At a glance, Samuel Beckett’s wardrobe seemed a fair match for his reputation as both man and author. Famed for literary works perpetually mired in meaninglessness and misanthropy, accounts of his appearance often suggested a similarly nihilistic bent. More often than not, he was described (as recounted in Anthony Cronin’s biography of Beckett) as dishevelled, with his trousers and jumpers showing ‘plentiful traces of food, drink and other matter’, the sleeves of his jacket being ‘littered with burn marks’, and his shoes ‘permanently dirty and in need of repair’. As a young man he had a habit of wearing clothes that were ‘ill-fitting’ and ‘too-tight’, and at the time he won the Nobel Prize in 1969, the notoriously private and retreating author was eventually wrangled into meeting journalists looking so gaunt that (in Cronin’s words) ‘He could have been a convict, a tramp or even a concentration camp victim’.
With age, Beckett’s apparent disregard for his appearance only seemed to worsen. Another biographer, James Knowlson, offers the following account of Beckett toward the end of his life:
‘He dressed at this time in an odd mixture of old and new, smart and shabby, mostly the result of accident rather than design. Relatives and friends gave him new scarves, socks, shirts and sweaters as Christmas or birthday presents. But, although he never looked seedy, he took no real interest in clothes. For preference, he donned a comfortable, much washed knitted sweater, usually in cream, grey or beige, which he wore under an old sheepskin coat. When it was cold, he pulled an old beret down — squarely, not rakishly — over his large, protruding ears. The canvas bag that he carried across his body was beginning to look worn. One day in a London taxi, [his friend Alan] Schneider noticed that he had on a pair of thick, tweed trousers that he had not seen him wearing before. “I like the pants, Sam,” said Schneider. “Where did you buy them?” “From the Charity shop,” answered Beckett with a cheeky grin.’
Of course, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man whose work has always left readers and theatre-goers scratching their heads, the story isn’t quite so straightforward. Just as Beckett the man proved a far more richly complex figure than his scowling, larger-than-life persona — he was, among other things, a talented sportsman, a member of the French Resistance, and, in the right company, known to be courteous, loquacious, and borderline gregarious — so too there was more to his wardrobe than the crumb-covered mess described above.
For one thing, despite the evident disregard for his appearance at times, there was a contravening streak of what might be construed as vanity in Mr Beckett’s relationship with clothing. When returning to Ireland after a stint in Paris as a young man, for example, he affected wearing a beret, a choice that did not go unmarked on the streets of Dublin. To make matters worse (from the perspective of the amused onlookers and his disapproving mother) he also took to wearing a cheap French suit, a tight-waisted overcoat, and would occasionally swap out his beret for a soft felt hat. His parents begged him to at least put on a bowler hat — then still considered essential for any respectable man of his class — but all to no avail.
Beckett did eventually settle on a slightly more respectable uniform. The beret stuck around, but he swapped out the suit for simple slacks, sports jackets, and sweaters (Arans and turtlenecks were particular favourites), plus a raincoat, and, more often than not, a pair of soft suede Clark’s Wallabees. In fact, such was the staying power of this particular ensemble that to this day Beckett continues to be cited as a paragon of uniform dressing.
He certainly was a model of consistency. According to Terry Newman, he settled on his signature quiff at the tender age of seventeen and didn’t stray from it for the rest of his life. The same proved true of his spectacles, which were small, round, steel-rimmed, and apparently unchanged over the course of his 83 years.
The ostensible disregard for appearance implied by wearing the same thing day after day can arguably be rooted in precisely the opposite impulse — a careful consideration, in other words, of what one looks like and the desire to control the messaging of one’s clothing. It certainly all seemed on-brand for an author known to repeatedly strip his characters down to their most basic parts. Regardless of intention, however, Beckett has long been seen as an odd sort of fashion icon in no small part thanks to the consistency of his dress sense. After all, some of the most fashion-minded people in the world — Karl Lagerfeld or Anna Wintour, say — have a reputation for essentially wearing the same thing day after day.
It might seem odd to evoke high fashion in the context of Samuel Beckett, but then for all of the cigarette burns and charity shop clobber, there was a side of the author that seemed susceptible to the allure of fashion. I’ve mentioned the beret, but there was also the chic sunglasses, the skimpy beachwear, and, perhaps the most celebrated of all, an unstructured Gucci hobo bag he was seen carrying on the streets of Santa Margherita Ligure in the early 1970s — the selfsame bag that has become synonymous with a far more conventional fashion icon in the form of Jackie Kennedy.
For all of his ‘steadfast unfashionability’, as Terry Newman put it, Beckett the artist has inevitably become Beckett the style icon. In this regard, I’m reminded of something Robert Armstrong wrote not long ago also citing Becket:
‘The artists, from Miles Davis to Samuel Beckett — Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie go here too, I think — were all creators in the 20th-century mode. They were defined in large part by the rejection of classical or bourgeois conceptions of aesthetic or intellectual achievement in favour of greater spontaneity and authenticity. They were iconoclasts before they were icons. Their clothes are in one sense irrelevant, because it is the work that matters. But they were also absolutely relevant, because the work was not just changing music or literature but the whole way we approach life, right down to what we wear.’
Sure enough, a young Samuel Becket may have returned to Dublin to have his outfits sniggered at by the locals, but nearly four decades after his death, the rest of us are still clamouring to imitate those selfsame affectations. It seems an appropriately Becketian trick. As he wrote in Molloy, ‘When a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle’ — our sartorial tracks prove equally spherical.
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