Interview by Samantha Hahn
Terry Newman is a UK based editor with an illustrious twenty five year career contributing to publications such as the Guardian, i-D, and Sunday Times, and numerous books and shows. She is also a lecturer and the author of an incredible new book, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore (Harper Design).
In Terry’s new book fashion is used as a jumping off point to explore the way the writers felt gives us a glimpse into their thinking, the time the lived in, and their role in society within that moment in time. “The shape and twist of their hair, how they hold a cigarette or penchant for wearing a particular item is their creative DNA on display,” and how we come to remember them as larger than life figures, outside of their poignant writing.
“What you read is as important as what you wear. And what authors wear is source material for designers’ creativity. The literary and fashion worlds are therefore synchronized, and the geek chic of librarians is a look that is set to prevail.” She adds: “Fashion is a history book as well as a mirror, and the incidental assimilation of who is wearing what, where, why, and when adds density to a cultural read.”
I’m very excited to ask Newman what inspired her to research the 49 authors in this stunning book, from Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to Oscar Wilde and Patti Smith.
Samantha Hahn: Hi Terry, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your book and writing with me. In your introduction, you say “persona is closely connected with how you dress.” I think that’s such an interesting concept because you’re not saying that being ‘on trend’ is essential. In fact, just the opposite, you’re saying that many of the authors on the pages of your book were not a slave to trends but instead authentically followed the beat of their own drum and in doing so even influenced great designers and fashion houses who in turn designed collections that became sometimes iconic trends for others to follow en masse.
What do you think it was about that authenticity that became so alluring to the fashion designers and made them look to the author as a muse? I mean literally is it about confidence, charisma…can you put your finger on it?
Terry Newman: I think designers are attracted to creativity and unusual ways of communicating and expression. Authors have a unique voice in their writing and all the writers in my book also have that strong way of communicating with the clothes they wear. These legendary writers weren’t always particularly confident about their dress sense – Virginia Woolf loved clothes but was slightly in awe of them too. But all of them went their own way – they didn’t have a stylist, they weren’t playing for Instagram likes: they dressed to please themselves. When Vogue Editor Madge Garland first saw Woolf she thought she was wearing a wastepaper basket on her head, but that didn’t stop her thinking she was beautiful and alluring as well. Distinction in dress is something that is magnetic to designers I think: doing something different just because you like it and not because it’s in or out of fashion is charismatic; being unaware of your own appeal is even more enchanting.
SH: In Gertrude Stein’s section you have this incredible quote from an article in 1934, ”Gertrude Stein Arrives and Baffles Reporters by Making Herself Clear”: (She was) dressed in rough tweeds, …Her feet were in thick wooly stockings and round-toed, flat-heeled oxfords. A brownish tweed suit covered a cerise vest of voluminous proportions and a mannish shirt of cream and black stripes. The hat was a Stein hat…a gay hat which gave her the appearance of having just sprung from Robin Hood’s forest.”
I love that the authors featured in your amazing book dress in a way that is indicative of their era, influenced by it, in that they are purchasing clothing that’s available in stores, yet often times seem to transcend time itself. What was it about Gertrude’s unorthodox sartorial choices within her era, that helped convey her persona to her peers including Picasso (who painted her), Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and to the masses? What statement was she making with her mode of dress?
TN: Gertrude Stein was a progressive writer who also understood and appreciated beauty and talent. I loved that she mentored Pierre Balmain and that he made her and Alice B Toklas outfits to wear when he was starting out as a couturier. In the ‘30s it was in-vogue to imitate a silver screen film-star, but this wasn’t a fit for Stein. She loved the art of clothes, not fashion. Her eye was on the inventive and she wore what she wore because it dressed her high standards. She bought a Hermes coat from the proceeds of her book, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, because it was exquisitely made. She watched fashion though and in Paris, France she said that it is “always in the great moments when everything changes that fashions are important because they make something go up in the air or go down or around that has nothing to do with anything.”
SH: You quote Sylvia Plath from The Poet Speaks by Peter Orr, 1966, “writers and artists are the most narcissistic people. I mustn’t say this, I like many of them….But I must say what I admire most is the person who masters an area of practical experience, and can teach me something.” We’re often reminded of how beautiful and fashionable Sylvia Plath was. It’s well known that from college through a stint in the New York magazine scene Plath wore clothing that camouflaged her into her era. You write that she used clothes “as armor against the world, in order to portray a stronger, more engaged and useful self.” You went on to say that in her era, “clothes equaled success, popularity, and prestige and protected her identity.” Plath went on to discard her clothes before leaving the NY magazine scene to return home. You mention that after that decision her writing became more mature, developed and confessional. Do you feel there is a direct correlation between her more authentic writing voice coming out and the change in her sartorial choices?
TN: I think that Plath loved clothes and still continued to use them as a protection as she grew older. The poet Ruth Fainlight talks about getting to know Plath a couple of years before her death and finding it extraordinary that the clothes she wore were ‘excessive’ and gave the impression of someone ‘trying to look like a devoted wife’. I think it’s possible that the emotional well Plath sadly experienced simply drew deeper as she matured and this was manifested in the words she wrote that also had a healing quality to them: she became braver with her writing and more revealing but kept using clothes in the comforting way she always did.
SH: This quote by Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls, feels most timely to me in our current social media obsessed era: “Everyone has an identity, One of their own, and one for show.” Do you feel that the outward appearance of the authors (at the pinnacle of their careers) you chose to feature in your book match their private personas and more importantly their writing? You talk about Jacqueline Susann’s dogged persistence, confidence and drive in the face of resistance, how she went on to become a best selling author. She dressed glamorously and was always well-coiffed, while her heroines struggled, often with their physical appearance. Do you think her outward appearance was a mask for the way she felt inside?
TN: Susann was a ballsy, strong, and amazing person. I’m not sure she was disguising anything with her clothes – she was smart and camera ready at all times as she was extremely ambitious. A great thing for a woman to be! I find her hugely inspiring: she didn’t care what others thought and was extremely charming. Her novels are a reflection of what she saw around her in show-business and this is something that is sometimes un-noticed. She wrote about things that hadn’t been written about before: not just sex. Her work is modern and populist but she talked about things that were defeating and difficult for women. She refused to always finish novels with a happy ending because she said life just wasn’t like that.
SH: Do you have a favorite author in the book?
TN: They really are all my favorite authors! I sat down and wrote a list. It’s not an exhaustive list of everyone I love, but it’s a start.
SH: If you had to judge one of these authors solely for their sartorial choices, who stands out as the best dressed? You can define “best dressed” any way you like, I’m just curious whose style you respond to the most and why?
TN: Tricky question. If I were to dress as one of them it would have to be Simone de Beauvoir: a little bit beatnik, a little bit post-war, a little bit frumpy, and a little bit Parisian. All in all the look I personally love. As far as being the ultimately best dressed, that’s impossible to answer as one of the key points of the book was to platform the idea that everyone’s sartorial choices can be interesting and amazing if you choose what you like and be true to yourself.
SH: You included this wonderful Maya Angelou quote: “Seek the fashion which truly fits and befits you. You will always be in fashion if you are true to yourself, and only if you are true to yourself.” You went on mention that “looking smart and feeling good was one of Angelou’s trademark attractions.” Do you think that fashion can help an author achieve confidence in themselves and their writing like in the case of Sylvia Plath, or that finding an authentic writing voice helps the author exude confidence and express it through personal sartorial style?
TN: A bit of both. Maya Angelou is such a wonderful inspiration: we should all be like Maya. She looked her best at all times and expected the best of people: so optimistic and enduring, her hope and beauty are so compelling. I think that clothes reveal much about character and each writer’s wardrobe has huge amounts to say. One of my favorite quotes is from Quentin Crisp who says the difficult part of life is finding out who you are: find out who you are he says and then ‘be it like mad’. The authors in my book had found out who they were and were being themselves like mad and this is a kind of confidence I think.
SH: As an author in your own right do you have a style that you feel defines you? How did you come about finding your personal style?
TN: I’ve always had a strong idea about what I like personally… I’m not sure how it comes about but I’ve never worn something that is in fashion for the sake of it. Wear what you like: find out what you like and go for it! Who cares if you look strange? Strange and different can be good, but I don’t think I look strange or particularly different!
SH: Do you feel that your voice as an author corresponds to your personal style?
TN: I write about things I want to know more about: it’s a way of learning and loving the world around you. When I write I try and look for another point of view, another way of looking at something. To say something fresh and hopefully vaguely intelligent and possibly fun as well. Perhaps that’s the way I dress too!
SH: You quote Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Why do you write? What compelled you to conceive, research and write this book?
TN: I always had this idea that authors were cool and interesting and stylish. I knew there were ‘obvious’ writers who were well known for their dress sense such as Tom Wolfe and Oscar Wilde and I couldn’t write the book without including them, but I wanted to pursue the hypothesis with all my favorite authors. I was a little scared to start with – I began with Samuel Beckett and had a moment when I thought I was crazy to analyze such a heavy-weight with the focus on clothes. However, the most unexpected authors almost were the most fruitful and I found lots to say about everyone. What was most interesting was how all the authors used clothes and to some extent fashion in their work to reveal character and develop their own narrative. These great writers took clothes seriously and used them as a creative tool: what better accolade! It made me very happy as so many people argue that clothes are superficial. Not at all say these legends of literature!
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