Bibliophile Style: Michel Leiris

Michel Leiris wearing a suit 1984
Image credit: Charles Mallison / CC BY-SA 3.0

Michel Leiris is one of the countless French authors who I haven’t read but whose wardrobes I’ve studied with the breathless enthusiasm of a newly-arrived exchange student a Paris.

Leiris, of course, was much more than just a writer. A multihyphenate of the first order, his résumé also included ethnographer, anthropologist, traveller, artist, poet, critic, Surrealist, one-time student of jazz and chemistry, and all-around man of letters at the vanguard of French intellectual life. He was a friend to such artistic and academic heavyweights as Georges Bataille, André Breton, Aimé Césaire, Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso, and (perhaps most famously in the English-speaking world) Francis Bacon. Moreover, in his capacity as author, when Leiris died at the age of eighty-nine in 1990, no less a figure than Claude Lévi-Strauss called him ‘indisputably one of the great writers of the century’. All of which conspires to make my wholescale ignorance of his work all the more egregious.

Michel Leiris and members of the Dakar Djibouti mission at the Trocadero Museum of Ethnography
Michel Leiris (back row second from the left) and members of the Dakar-Djibouti mission at the Trocadero Museum of Ethnography
Image credit: Charles Mallison / CC BY-SA 3.0

That said, I’m somewhat consoled by the fact that no less a publication than The New Yorker pointed out just a few years ago that, despite working steadily for seven decades, ‘his books have yet to secure a spot with most Anglophone readers’. Moreover, Susan Sontag, writing in the similarly esteemed New York Review of Books, called his autobiographical writing ‘brilliant and repulsive’ (she was referring specifically to L’Age d’Homme, which was translated as Manhood, a later edition of which featured Sontag’s article as a preface with the world ‘repulsive’ discreetly removed). In fact, Leiris’ own translator said (not without admiration) that his syntax was ‘if anything, even more convoluted or complex than Proust’s’.

So, for the moment, I feel alright about not having delved too far into his literary output. I have, however, dipped my toes into the aforementioned Manhood, which opens with a frank and lengthy description of his physical appearance and soon turns to the subject of clothing:

‘I have just reached the age of thirty-four, life’s mid-point. Physically I am of average height, on the short side. I have my auburn hair cut short to keep it from curling, and also to prevent the spread of an incipient baldness. As far as I can judge, the characteristic features of my physiognomy are: a straight nape, falling vertically from the back of my head like a wall or a cliff, a typical characteristic (according to the astrologists) of persons born under the sign of the Bull; a broad, rather bulging forehead with exaggeratedly knotty and projecting temporal veins. This expanse of forehead corresponds (the astrologers say) to the sign of the Ram; and indeed I was born on April twentieth, hence under the jurisdiction of these two signs: the Ram and the Bull. My eyes are brown, the edges of the lids habitually inflamed; my complexion is high; I am disconcerted by an irritating tendency to blush, and by a shiny skin. My hands are thin, rather hairy, the veins distinct; my two middle fingers, curving inward toward the tips, must denote something rather weak or evasive in my character.’

Leiris goes on to describe his odd proportions, poor posture, meagre sexual appetites, assorted medical misfortunes, and a range of candidly off-putting habits. He mounts an unflinchingly honest self-portrait, including when he turns to the subject of clothing. He says, for instance, ‘I like to dress with the greatest possible elegance; yet due to the defects I have just described in my physique and to my financial means, which, without my being able to call them poor, are rather limited, I usually consider myself profoundly inelegant’. Later, he observes of his preference for English clothing that it is ‘actually a little stiff and even funereal — which corresponds so well, I believe, to my temperament’. 

Michel Leiris in black tie 1950
Image credit: Charles Mallison / CC BY-SA

Going through photos of Leiris, his self-deprecating assessment seems a little off the mark. To my eyes, he always looked reliably elegant — and I do mean always. In nearly every photograph I’ve seen of him, he appeared to be impeccably turned out in a jacket and tie. Even when pictured alongside more casually-clad contemporaries like Picasso and Bacon (the former wearing an open collar and V-neck jumper, the latter a blouson-style jacket), Leiris is always the one in a suit. Appropriately, in the portraits Bacon painted on his friend, while little of his face is discernible, his trademark tie and perfect lapels are still clearly outlined. In fact, the only photos I found of Leiris wearing anything other than a coat and necktie were taken during his two-year expedition across sub-Saharan Africa where, understandably, he swapped out his usual tailoring for some more climate- and context-appropriate gear.

All of which is to say, if, like me, you’re apprehensive of wading through baroque syntax and sentences that go on for pages at a time, may I suggest you direct the minutes you might have spent reading Leiris to Googling photos of his outfits instead. His clothing, in apparent contrast to his writing, in my experience provides nothing but simple, straightforward, and easily-accessible delight. See for yourself

* This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something using them, we get a small percentage of the sale at no cost to you. More info at our affiliate policy.