Joan Didion, you may have noticed, is having something of a style moment. There's the Juergen Teller-shot Céline ad, of course, over which the chattering class lost its collective mind last week. Vogue describes the French luxury label the way many an English major would describe Didion's writing: "It’s so good it hurts, really."
And then there's this leather jacket, which costs $1,200 and features a gigantic portrait of Didion across the back, silver bangs side-swept, high-cheekboned and taupe-eyed, the corners of her lips slightly downturned.
Perhaps this is a tragedy. Perhaps it's proof that Didion has been, as Haley Mlotek wrote for the Awl, "mined for commerce, mass distribution, and cynical re-appropriation by brands, in order to be sold back to the next generation as pure, complete, whole elements of beauty and inspiration." (The jacket is, by the way, sold out in all sizes as of this writing.)
But Didion has always been a sort of fashion icon. Her individual style and her writerly style are in many ways inextricable, and references to fashion in her work aren't merely descriptive but also deeply personal. A major part of the appeal of the Céline ad, surely, is how vintage Didion it is in its aesthetic. There she is, hiding in plain sight; in front of the camera and behind sunglasses, just the way we've seen her on the covers of so many books.
It's fitting, too, that Didion started her writing career at Vogue. And it helps, of course, that she's beautiful and has always exuded the amalgam of glamour and talent that seems effortless among great artists. Skinny without trying. Cool without wanting to be. So good it hurts. She emerged on the literary scene, as John Leonard put it in the introduction to Knopf's collection of Didion works, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, "a poster girl for anomie, wearing a bikini but also a migraine to the bonfires of the zeitgeist."
* * *
In the fashion world, understanding the zeitgeist is a way of orienting oneself within a temporal framework. And it's in this way that style is woven so memorably through Didion's writing. What someone is wearing betrays not just the aesthetic of a certain moment but the emotional weight that Didion assigns to it. It's how clothing comes up again and again in Blue Nights, Didion's memoir of Quintana Roo, her daughter who died in 2005.
She writes of Quintana, hair bleached by the sun, in her plaid school jumper. Quintana in the cashmere turtleneck sweater Didion bought for her one spring. Quintana in a denim jacket with metal studs. The bright red soles of Quintana's Christian Louboutins on her wedding day. "The clothes of course are familiar," Didion writes. "I had for a while seen them every day, washed them, hung them to blow in the wind on the clotheslines outside my office window. I wrote two books watching her clothes blow on those lines."
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion wrote of the difficulty she had throwing away her husband's shoes—and how an article of clothing was, to her grief-stricken mind, almost like a part of his body: "How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?"
It was an article of clothing—a sundress—that she gave Quintana on her first birthday instead of a home in the sense Didion once imagined the term to mean. She wrote in 1967:
I would like to give her more. I would like to promise her that she will grow up with a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grandmother's teacups, would like to pledge her a picnic on a river with fried chicken and her hair uncombed, would like to give her home for her birthday, but we live differently now and I can promise her nothing like that. I give her a xylophone and a sundress from Madeira, and promise to tell her a funny story.
In Play It As It Lays, a character dressed all in white—repeatedly referred to as the man in white duck pants—drives the protagonist, Maria, to her abortion. Maria buys a silver vinyl dress afterward to make herself feel better.
In Didion's writing, references to clothing often accompany contradictions, highlight what has changed, or—more precisely—what has been lost. Which is why her descriptions of style and fashion are poignant much in the way Haruki Murakami's writings about food are so memorable. Murakami writes of simple meals prepared with fresh ingredients, and these descriptions stand out in otherwise surrealist novels. In the Murakami universe, we encounter "thin slices of beef, onions, green peppers, and bean sprouts with a little salt, pepper, soy sauce, and a splash of beer." In Didion's worlds, vignettes are punctuated with splashes of color and fabric—often to note the passage of time, or underscore the the preciousness of an era long-since elapsed. Both writers take something essential—something to eat, something to wear—and transform it into something vivid, a treasure in time.
Didion has always written about loss with the sparkling clarity of the present. In Goodbye to All That she describes her love for New York City as being like a garment cloaked around her: "I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfumes..." When she moved from one New York City apartment to another, she writes in the same essay, she simply left many of her belongings—including her winter clothes—in the first place. And instead of furniture, she bought fabric: "All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows," she wrote, "because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better, but I did not bother to weight the curtains correctly and all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in the afternoon thunderstorms."
Clothing and loss come up again and again. The references to Lester Lanin, the legendary jazz bandleader known for giving out pom-pom-topped hats at East Coast debutante balls. The widows in Honolulu wearing muumuus and artificial pearls. The bathing suit Didion kept in a drawer with an early-career rejection letter. The scraps of lace from her grandmother's box of memories. The faded nightgowns and chiffon scarves that she described as "notorious memory stimuli" for "falling back into the past."
"There is no drawer I can open without seeing something I do not want, on reflection, to see," Didion wrote in Blue Nights. "There is no closet I can open with room left for the clothes I might actually want to wear. In one closet that might otherwise be put to use I see, instead, three old Burberry raincoats of John's, a suede jacket given to Quintana by the mother of her first boyfriend, and an angora cape, long since moth-eaten, given to my mother by my father not long after World War Two."
It was Leonard, the former New York Times Book Review editor, who described Didion this way: "Her whole career has been a disenchantment from which pages fall like brilliant autumn leaves and arrange themselves as sermons in the stones."
It's possible that no one will ever look as cool as Joan Didion does behind a dark pair of sunglasses or half-leaning out the window of a 1969 Corvette Stingray. With Didion, it's not as much the outfit you remember as the attitude. That's probably true for any style icon, though. The way her mannerisms flicker statically across decades of book-jacket photos, the camera seems to capture her thinking about someplace she'd rather be.
"In theory," Didion wrote of the clothing and other sundries she couldn't bear to throw away, "these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here."
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.