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Tom Wolfe’s White Suit Helped Define His Writing Career

The author, who has died at the age of 88, maintained his signature style throughout his life.

Photo: David Corio/Getty Images

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On Monday, American writer Tom Wolfe passed away at the age of 88. The journalist and author published beloved works of both fiction and nonfiction, among them best-sellers like The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff.

To plenty of fans, though, Wolfe will also be remembered as a style icon. The author’s eye-catching characteristic was that he always wore a white suit — even to the gym.

Over the years, Wolfe was spotted sporting fashion accessories like canes, Borsalino hats, gloves, and two-toned tuxedo shoes, all of which helped cement his image as a fashionable writer. But he gave unprecedented attention to white suits; it eventually became the only style of clothing he owned. His daughter, Wall Street Journal reporter Alexandra Wolfe, even wrote back in 2016 that “for as long as I can remember, he has shown up at almost every meal wearing a three-piece suit and a tie.”

Why the fierce dedication to the white suit? Wolfe’s trademark was as much a power choice as it was a fashion one.

In 1962, Wolfe moved to New York City for a job at the New York Herald Tribune, where all of the reporters wore suits. He’d grown up in Richmond, Virginia, where the obvious choice for a summer suit was a white one, so he bought one made of silk twill. In 2015, he told Vanity Fair that he continued to wear the suit throughout the winter because he didn’t have enough money for other clothes.

Photo: Sam Falk/Getty Images

“The first time he wore it, however, he realized the suit wasn’t of summer weight. It was thick enough to wear in cold weather, too,” VF wrote. “That’s how strapped for cash he is: he wears his white suit into the fall so he doesn’t have to buy another.”

The fact that he wore a white suit in the winter infuriated people, Wolfe told USA Today in 1999, which he found hilarious. Eventually the white suit began to inspire a persona of its own. Wolfe found that it made people notice him and want to talk to him. It was, in fact, a power suit. As Wolfe expanded his journalism career, VF reported, “people start to notice and remark upon his white suit, in a way they don’t seem to have done before: they take it as one of those eccentricities that are a natural by-product of genius.”

Wolfe realized that because of the suit, sources wanted to study him and find out his story, even though he was the one seeking them out. In reality, he didn’t think of himself as all that interesting, telling Time that the suits were merely a “substitute for a personality.” But with the white suit, he lived up to the image of a quirky character.

And so Wolfe decided to lean heavily into the costume, and it worked. He became one of the most acclaimed writers in America, where he immersed himself in the story. This approach, along with exaggerated spellings, sounds, and lots of exclamation points, earned him a spot in a unique class of writing dubbed New Journalism, where, along with fellow authors Nora Ephron, Gay Talese, Judith Crist, and Jimmy Breslin, he paved the way for revolutionary storytelling. (Wolfe’s work also inspired authors like Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion.)

Among his works, Wolfe will be remembered for making up the term “radical chic,” which is definitely a fitting way to describe a writer who so completely owned his lewk.