Tennessee Williams was one of the most celebrated and prolific playwrights of the twentieth century. Before his death in 1983 at the age of 71, he had written more than two dozen full-length plays, all of which were produced. It was a record unequalled by any of his peers and included such classics of the stage and screen as A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), The Night of the Iguana (1961), and many others. He also wrote two novels, about a dozen screenplays, several books of poetry and non-fiction, and innumerable stories and one-act plays. Williams also won just about every award of his profession — sometimes several times over — including two Pulizers, three Tonys, a Presidential Medal and, four years before his death, an induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
He was also a man of undeniable style and panache. John Lahr’s biography of Williams opens, appropriately enough, with a description of what the author wore on the night he made it big. It was March 31, 1945 at the Playhouse Theatre on Forty-Eight Street on Broadway in New York City at the sold-out premiere of The Glass Menagerie. Sitting on an aisle seat in the sixth row was the man who penned the play in question, dressed in a grey flannel suit with a missing button, a water-green shirt, along with a pale and conservative necktie — looking, as one newspaper put it, ‘like a farm boy in his Sunday best’.
This down-on-his-luck look didn’t last long. As the success of The Glass Menagerie propelled its author to stardom, Williams’s wardrobe took a similarly glitzy turn. He grew his signature moustache, bought a $125 suit to fit in with his new high-society circle, and in no time was being profiled in Vogue and The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section. The process would be repeated with the more spectacular triumph of A Streetcar Named Desire, which ushered in a new wave of wealth and success. This was again marked by some appropriately swanky accoutrements in the form of a solid-gold cigarette case courtesy of his management as well as a dozen white shirts, a cashmere sweater, and a bottle of scotch presented to him in his dressing room after the premiere by the luminary likes of Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, Montgomery Clift, and Elia Kazan.
Prior to these rose-tinted triumphs, however, Williams had lived through more than his share of hardships. He had weathered, among other things, a difficult childhood, a prolonged period of poverty and obscurity, a crippling sense of shyness, and a tumultuous relationship with his sexuality. Regarding the latter point, as his biographer Lahr put it, ‘Williams’s own transition from timid virgin to florid gay man was his defining struggle’. He went from growing up in a household so repressed that he remained sexually naive and entirely celibate until his late twenties before fully realising and enthusiastically embracing his sexuality thereafter.
Williams’s wardrobe seemed to trace a similar arc. Photographs taken in his earlier years document some of his more conservative choices — sober suits, restrained sport coats, by-the-book rep ties, and the like — while later images tend to show off a man who has fully arrived. This latter incarnation of Tennessee Williams wore light-coloured suits, flashy bow ties, roguishly unbuttoned shirts, and, particularly in his later years, wide collars, eye-catching kerchiefs, and an assortment of luxurious loafers — when he wore shoes at all, that is. He also donned just about every flashy accessory you could hope for, including flouncy pocket squares, jewelled rings, pendant necklaces, long cigarette holders, and that aforementioned, ever-present, trademark tache.
Of course, the exuberant looks captured in many of these later images belie the struggles bookending the final decades of life. It was a period haunted by drugs, alcohol, mental health battles, and loneliness. Moreover, his career and reputation had taken a turn, with the glory days of the 1940s and ’50s seeming long since past. Fortunately, following his death, Williams’s reputation was thoroughly revived and his status within the modern theatrical canon firmly secured.
Curiously, though, Williams’s status as a style icon remains an oddly moot point. In researching this piece, I found little or no mention of his wardrobe and a nearly wholesale absence of any appreciation for his notable dress sense, while there is no such dearth when it comes to contemporaries like Truman Capote or Andy Warhol. We’re lucky that Tennessee Williams is still roundly celebrated as a literary and gay icon; it seems only right that his sense of style be recognised in a similar fashion.
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