a range of clothing accounts entirely unlike their own. By the same token, I keep finding more and more friends and acquaintances with an interest in clothing branching out into watches and vice versa. And, certainly in my own life, there is a whole range of women I regularly look to for style advice. I’ve written about a few of them on this site. People like Fran Lebowitz, Frida Kahlo, and Virginia Woolf. There are many others I haven’t yet covered: the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Patti Smith, and Renata Molho, for example. 

And then there’s Joan Didion. My love of Didion’s work and wardrobe arrived at just about the same time. I first picked up a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem as a postgraduate student in search of distraction from the dull coursework I really should have been reading at the time. Not long afterward to this same end, I happened to be reading the news online instead of working on my thesis when I discovered, courtesy of a glossy photo taken by Juergen Teller, that the very author who I was reading at the expense of all others had been picked, at the age of 80, as the face of the French luxury brand Celine. It was a perfect collision of interests — fashion and fiction — and Didion has been an unfailing source of distraction and elevation for me in both fields ever since. 

For me and the rest of the world, that is. Didion’s literary career has always been bound up with an interest in clothing — her own and other people’s. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in English in the mid-1950s, she won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle after submitting a competition-winning short story. One year later, an early essay won the Prix de Paris which secured her a spot at Vogue where she would spend the next ten years honing her writing style, initially producing low-level promotional copy. While it may not have been particularly glamorous work, it proved a sound editorial education. ‘In an eight-line caption everything had to work, every word, every comma,’ she explained in a Paris Review interview from 1978. ‘It would end up being a Vogue caption, but on its own terms it had to work perfectly.’

Didion would go on to reach the heights of literary royalty, by creating (as the New York Times put it) ‘a tripartite career devoted to reporting, screenwriting, and fiction’ — three disparate forms at which she proved remarkably adept. Didion produced such generation-defining essay collections as the aforementioned Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), the heart-rending memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2012) about the deaths of her husband and daughter, no lesser screenplays than The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and A Star Is Born (1976) (written with her husband and fellow snappy dresser John Gregory Dunne), and such acclaimed novels as Play It As It Lays (1970) and A Book of Common Prayer (1977).

Joan Didion style
Image is my own / All rights reserved

All the while her authorly output was establishing Didion as a literary celebrity, she remained a figure of fixation for the world of fashion. She has long been the subject of glamorous photo shoots, the most famous of which is perhaps a series of portraits taken by Julian Wasser, including an iconic image of her standing in front of her Corvette Stingray, wearing a long-sleeved dress and sandals with a cigarette dangling from her right hand. The image seems to capture Didion’s essence — or, at least, the parts of her we were all obsessed with: her febrile sensitivity, her effortless glamour, and that timeless and oft-imitated style of dress.

Indeed, the Didion dress staples have been thoroughly catalogued — not least by herself. She famously included the contents of a now-mythical packing list, which she kept taped inside a closet door in her Hollywood home, in an essay collected in The White Album. It includes such packing items as 2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards, 1 pullover sweater, 2 pairs of shoes, stockings, bra, nightgown, robe, slippers, cigarettes, and bourbon, in addition to a mohair throw and various writing accoutrements she lists under the heading ‘To carry’. The entire list runs to just a few lines and reads rather like the terse Hemingway prose she once practised typing out as a teenager. 

Not all of the garments and accessories with which she has become most associated are listed, however. While her famous pencil skirts, chic scarves, and cosy knitwear make the list, there’s no mention of her signature sandals, her many hair clips, or the giant sunglasses with which she has become synonymous. Judging by the number of times she was pictured wearing the latter, they were presumably deemed inseparable enough to not even need mentioning. 

This is also far from being the only instance in which clothing makes the cut in her writing. Elsewhere in The White Album, she details an encounter with Manson Family member Linda Kasabian. As a counterpoint to the gruesome murders committed, Didion describes the following scene in which she buys a dress for Kasabian to wear during her legal proceedings: 

‘On July 27, 1970, I went to the Magnin-Hi Shop on the third floor of I. Magnin in Beverly Hills and selected, at Linda Kasabian’s request, the dress in which she began her testimony about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. “Size 9 Petite,” her instructions read. “Mini but not extremely mini. In velvet if possible. Emerald green or gold. Or: A Mexican peasant-style dress, smocked or embroidered.” She needed a frock that morning because the district attorney, Vincent Bugliosi, had expressed doubts about the dress she had planned to wear, a long white homespun shift. Long is for evening, he had advised Linda. Long was for evening and white was for brides. At her own wedding in 1965 Linda Kasabian had worn a white brocade suit.’ 

Several decades later, in Blue Nights, the book in which she grapples with the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo, after her husband had passed just a few years before, Didion still uses clothing as a means of conducting a typically voltaic emotional dispatch:

‘There is no drawer I can open without seeing something I do not want, on reflection, to see. There is no closet I can open with room left for the clothes I might actually want to wear. In one closet that might otherwise be put to such use I see, instead, three old Burberry raincoats of John’s, a suede jacket given to Quintana by the mother of her first boyfriend, and an angora cape, long since moth-eaten, given to my mother by my father not long after World War Two. […] In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.’

Joan Didion wearing a turtleneck sweater
Image credit: Brigitte Lacombe / CC BY 2.0

Given the sartorial savvy perennially on display in her writing and on her person, it’s no wonder Celine asked her to be the face of their line in 2015. Or that in 2017 when Terry Newman released her book, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, Didion proved the obvious choice to grace the cover. Ditto GAP and Vogue and the many other outlets that made similar choices both before and after. When she died in December of last year, there followed an expected flood of tributes, seemingly all of which made some mention of her clothing. And, more recently, there’s been another wash of publicity surrounding her estate auction in which items like a pair of her sunglasses sold for $27 000 — a sure mark of the enduring influence of her storied sense of style. 

As to why a now sadly deceased octogenarian would have such a hold over our collective dress sense (the subsection of menswear included)? Apart from the immediate aesthetic appeal, I suspect Joan Didion’s love of clothing legitimises all of our own similar interests. As Emilia Petrarca noted in The Cut ‘I think people are obsessed with what Joan Didion wore (and packed) because she was a smart, practical woman who acknowledged that these stylistic choices, however small, mattered. That fashion is important because it’s how we communicate who we are, even if it’s just to ourselves.’ The attention Didion paid to her appearance shows the rest of us that these things aren’t necessarily frivolous. She affirms that a well-honed aesthetic appreciation can translate into the deeper sensitivity and thoughtfulness that Didion so perfectly embodied. The same proved true of Virginia Woolf, whose death is now nearly as far away from the present day as is Didion’s birth. Yet we’re still getting spreads and runway shows inspired by her aesthetic. I don’t imagine it’s a wager that would fetch me particularly favourable odds, but I’ll bet the same will prove true in the case of Joan Didion for a good few years to come. We will certainly all be the better for it. 

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