Joan Didion: Literary and Style Icon
Joan Didion could stop traffic; in 1968, her portraits were shot on the Hollywood Strip.
She wears a long-sleeved, ankle-length dress and her hair snakes down in an ‘S’. At thirty-four, she is strikingly frail; her body was that of a volatile girl beside a Corvette. She is posing for an article in TIME following the release of 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem', her first non-fiction collection titled after Yeat's poem. Her writing attempted to understand a time when ‘things fall apart’ when ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’ and ‘everywhere... the ceremony of innocence is drowned’. Her expression is that of a calm but disturbed witness. She will go on to write five novels, nine works of non-fiction, win the National Book Award, and be honoured with America’s National Humanities Medal. But she doesn’t remember the article in TIME; she remembers the pictures.
These images – taken by prolific photographer Julian Wasser turned Joan Didion into a cultural icon. ‘It was boom’, said her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, ‘all of a sudden you were a figure.’ What is astonishing is the extent to which this image has lasted. Nearly fifty years later, in 2015, the French luxury brand CÉLINE announced 82-year-old Didion as their season’s poster girl. Under the creative direction of Phoebe Philo, the brand was the place ‘where all the season’s trends were born’ (Vogue). As well as a black, tight-fitting, long-sleeved jumper, Didion was pictured wearing her signature black sunglasses that cover a third of her face. We must not forget that Didion was wearing oversized sunglasses before Anna Wintour had got into print. In another poster, the model Freya Lawrence re-creates Didion’s portrait, eying us from the door of another Corvette. The year before, the jewellery designer Pamela Love collaborated with the luxury eyewear brand Selima Optique to produce a line of Joan-Didion-inspired sunglasses. The range premiered with an image of Love glancing up from a first-edition copy of Ellen G. Friedman’s 'Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations' making the influence quite apparent.
Didion sees a link between literary and personal style. If ‘style is character’, she told The Paris Review, ‘and I believe it is’, then ‘your identity is going to show up in your style.’ Even at the release of 'The White Album' in 1979, Didion had already been described as ‘the finest woman prose stylist writing in English today.’ What sets Didion apart is her unrivalled, artistic craft. In the same interview, she attributed Hemingway as an influence: ‘When I was fifteen or sixteen’, she says, ‘I would type out his stories to learn how sentences worked.’ She speaks of picking words up, of not being able to ‘put words down.’ As Nathan Heller wrote in Vogue, ‘Line by line, the book shimmers with […] phrases so pristinely metered and charged as to be unimprovable.’ There is one sentence from 'Bethlehem' I have re-read so often I know it by rote: ‘I cried until I was not aware when I was crying and when I was not, cried in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries’. It’s one of many lines that sing like poetry, underpinned by the syllables and rhyme. Didion’s prose has been polished like stones, perfectly positioned, clear-cut, with weight like granite – effortless, no pot-holes.
‘It was boom’, said her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, ‘all of a sudden you were a figure.’
Didion’s clothes are just as effortless, crafted, and stylish. Tones are simple, mostly mono-coloured. Pamela Love describes the look as ‘minimal bohemian’, a look she ‘loves so much’. In one portrait, Didion sits on a couch with a tight-fitted, plain-black sweater pulled up to the elbows. She is wearing a grey, fluid, shiny skirt that slides down to the ankles, gathered in by a knot at the waist. That’s all. In another, she wears a pale-T-shirt, the hem low and wide, with a craft necklace and patterned silk skirt. They are clothes that are comfortable and functional – worn to get the job done. The style maps well onto Phoebe Philo’s ideals at CÉLINE, described by Vogue as ‘a certain ease of wear, a simplicity of line, clothes that are assured, structured yet fluid.’ The sense is that the outfit is barely considered, thrown on, worn by the artistically preoccupied. It isn’t, of course. It’s a kind of artful artlessness like the best prose which stands as a main rule of fashion: as soon as an outfit looks constructed and considered, it fails.
So how does Didion influence me? A friend made one comment of such striking perception that it deserves to be shared: ‘That is literally a woman.’ So how can her style be worn by a man? T-shirts and jumpers can be worn by anyone, and her style is transferable. I wear a short-sleeved, black, patterned jumper that fits relatively tight: £25.99 from ZARA. Another is a plain white, light-weight, roll-neck that can be worn with anything. Alternatively, her tops with a fluid, large silhouette can be achieved by an over-sized, plain shirt rolled up by the cuffs. Expensive, well-made shirts can be found easily in vintage stores: I’ve come to own large, pale shirts from Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger second-hand for £15. Her skirts are more difficult; you won’t catch me in an ankle-length dress with a Corvette on St. Giles; but I can take the material and the wide silhouette. Trousers from COS are beautiful and cheap on sale. I’ve bought wide-legged, pleated, herringbone trousers, smoke grey and rolled up at the bottom. The material has a sheen and is fluid. Another pair I wear is ‘Relaxed Crepe Wool Trousers’ that can double as joggers. Both are high-waisted and can be worn with the shirt tucked in or out. All I need next are the luxury sunglasses, but the world isn’t ready for that.