I Write, and Wear, to Reckon


Did you know that Joan Didion got her first writing gig at Vogue? I think about this all the time. She was in her final year of an Arts degree at UC Berkeley when she won their essay writing competition. I think about how smart Didion is (I mean this in the deepest, most intellectual sense of the word, and in sense of humour which is the other most important aspect of smartness) and it makes me think about the kind of woman I want to be.

Didion says she didn’t really consider herself to be a real writer until she got published, which is something I dig, but she must have known she had a knack for it to be entering essay-writing competitions from such a young age. When I’m not quite sure what the fuck I’m doing with my life (which is, on average, once every six weeks) I go on Wikipedia spirals, comparing the trajectories of successful people to my milestones so far. Didion published her first novel Run, River at almost exactly the same age I’ll be when my first book (hopefully) comes out next year. Much has been written on this insecurity-inducing habit and it is both reassuring and disheartening to realise I am not unique in this regard. In an industry where we are constantly applauded for “originality” and “voice” it seems a terrible handicap to consider that an early-career writer is predictable. Because the writer is their own publicist now, and because everything is life writing now.

Joan Didion Céline Campaign  Photo: (from left) Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collecion/Getty Images; Tyrone Lebon, Courtesy of Céline

Joan Didion Céline Campaign
Photo: (from left) Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collecion/Getty Images; Tyrone Lebon, Courtesy of Céline

The rise of the personal essay, this “new journalism of the self” that Didion championed, also likens writing and fashion as never before. To me, the two worlds run, in many ways through life, parallel. Writers I meet wear their genres like styles. Panels at festivals are basically trend pages. For each Malcolm Gladwell fan there is a Calvin Klein and normcore enthusiast. Let’s get sassy and say alt-lit folks are the Ksubi zombies. There are genre fiction writers who claim to be disillusioned with the writing world (and rightly so for the absurd way the poop-poop part of the industry continues to snub it) and their equivalent are the people who claim to “not care” about fashion, even though they put clothes on their body every single day.

Are these outrageous generalisations? Of course they are, but you’d be a big liar if you tried to tell me your writing didn’t fit into certain genre groups, just as you’d be a liar if you tried to tell me you “don’t really have a style”. They are inherent. Even a refusal of classification or ignorance to labels (whether on clothes or book spines) aligns you with a group. It is a reality emerging writers both revel in and reject. (PS: If you disagree with my pairings then you’re missing the point.)

I am not unique. Not yet at least, but I’m getting there. I wear a cool outfit about as often as I write a good page, which means: rarely, but enough to keep me optimistic about improving.

The intersection of fashion and writing is, as most intersections are, the most important and interesting part to me. Recently I attended Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF) as part of their Fashion Writing Mentorship program and one Sunday I listened to five different writers and editors speak about the craft. The five-hour workshop taught me so much. We went through images of runway looks and brainstormed ways to describe them without being cliché, and in doing so I realised how lazy I’d been with so many adjectives in my current manuscript – a book that has absolutely nothing to do with fashion. We looked at five images at a time, and practiced trend analysis, and the people with the best answers were the ones who could look at five things at once and immediately identify and unpack their similarities and differences. If good writing isn’t based on astute observation then turn me round and fuck me sideways.

A note on the encouraging similarities is that lessons in writing, like lessons in style (and most things in life), can be learned. I don’t like the thought of the juvenile scribblings from my adolescence being published in the same way we all now look back on low-rider jeans with a cringe and hissed exhale. But look how far we’ve come! Wikipedia says that “a sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of [Didion’s] work,” and I think about one day when I’ve written a lot of stuff and I’m eighty, what single, sweeping, overly-simplified sentence people might use for my life’s work. The final line of Didion’s biography is a reference to her appearance in the Céline S/S15 campaign. She was 80. At the end of each six-weekly existential crisis, Didion reminds me that I don’t need to rush so much. That if I stick to my guns for long enough I might just become unique one day, that I might, even if it takes another 55 years, develop my own style.

A different editor pulled up some of the best and strongest stories she’d published in the past decade that married fashion with broader socio-political issues and spoke about their tangible impact. Clare Press, whose recent book Wardrobe Crisis looks at the damage fast fashion does, spoke about how fashion writing is more important now than ever before for raising awareness of the implications of the global industry. At one point we were all encouraged to think about how the clothing on runways today sat in a historical timeline of fashion that was hundreds and thousands of years older than us. We looked at some truly great writing that referenced the suffragette and anti-slavery movements, as well as the pre- and post- war aesthetics that with enough hindsight and knowledge can be mapped.

In combination with a couple of critical shows I saw at VAMFF, I walked away from that trip more excited to both write and wear than ever before. I had added new words to my vocabulary and new ideas about what I could communicate through dress. In journeying through creative self-expression we can reach new levels of self-discovery. I write, and wear, to reckon.

Bri Lee is a Brisbane-based writer and the Founding Editor of the feminist magazine and community Hot Chicks with Big Brains.
Her debut memoir Eggshell Skull will be published by Allen & Unwin in early 2018.