Oscar Wilde famously said that fashion was “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” The same could very easily be said about the bestseller charts. Literature goes in and out of style like everything else, along with the writers behind that literature, and there is a sense that Wilde rather needs to get off his high horse about the whole thing. Because in the modern world authorial personas are deeply influenced by a particular writer’s sartorial choices, and these are a key part of the impression they make on the public consciousness. The author may well be dead, but he still needs to give interviews and go on promotional tours, and a distinctive look can be a big help. Oscar can joke all he likes, but the fact remains that fashion was a key part of his own public image, and it has become, if anything, even more crucial to the authors of today.
A distinctive look can reinforce, or play against, a reader’s perception of what an author is like based on their work. No-one is surprised after reading Neil Gaiman’s work to find him a slightly dishevelled, tousle-haired goth with a fondness for black coats, just as Donna Tartt’s reputation for expertly-crafted fiction is reinforced by her invariably immaculate suits. The late, great Terry Pratchett was known not only for his unique prose style, but in his public appearances for his trademark black hat, to the point where it was disconcerting to find pictures of him not wearing it. And James Joyce looks just as punchable in photos as he does in prose.
On the flip side, after reading the dazzlingly complex and energetic novels of David Mitchell, it can be a bit disconcerting to find that he’s a bit of a plain dresser in real life. Similarly, the dress sense of the real-life Douglas Adams is nothing like that of the impish trickster conveyed in his work, and Michael Cunningham’s intensely stylish prose bears almost no resemblance to the plain white shirts of his publicity photos. Readers, consciously or not, form images of what a writer is like based on their books, and it’s often disconcerting when the real person doesn’t seem to match their writerly persona.
It’s easy to be cynical about this. In an age of corporate branding and all-pervading marketing, it’s easy to view the lack of a recognisable authorial ‘look’ as some kind of failing on the part of said author. When in reality, it is almost entirely unfair to expect an author’s style in real life to reflect the style of their writing. There are those, like the aforementioned Oscar, who make a conscious effort to imitate art in life, but the fact is that it is not, fundamentally, an author’s job to select their outfit any more carefully than anyone else. In truth, it would have been ridiculous for Bram Stoker to wear a cape and bloodstained fangs, and Geoffrey Chaucer probably wasn’t winning any awards at London Fashion Weeke.
Nevertheless, literature is a part of the same culture as the world of fashion, and only a fool would say that the two were totally inseparable. While Virginia Woolf did not habitually wear the short skirts and pearl necklaces of the flappers, the two were both part of the same broad social and cultural movement. Coco Chanel famously said that fashion “is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” And so, for that matter, is literature. Both are concerned with the drive forward, iterating on themselves constantly, trying to find new things to do with old materials. Both are immediate, tangible aspects of the culture, concerned with what our society is in the here and now.
With that in mind, judging authors by their sartorial choices is misleading. Plenty of authors do not actively keep up with sartorial fashion, but it is a very poor author who is not at least aware of what’s going on in contemporary literature. Authors, however much they or their readers may like to think so, are not separated from the world of fashion. Because literature is simply another kind of fashion, just as trend-based, ever-changing and fascinating as any other.
No wonder Oscar Wilde had a go. He was savvy enough about both fashion and literature to know that the two are interchangeable. I suspect he feared that he had competition.