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A man once asked me if I liked to read Joan Didion, “like all the other smart girls.”
“Yeah!” I said. “But only because I like the color of the book jackets.” He didn’t laugh, but I did.
Another time, I was asked why Didion talks so much about clothes.
I love it when people describe Didion — they end up telling me so much about themselves. For instance, that they are intimidated by her intelligence. Or that they don’t think a smart woman can be interested in clothes. And this is grimly ironic, because these are the exact kinds of sexist attitudes Didion has spent her career questioning.
Didion’s writing is canon for many, and her name alone sells books, but she’s also someone whose identity as a literary powerhouse is linked to her role as a consumer: She is known for her brilliant writing and for her status as a sartorial tastemaker. Not only can she write incisively about confounding political realities and her own bewildering, painful life, she can also appear in an ad for Céline at age 80, wearing oversized sunglasses, looking like the legend that she is.
Other favorite photos: the iconic shots of her smoking, unsmiling in an ankle-length dress outside a yellow Corvette; the 1989 Gap ad featuring Joan and her daughter Quintana Roo in matching turtlenecks. These images are what people refer to when they say they consider Didion a “cool” writer. Her look is considered: nervous and attentive, but somehow also unmoved.
In Didion’s work, too, clothes are critical. Not just articles of clothing, but colors and cuts and costs and brands and quality of clothing. She is particular about this. I often forget that she started her career editing at Mademoiselle and Vogue, but it makes endless amounts of sense. Fashion is an interest of hers, something she takes seriously.
A shirt is never just a shirt in Didion’s work. It’s a symbol, a message, a sign of life. Consider the recurrence of the color white in her 1970 novel Play It As It Lays: Maria, upset about her pregnancy, wears white crepe pajamas to a party, and sleeps in beds made with white sheets, hoping to miscarry in her sleep. She drives to her abortion with a man dressed in all white — wearing, it’s repeatedly made clear, “white duck pants,” which, who knows what duck pants are? Didion, and Didion alone. But in each instance, white fabric signifies a fresh start; a new chance. Not innocence, necessarily, but a lack of burden. The man in the pants alters Maria’s “perception of reality: she saw now that she was not a woman on her way to having an abortion. She was a woman parking a Corvette outside a tract house while a man in white pants talked about buying a Camaro.” Clothes are a way of anchoring Maria, a means of linking her to the world outside her head. After the abortion, she buys herself a silver vinyl dress.
Two of Didion’s favorite themes are alienation and isolation. If clothes serve as ways to investigate character in Didion’s fiction, they’re the mainstays of the memories that populate her nonfiction. Often, clothes offer affirmations of her existence in a way that people could not. In “Where I Was From,” Didion repeatedly mentions the “pale green organdy dress” she wore while delivering a speech about “Our California Heritage” at her eighth-grade graduation. In Blue Nights, Didion writes movingly about the pain of being surrounded by physical reminders of her husband’s and daughter’s deaths: his shoes, her dress. Didion remembers her daughter’s wedding, just a few months before: specifically, the red soles of Quintana’s Christian Louboutin shoes as she knelt at the altar of the Manhattan cathedral.
“Style is character,” Didion told the Paris Review in 1978. And character, as she wrote in the influential essay “On Self-Respect,” is “the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” Ergo, for Didion, style is a significant part of self-respect.
Earlier this month, Didion published her latest book, South and West, a slim volume consisting of two excerpts from a notebook she kept in the 1970s. The first, more substantial portion of the book is “Notes on the South,” taken during a tour of the Gulf South in the summer of 1970. The second portion is “California Notes,” from a 1976 visit to San Francisco, where she was covering the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone. She eventually decided not to focus on Hearst, choosing instead to write about her childhood and the West. Neither set of notes were published until now.
The book is incisive, especially in the parallels between decades-ago America and our present-day cataclysm. Especially resonant: Didion’s sense that the South would be, for American politics, “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” And Didion’s recorded, of-the-moment observations of the era, likely edited and polished for book form, are still intimidatingly articulate: She writes in whole, perfect sentences, even when just in a notebook for her own reference.
And the clothes? She touches on how a striving for elitism rules the day in both the South and West. She remembers, in the latter section, that her grandmother, “who was in fact poor, spent money” freely, and bought Joan her first “grown-up dress: a silk jersey dress printed with pale blue flowers and jersey petals around the neckline.” She writes that she was raised, in California, to seek clothes with “a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, the medieval. Muted greens and ivories. Dusty roses.” An obsession with nostalgia, paired with optimism about the future, establishes what Didion refers to as “the peculiar vacuum” in California.
I’m embarrassed to say that when I heard “road trip” I thought I’d find, at some point, a packing list for either of Didion’s trips. Part of her 1979 essay “The White Album” is a packing list: “To Wear and to Pack,” one of her most iconic pieces of prose, oft-shared among women who have literature degrees and an interest in not appearing slovenly. The list starts off with a tone of practicality — two skirts, she writes, two jerseys, one sweater. And then the list takes on an epicurean slant: Didion will also travel with her “nightgown, robe, slippers; cigarettes; bourbon.” But it’s not until the end of the list that we learn the trip’s not a vacation: She’ll bring a mohair throw and a typewriter and legal pads and her files.
Crucially, Didion goes on to explain, after this catalog of items: “This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do.”
These are the two sentences I wish I could print onto business cards and hand out to those readers who question her interest in clothes. She’s not just wearing the skirts she’s packed; she’s reporting in them. She’s not just reporting in them; she’s writing the greatest New Journalism of the 20th century. She’s wearing the skirts while she’s writing a bestselling novel and later when she’s writing a bestselling memoir that would win the National Book Award. She’s wearing them while she’s taking pains to craft a voice, startling, anxious, and razor-sharp, that the world will try to dismiss.
But still she reigns. At 82, she’s a living legend. If her literary success isn’t attainable, at least her look is. It’s easy for me to think, when I’m sipping a bourbon or smoking in a robe on my fire escape, that I’m something like Didion; when I sit down to write, though, I remember that I never will be. This is a realization that brings no regret, and no envy: It’s enough to have the chance to try.