At a recent literary festival, I was questioned about my fashion choices by the moderator who had seen a magazine feature in which I’d been photographed wearing a borrowed Hermès jacket. This portrait, he said, didn’t quite fit with his image of a poet. I don’t recall now which patron saint of poetry he invoked—Rimbaud or Baudelaire, some chewed- up, syphilitic genius no doubt—but it was a curiously potent provocation. I found myself adopting a wheedling tone in defence, saying that I normally spent my days in pyjamas and Spike Lee spectacles with only my husband and three pariah dogs to look upon my visage; that if you asked anyone in my family, they’d confirm that I was a complete slob till lunchtime. In effect, I was saying, ‘Please don’t judge me for caring about what I wear in public, for having more than a passing interest in fashion, because in my heart I am a chewed-up, crumpled, but not yet syphilitic poet.’
I am not the first female writer who has had to defend her sartorial choices. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tackled this subject in her essay, ‘Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion?’ ‘Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance,’ she wrote, of her experience in an American university. ‘For serious women writers in particular, it was better not to dress well at all, and if you did, then it was best to pretend that you had not put much thought into it. If you spoke of fashion, it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers.’ At 36, Adichie says, she has only just overcome her fear of looking unserious. Now that she has won more literary awards than the amount of ichafus in her closet, there can be no casting doubts on her smartness. She is finally free to wear what she loves: damask, puffy sleeves, coloured trousers, heels— things she says that simply put her in a good mood.
Like Adichie, I experienced anxieties about moulding my style inclinations in order to look serious. In the first years of my foray into the literary world, I hemmed myself safely in the sari arena (a sari has and always will be the most powerful item of clothing I ever put on, but still, it is ever so slightly prohibitive if that’s your only choice). And it was only when I encountered the firebrand writer-editor Shakti Bhatt in her fuck-you heels and streamlined skirts that I finally felt I had a licence to stray outside sariland. If you’re going to make a break for it, I thought, you’d better own it like she does.
Still, the issue comes up frequently, as if it’s so impossible to believe that someone who spends their days crafting words, choosing what kind of instruments to write with, what colour ink, what kind of paper, someone who concerns herself with voice and style and font and language, might actually care about the aesthetics of her own personal appearance as well. Is it the perception of vanity as a sign of superficiality that so annoys people. Or is it that we are more comfortable when our writers show visible signs of suffering, best exemplified by the emaciated, rolled-out-of-bed-in-disarray look because I’m-too- busy-with-matters-of-real-import? The current gold medal holder of that look is surely Michel Houellebecq.
The fact is there have been dandies and dandizettes galore in the literary constellation. Who can think of Oscar Wilde without recalling capes and pinstripes and that mop of adorable hair? Or George Sand, forerunner of the boyfriend look, who roamed around in gentleman’s clothes because they were more comfortable and allowed her greater access to the streets of Paris?
Edward Said was asked this double-barrelled question by Tariq Ali: “Is it possible to be a serious intellectual and a dandy? Is it possible to be a serious dandy and an intellectual?” Said answered: “Resoundingly yes, to both questions. I think only a serious intellectual can take an interest in appearances, because appearances are very important. And only somebody who is seriously interested in appearances can be a serious intellectual, and care about things of the mind. Because things of the mind are interesting only so far as they manifest themselves in attractive appearance.”
When Joan Didion was recently featured as the new face for the French fashion house Céline, it provoked equal flurries of uproar and delight. There she was, peering at us behind a pair of iconic dinner-plate-sized sunglasses, at 80, frail and fabulous all at once. Didion has been a style icon ever since the publication of her first book, Run, River, but to see her in an advertising campaign caused backlash. People saw it as an appropriation of Didion’s cool. An intrusion of artistic integrity because this would somehow translate into Céline selling more handbags.
And here lies the rub—economics, which is the factor that separates the idea of style from the business of fashion. If you are stylish, you could forage something glorious from the pickings of a Salvation Army store, but to be decked out in designer gear indicates merely that you have the wallet for it. I’ll concede that the billion-dollar industry of fashion corrupts somewhat the notion of style, but if the bugbear is really economics, then why is it that we don’t condemn actors and rock stars when they endorse perfumes and expensive luggage? Aren’t they artists as well? Or is it that in the hierarchy of the art world, we simply expect our writers not to be tainted by the sin of commodification? That we would prefer if they remained in their special, sad category—designated not only to be underpaid for their work, but to look satisfactorily unfashionable while they’re at it?
One of the great literary takedowns of fashion comes from Giacomo Leopardi, who in his Operette Morali, pairs Death (Morte) and Fashion (Moda) as sisters. Fashion tells Death that it is their nature to renovate the world, that right from the start Death threw herself on people and on blood, whereas she, Fashion, has generally been satisfied with beards, hair, clothes, furnishings, buildings. Fashion concedes though, that like Death, she likes playing games—piercing ears, lips, or noses with holes… crippling people with tight shoes, cutting off their breath and making their eyes pop out because of their tight corsets, etcetera. Leopardi, who belonged to nobility, and looked pretty dapper on all counts, utilising fashionable frock coats to hide his crooked back, despaired of ‘the infinite vanity of everything’, and we can perhaps empathise with his bleakness, given that he was speaking from the experience of living in the one of the great style centres of the world. Italy—where the carabinieri strut around in Armani, and people like it if the Pope wears Prada.
Speaking of which, a few weeks ago I found myself leaning against a wall in the Fondazione Prada in Milan for the Men’s & Women’s Fall Winter 2015 Runway Show. I was there as part of the jury for the Prada-Feltrinelli prize that Miuccia Prada initiated with Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, to promote emerging literary talent from across the world. The winners of this short story competition were flown to Milan, kitted out in Prada, received €5,000 and would have their work published in The Prada Journal. Not a bad beginning for a writer at the start line.
Being something of a clotheshorse myself, I viewed this as an opportunity to inspect life on the other side of the divide. What did people in the fashion world make of this curious joint venture? Did they see it as charity for the failing publishing industry? Or did they see it as a genuine collaboration?
The scene around me was all very La Grande Bellezza— fashionistas chugging Camparis, film actors popping delicate, bite-sized sandwiches, a Japanese ingénue sheathed in a magnificent cape of blue fur. The entire space, I found out, was designed by OMA, led by architect Rem Koolhaas—a changeable, moveable space, which could be altered according to the occasion. That night, it had the feel of nightclub-meets-inter galactic-prison. There was pounding 80s electro music, and the only people I had the courage to speak to were the prize-winning writers, who talked about poetry and their creative writing instructors, and hey, isn’t that the guy from Whiplash?
Later, over dinner at Mrs Prada’s house, I set myself the task of quizzing everyone I talked to about their thoughts on the relationship between fashion and literature. First, I took note of the place itself, as you do—immense works of Lucio Fontana on the walls, a pair of curlicue moss green sofas on which elegant men and women, straight from the Prada ads (perhaps they were), reclined casually and sipped wine. No music. Only the soft hum of conversation.
My first victim was Ippolito Laparelli, a partner at OMA, who told me that when their firm first started working with Prada, theatre companies that they worked with regularly were aghast. There was a perception that they were selling out. “In fact,” he said, “The process with theatre and designing a show is not so different. The attention to detail is very precise. It’s a kind of cultural snobbery.”
Then I cornered my Italian publisher, Carlo Feltrinelli, and he said, “Don’t ask me, I’m the worst-dressed man in Italy.” A harsh self-portrait, I thought, although perhaps not, given his penchant for professorial sweaters and ties.
Finally, I got to Mrs Prada herself. She looked at me when I asked my question and smiled. Then she made an ever so agile duck and joined a group of friends in a corner who would no doubt spare her from being harangued at her own party. I feel I may have tried to grab her wrist to prevent her from escaping, but luckily I missed. As a card-carrying communist in her youth, and a committed leftist and feminist, Mrs Prada is frequently asked about how she reconciles her politics with being a fashion designer, and she has gone on record to say: “I think there is something against fashion in the world. Everybody is so passionate about this, there’s a resistance to fashion, an idea that to love fashion is to be stupid. I think this is for two reasons. One is because clothes are very intimate. When you get dressed, you are making public your idea about yourself, and I think that embarrasses people. And two, I think that fashion is seen as women’s work. My conclusion is that because fashion touches your intimate life, it embarrasses people.”
I can’t say that I returned from Milan with any great revelations except a longing to own a Madras Miu Miu bag, which at the going rate of $2,000 would only take me a decade of writing poetry. It’s not the ownership of the bag per se (because I’m pretty sure I’m not going to buy one), but the existence of it, the aesthetics of it; the fact that someone sat down, imagined, created and designed a beautiful object instead of an ugly one.
Is there something so intrinsically wrong with the pursuit of beauty in our lives—whether it has to do with our art, the spaces we inhabit, or the clothes we put on? Don’t we discover cathedrals inside poems? Aren’t entire symphonies contained in a single painting? To think that the elements of colour, texture, voice, light and shape don’t speak to each other across disciplines, to imagine that they must retain some kind of island-like xenophobia towards other forms of aesthetics is a conformist pose. Ultimately, all appearances are curated— whether it’s the crumpled poet look or the dandizette. I can only encourage writers of the world to unite: open your closets and channel your true style spirit. And when judgement falls (which it will), smash it with your Batas or the pins of your Louboutins, and return to what really matters: your work.
(Tishani Doshi is a poet and novelist based in Chennai. Her latest book, Everything Begins Elsewhere, is a collection of poems)