24 November 2022

Taking notes from Joan Didion’s effortlessly chic closet

Writer Shin Hui Lee examines the lessons Joan Didion left behind in living and dressing meaningfully.

Literary legend Joan Didion has long been revered for her incisive observations, sharp prose and uncanny precision of thought. From scathing coverage of American politics to intensely personal ruminations on grief, Didion wrote with a sincerity that allowed her to resonate across generations. Beyond the page, Didion also became known for her quintessentially chic West-coast style. Flowy maxi dresses, oversized sunglasses and sea breeze-tousled hair nobody did it better than her.

Don’t believe us? The proof is in her packing list. Published as part of Didion’s 1979 collection of essays The White Album, her neatly subdivided ‘to pack’ and ‘to wear’ list has since become the sacred blueprint for aspiring cool girls. The list consists of oddly specific items ‘bourbon’ and a ‘mohair throw’ (duh), but includes no further details from items such as ‘2 skirts’ and ‘1 pullover’. We get the sense that this list is an extension of the inner workings of Didion’s mind: deliberate, methodical and self-assured. Just as Didion so deftly grasped her subjects, she approached dressing with remarkable dexterity. She never seemed to strive for the aesthetic element, as long as the clothes enabled her to get the job done, to move through the world in the way she intended, and to feel in possession of her own being. According to Didion herself, “this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative.”

This way of thinking, so specific to Didion’s person, is perhaps what enabled her to remain singular in our cultural consciousness. Clothes, like words, were tools for Didion to maintain that overarching sense of control she so coveted. She channelled both as a means of letting the world know not just who she was but also how she wished to be perceived.

In 1978, Didion told the Paris Review that ‘style is character’. The ‘character’, as she previously explained in her 1961 essay for Vogue, ‘On Self-Respect’, is ‘the willingness to accept one’s own life – is the source from which one’s self-respect springs’. For Didion, ‘people who respect themselves… are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.’ In this sense, only those who are guided by their own instincts and are prepared to see them through even in the face of external expectations can be candidates for self-respect. When we apply this to Didion’s relationship with fashion, we can see that despite her seeming ambivalence, clothing was not something trivial to her. Rather, it was integral to her manifestation of what she understood as the one thing necessary for human flourishing: self-respect.

Throughout Didion’s entire life, she stayed true to her familiar rotation of garments, carefully avoiding the empty allure of passing fads and brands. She wore her clothes like a uniform and armed herself with a pen and notepad, ensuring that she was prepared at any moment to insert herself into the happenings of life and report those precious stories back to us. Didion’s style has stood the test of time precisely because it was rooted in her intrinsic self-respect, which is something that could never be faked, never be mimicked, and most importantly, never belong to anyone but her. 

Here, we take a look at some of Didion’s most iconic ensembles.

This one is for the OG Tumblr girls. Didion lensed by Julian Wasser for Time Magazine in 1968, leaning against her yellow Corvette in a maxi dress and thong sandals, cigarette effortlessly held between her fingers. Eternally obsessed.

Didion seen through the eyes of her late daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. Skirt hiked halfway up, sandal straps in hand, an image of Didion so warm, so visceral, we can almost smell the sea and feel the sand beneath our feet.

Didion was captured by photojournalist Ted Streshinsky at Golden Gate Park in 1967, as part of her research on hippies for ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’. If there was any doubt about the status of Mary Janes as a wardrobe staple, Didion would have defeated them all. Paired with white wool tights and a knee-length skirt, this look was every bit stylish as it was practical. 

Didion pictured in her New York apartment in 2011, wearing a plain black balloon-sleeve dress and the most divine pair of tan lace-up boots (get the shoes, baby, get the shoes!). While most of us just pick from our assortment of uninspired sweats and slippers, Didion still found a way to make lounging around at home an elegant affair.

Not one to make fashion campaign appearances, Didion made an exception for Phoebe Philo when she became the face of Céline in 2015. Immortalised by Juergen Teller in blacked-out, oversized sunglasses, Didion looked as glamorous and formidable as ever. 

As we traverse the fast fashion swamp and micro trend factory of today, Didion’s thoughtful minimalism reminds us to take the time to understand the power of dressing for ourselves, to cultivate our own sartorial habits and yes, to think twice before adding that viral TikTok dress to our carts. Now, more than ever, we have everything to learn from Didion. So, forget trying to be a Bella Bot or a Matilda Minion, why not take a page out of Didion’s book and start creating our own legacies? 

“We eventually lie down alone in the notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves” — Joan Didion (1934-2021)

  • Writer Shin Hui Lee
  • Banner Image Credit Celine

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