Meghan O’Rourke | Essays

Literary Chic

It’s not everyday that a writer becomes the image of a high-end fashion brand at the age of eighty. But on January 6, Vogue announced that Céline’s new ad campaign would feature the essayist Joan Didion. Within hours the image was all over the Internet, though it was anything but outré. Shot by Juergen Teller, who does all of Céline’s campaigns, it featured the author wearing her signature dark sunglasses, a black rib knit, and an oversized gold-colored pendant, looking rather sternly at the camera. The choice to use Didion was made by Phoebe Philo, Céline’s creaive director. (This isn’t the first time Céline has invoked Didion: earlier this year, an ad featuring Daria Werbowy appeared to be modeled after the iconic photo of Didion in her Corvette.) But this latest ad, according to Vogue, cemented Céline’s status as an “austere” and “achingly, achingly cool” brand. 

Didion famously said “style is character,” and one gets the sense she understands this better than most people even in the fashion world: she is both stylish and austere, and the kind of ironic, elegant writer who would never pen a phrase like “achingly, achingly cool.” In the essays from The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, her tone was ironic, precise, keen, and finely tuned to the contradictory and quasi-hysterical aspects of American culture. She captured the way that material objects—like yellow silk panels in the window, Minton plates, and David Webb bracelets—were infused with meanings larger than themselves; she understood that to live in the late twentieth century (and now in the early twenty-first) was to live among and with things that have mythical meanings–that speak to us of class, mood, ravishment, hope, loss, fragility, and our own narcissism more clearly than anything else. Her prose style was at once cool and nervy, summoning up a vision of life that many readers (especially female ones) had never seen in print before.

For all these reasons, we’ve fetishized Didion the person—what she wore, how she ate—as much as Didion the writer. For all her legacy of fine political writing and astute cultural criticism, one of her most-quoted passages is a meditation on a packing list she kept during the years she was doing a lot of far-flung reporting. (One person quipped that it has been as Instagrammed as Kim Kardashian’s infamous Paper cover.) “This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily,” she writes, in The White Album. “Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture.” 

The New York Times
described Didion’s response to all the hoopla as being as “as crisp as one of Phoebe Philo’s cotton tunics.” But the fashion world’s reception has been anything but crisp. “Well, did you just feel the collective intake of breath shared by every cool girl you know? Did you feel the pulse-quickening vibrations of every recent college grad and literature fan? Did you sense the earth trembling beneath your feet?” Vogue wrote. The breathless coverage moved Gawker, sensing it had some ripe fodder on its hands, to start a feature called “Joan Didion Watch.” It’s funny—but fitting—that the response is so un-Didionlike. You can be a Fashion Cool Girl who likes the same clothes as the “ultimate” clear-eyed cool girl, it turns out, and not have her brand of cool at all. 

Jobs | June 24