How Outfits Define Those Who Wear Them

In many works of art, clothes are more than mere decoration; they are vital elements of story: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Joan Didion
Kathy Willens / AP

Once, while on a trip to Maui, Haruki Murakami caught a glimpse of a garment that fascinated him—a simple yellow T-shirt that read TONY TAKITANI in blue letters. “What kind of person could Tony Takitani be?” the novelist wondered. So he bought the shirt (which cost just $1), wrote a short story inspired by the name, and eventually met the real-life Mr. Takitani (a political candidate turned lawyer).

The book Murakami T honors this T-shirt and the many others the author has accumulated. It’s both a fascinating taxonomy of his accidental collection and an intimate look at the meaning nestled within our closets. Indeed, across artistic mediums, outfits can come to define those who wear them. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have been sparing in his descriptions of Sherlock Holmes’s attire, but the few nuggets about the detective’s wardrobe scattered throughout the books have taken an outsize role in the public’s imagining of him. In Black Panther, the high-tech, pan-African-inspired fashion reflects not just individual personalities but also the broader cultural and political environment of the movie’s imagined setting, Wakanda. The clothes are more than mere decoration; they shape the story itself. This type of power is present in the work of the designer Larry Legaspi as well, who worked with musical groups such as Parliament-Funkadelic. Legaspi didn’t merely create costumes for the band. He used glam space suits and futuristic footwear to tell sartorial stories that deepened the music’s intergalactic, sci-fi mythology—a process that his longtime admirer Rick Owens wrote of in the coffee-table book Legaspi.

For the writer Joan Didion, clothes can bear a particularly deep emotional weight. Her memoirs Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, which grapple with the deaths of her daughter and of her husband, respectively, are filled with unworn shoes and sundresses and sweaters. These items highlight the absence of the family members she’s lost; they linger in her home, physical manifestations of her all-consuming grief.

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What We’re Reading

two of Haruki Murakami's T shirts

Yasutomo Ebisu

The personality test in your closet

“The choices we make about what we find and keep point to our interior worlds. Whether impulsively or concertedly, we might choose items because they align with our values, or because we desire to see a facet of our character reflected back at us. Perhaps our personal collections actually say more about our identities than what might be revealed in overtly private details.”

illustration of Sherlock Holmes

Courtesy of the Museum of London

Sherlock Holmes, unlikely style icon

“[Holmes’s] lasting fashion legacy is all the more extraordinary considering how stingy Conan Doyle was with descriptions of dress.”

Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) in "Black Panther"


Why fashion is key to understanding the world of Black Panther

“[Black Panther’s costume designer, Ruth Carter,] said she kept four words on her vision board as she designed: Beautiful. Positive. Forward. Colorful … The result is a dramatic look that makes clear that Wakandans use clothing as an important form of self- and community expression, to honor their ancestors, and to maintain a progressive social order.”

🎥 Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler

the rock band Kiss

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The 1970s fashion designer who was outlandishly ahead of his time

“Legaspi’s prescient vision seems to guide many of today’s leading-edge artists.”

Joan Didion

AP / The Atlantic

Slouching towards Bendel’s

“What someone is wearing betrays not just the aesthetic of a certain moment but the emotional weight that [Joan] Didion assigns to it.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Afterparties, by Anthony Veasna So.

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