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Style as Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s Relationship with Fashion

Published on
Feb 6, 2022
Written by
Sydney Russo
Published by
Aisling Gogan
Edited by
Aisling Gogan

If packing lists could elicit Pulitzer Prizes, Joan Didion would be the first recipient. Hers, published in the title essay of her 1979 essay collection The White Album, is a study in the form: separated into two sections, To Pack and Wear and To Carry, it spans not even half a page, and the entries are sparse – two skirts, two jerseys or leotards, one pullover sweater, stockings, mohair throw, typewriter, bourbon – but when news broke of Didion’s death on December 23rd of last year, images of the list inundated social media. A peculiar tribute, it seems; why choose a piece of prosaic household paraphernalia to represent the legacy of a literary titan – a woman whose escapades in Haight Ashbury and El Salvador were anything but prosaic, who penned sentences on notebook-keeping and New York that have become gospel to literary-minded, disillusioned women everywhere?  And yet, for those who keep Joan’s words close, that meticulously arranged half-page is an invitation to inch even closer, delivered straight from a woman with a tendency to keep her admirers at arms-length.  Each list entry, the garment names devoid of descriptors – you get the sense Joan didn’t care whether the pullover sweater was navy or black, so long as it was there, carefully folded – is a glimpse into a sacred interior life.  In the words of Joan herself ‘this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative’.

For Didion, fashion was control. Her relationship to her clothing is well documented, and the images continue to shimmer. In a particularly iconic one, photographed by Julian Wagner, Joan leans against a Corvette wearing a sinuous shift dress, hair mussed; in another, she is clothed in a black crew neck sweater and maxi skirt, perched swan-like on her sofa; a third features her fabled black sunglasses, oversized and thick-framed, paired with a white t-shirt irreverently thrown over a paisley sundress. Each of these photos, among countless others, are drawn out of designer archives each season and are mined for remaining potential. Some of the houses tapped Didion herself, and the resulting campaigns have been cemented in the collective fashion consciousness. In her first foray into modelling, Didion and her daughter Quintana Roo starred in a Gap ad wearing matching black turtlenecks, Didion’s subtly accessorized with just the suggestion of a necklace chain. Much later, Didion featured in an editorial for Phoebe Philo’s Celine, once again wearing a black turtleneck, sunglasses noticeably enlarged. They work because they feel so Joan: even in a highly produced fashion campaign, when every trick of light and positioning of the body is manufactured, Didion commands attention, imposes herself on the viewer in the same way she imposes herself on the reader. This is a woman in control of her image, and she makes everyone around her desire a similar level of control. Hence the appeal of a list, handed over like a blueprint.

I’m very attached to certain forms, like compulsive rituals. I like to cook; I like to sew. They’re peaceful things, and they’re an expression of caring’. - Joan Didion

In a 1977 interview with The New York Times, Joan Didion was asked whether she admired elegance, to which she replied ‘yes, because it makes you feel better. It’s a form. I’m very attached to certain forms, like compulsive rituals. I like to cook; I like to sew. They’re peaceful things, and they’re an expression of caring’. And yet, when asked about her role as a style icon in a now infamous interview with Time Magazine in 2021, Joan responded by saying ‘I don’t know that I am one’. Joan viewed fashion as a form, much like her lucid, composed sentences – a way of negotiating the everyday trials of the world – but she couldn’t comprehend her role as a fashion icon. The act of getting dressed was, for her, an entirely autonomous gesture. One might even call it an act of self-respect, or, borrowing a line from Didion’s essay of the same name ‘the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life’. In Didion’s mind, self-respect begins when you are emancipated from the expectations of others and can live according to your own impulses, no longer attempting to play a role someone else has cast you in. It is an ethos that can easily be re-appropriated as a style manifesto: as much as Joan claimed to be missing the script, she knew her own character, and her undeviating sartorial habits serve as evidence.

Here, perhaps, is where Joan deviates from popular conceptions of what style is or should be: she did not view getting dressed as a vehicle for self-discovery, rather she used fashion to tell others exactly who she was and how she wanted to be perceived – because for her, they were one and the same. Clothing became a language with its own grammar: an adjective exchanged for a shift dress, an adverb for oversized sunglasses, a noun for a silk neckerchief. In the same way Joan intuitively arranged words, she put together ensembles with singular dexterity. Give her a narrow selection of pullover sweaters, skirts, and stockings, plucked at random from her closet – do not neglect the mohair throw – and she’ll be ready to liaise with lost children in Haight Ashbury or meet Linda Kasabian at a Los Angeles women’s institute or arrive for dinner at the agreed-upon time and place, all within five minutes flat. It was one of her ‘compulsive rituals’, like sewing or cooking – a packing list, pinned to her closet door, freed her from extraneous thoughts but still ensured she would have what she needed to feel at ease, like herself.  It is one of the great themes of Didion’s life: in ‘On Self-Respect’, she likens the process of developing an intrinsic sense of self-worth to what she called a similar ‘kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it’.  And there it is:  Joan, although not immune to doubt or insecurity, prioritized her own worth, and everything else – style included – became a way of reminding herself who she was.

And there it is:  Joan, although not immune to doubt or insecurity, prioritized her own worth, and everything else – style included – became a way of reminding herself who she was.

Joan belongs to a storied history of authors who made a mark on the worlds of both literature and fashion. There is Emily Dickinson, the woman in white, whose ethereal, blanche-coloured dresses reflected her poetic levity – after meeting Dickinson, the poet Mabel Loomis Todd described the author to her parents, saying ‘she dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful’. Then there is Collette, who brazenly stepped into the streets wearing tuxedos, setting a precedent for androgynous style decades before Yves Saint Laurent debuted his Le Smoking suit. In more recent years, Zadie Smith’s jewel-toned head wraps – a nod to her Jamaican heritage – and exuberantly patterned dresses and blouses have made her the subject of multiple Vogue articles. These women, separated by time and geography, nevertheless appear to be in conversation with one another: whether it is a disdain for platitudes or an intensely curatorial eye that bands them together, they each use fashion to shape character in the real world. And although they may be used as style referents in the here and now, each developed their signature style outside of the public eye, away from the insular bubble of influencer culture, which too often acts as a cloning device. Because of this, their sartorial expressions are more unilateral than the fixtures of popular culture repeatedly singled out by the fashion world. They transcended fashion cycles and became lasting emblems of timeless style - a strong counterpoint to the disposable, trend-centric nature of today’s industry.

The day Joan died, I came across a photo of her on her sprawling deck in Malibu, accompanied by her husband John Gregory-Dunne and her daughter Quintana, both of whom passed away decades before Didion. The ocean, a sheet of pure glass, extends off the edge of the photograph, and a thin, sandy strip of beach seems to stretch into infinity.  Joan wears a floral dress paired with a fringed belt that almost sweeps the ground – uncharacteristically elaborate for someone with such a fierce dedication to pullover sweaters and simple skirts, but still lightweight and accommodating enough to allow her the freedom she so valued – and her expression is one of contentment. She does not appear to be ‘a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of the human endeavour’, as she described herself in The White Album, but a woman completely at ease with herself and her world.  She could fit in anywhere, but she knew where she belonged. It is the reason she continually returned to California, the state that had shaped her perspective and rhythm, and the reason she always sought repose with her family.  Her fashion was another iteration of this search for belonging – it transported her back to herself.  

‘The impulse for much writing is homesickness,’ Didion once said.  ‘You are trying to get back home, and in your writing you are invoking that home, so you are assuaging the homesickness’. After decades apart from John and Quintana – time spent writing as an antidote to aching loss – Joan is finally home.