In her work as a chronicler of the anxieties and ambiguities of the last half-century; through essays, novels, and award-winning non-fiction, Joan Didion has deftly cast herself as an outsider to the story, observing and recording, wraith-like, from the perimeter. It is ironic then that the woman herself would be at the center of another story; that of Joan Didion, fashion icon. Her singular way of dressing has possessed the same clarity as her prose, always in tune with the moment; the boho pathos of her swingy column dresses in ‘68, her mirthful gaze, just-so knits, and florals in recent years. She has gone from Lady of the Canyon oracle in her 30s to the muse of fashion designers channeling her for runways and campaigns in her 80s – a position she neither courts nor resists but simply embraces. Her writing and personal style are a double helix over the decades, twisting through each other, united by one common strand: California. It is her birthplace, her richest subject, and the compass rose to her way of dressing that has enchanted a generation (or two or three) since the ‘60s. The Golden State, with all of its tension, wonder, and peculiarities manifested, sartorially, on the frame of its most eminent, and shrewd, diarist.
The opening of Didion’s debut novel, Run River (1963), is an elemental and revealing portent to much of her work onward from that point: there is a gunshot heard from a murky riverfront, a diamond wristwatch in need of winding, and a dab of Joy by Jean Patou perfume (jasmine and rose notes) applied by the protagonist, Lily Knight McClellan. Violence, landscape, and articles that would generally fall into the category of “style” – like an elegant watch or expensive perfume – are never far from the plot and lives of her characters. Didion began River while a junior staffer at Vogue in the late ‘50s – a job she secured after graduating from Berkeley. Her position came about through a writing competition the magazine held – a circumstance as incidental yet totally fated as the liaisons of her heroines. The story takes place on a family farm outside of Sacramento, where Didion is from, and about which she felt compelled to write partly as a balm for the homesickness she felt for the Central Valley while in Manhattan.
Her style remained as pitch perfect as her prose, in swoopy cashmere for Irving Penn; or inscrutable in black, like a priestess of the Sacramento River Valley.
Didion, like Lily, is a descendant of the white frontier people who migrated to California in the middle of the 19th century, setting off from places like Missouri or Kentucky by covered wagon, usually arriving months later with less cargo and passengers than they began. The brutality and material privation of the wagon trail made the things, the possessions that did survive, totemic and sacred to their inheritors. In a 1972 Vogue story on Didion and her family at home in Malibu shot by Henry Clarke, on the occasion of the film adaptation of her hit novel Play It As It Lays (1970), amongst the expected terra cotta ephemera of coastal living, there is a brilliant white quilt sewn by her great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Reese on the cross country sojourn a century prior. It hangs in the house like a specter, albeit a stylish one, of the women who abandoned whatever finery and silver to ford the river and survive the pass. Her wardrobe for the shoot, which is not credited as if it were a fashion sitting, and thus presumed to be her own, includes the shamanic, long-sleeve maxi dresses she favored at the time (that day in crimson) paired with a dark floral piano shawl, or, on the beach, a black bodysuit against a patchwork floor-length skirt in the style of Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo or Stephen Burrows. Then, in a popular outtake from the shoot that nonetheless found its way into the world, she is standing at her counter, in pigtails emitting a broad, Girl Scout smile in a white linen peasant top and untreated dark denim, with calico-printed ribbons bubbling over her shoulders like a mountain spring. There is a pioneer quality to the overall look, rough and ready but also delicate and hospitable. Looking at the picture brings to mind a real-life character Didion conjures in her loving yet devastating treatise on her home state, Where I Was From (2003); Her great-great-great grandmother, Nancy Hardin Cornwall who was described thusly by her son in a journal of the crossing: “At all seasons her life was one ceaseless round of activity. The care of her family, to provide for hired help, to entertain visitors, and to entertain preachers and others during meetings which were frequent.” The same could be said of the author standing in her kitchen in 1972, as a prodigious writer, exemplary hostess, and sharp-sighted Hestia.
The shamanic silhouette of the look, along with her intense gaze, gives her an oracular quality; she saw and reported the world for what it was and was at great pains to let the rest of us know.
But the covered wagon and calico California is not the only one that Didion mined for work and wardrobe. A few years earlier, in the late ‘60s, she was reporting on the helter-skelter scene from the edges of Hollywood, specifically from a rakishly unkempt rented mansion on Franklin Avenue, a stone’s throw from the end (or beginning, depending on your orientation) of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was here, on assignment for LIFE magazine in 1968, that the photographer Julian Wasser took the now-famous series of pictures of the author. With one novel and a zeitgeist-capturing collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, under her belt, Didion was a literary star, and her self-possession in the portraits is electrifying. The Didion / Wasser California is stark and almost forbidding, as opposed to the embroideries and antic stitches of the pioneer sagas that forged her. She is here still though, as later in Malibu, in a monochrome, long sleeved maxi dress and minimal leather sandals. The shamanic silhouette of the look, along with her intense gaze, gives her an oracular quality; she saw and reported the world for what it was and was at great pains to let the rest of us know. It was in this house and during this period that she famously drank a cold Coca-Cola first thing in the morning, chasing it with a handful of salted nuts, a childlike eccentricity compared to the psychedelic excesses of music and fame swirling around her at the time. What is obscured in this famous sitting is the authors strikingly small frame: 5’1” and 3/4, a fact that she told The New York Times in 1979 directly influenced the restrained sharpness of her work: “If I were 5 feet 10 and had a clear gaze and a good strong frame, I would not have such a maniacal desire for control because I would have it.”
To be sure, the co-star in Wasser’s pictures is unequivocally the Porsche Stingray. “I very definitely remember buying the Stingray because it was a crazy thing to do. I bought it in Hollywood,” she told Vogue in 2014. The car, perhaps a macho extravagance on its own, is totally at home in Didion’s driveway, the groovy line of her dress mirroring its own curvilinear pitch. It is worth noting that Wasser’s black & white exposure elides the signature characteristic of the vehicle: its color. “Daytona Yellow” the owner described it decades later. Much like Didion’s work and style: Bright, unmistakable, with an element of hiding in plain sight.
The years at the Franklin mansion figure highly in another of Didion’s tales of California: The White Album (1979), her landmark collection of essays dating mostly from the Wasser sitting through to the early 70s. The title sentence is arguably her most well known (“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”), wending its way through the period’s haze of tangential fame, revolution, and psychosis and arriving at one of the more hair-raising moments of New Journalism. Didion recounts an episode where it has fallen to her, as interviewer and confidante, to shop for Manson henchwoman Linda Kasabian’s courtroom outfit – a task the author was singularly equipped for given her Vogue and frontier debutante provenance (she heads to luxury department store I. Magnin). The accoutrements of received taste are always close at hand for Didion regardless of the arch circumstances: whether it is to dress a conspirator turning state’s evidence (size nine petite) or the mohair throw she includes in the packing list that she famously kept during a period she was also placed under psychiatric evaluation.
In the successive years, she distanced herself from the trippy milieu of the 60s and 70s, focusing on political reporting for The New York Review of Books and novels with ambient international crises as a backdrop. Her style remained as pitch perfect as her prose, in swoopy cashmere for Irving Penn; or inscrutable in black, enthroned in a wicker peacock chair, like a priestess of the Sacramento River Valley, a tinge of the lavish bent belonging to her grandmother, who would splurge on perfume and Lilly Daché hats regardless of her solvency, as Didion sympathetically describes in Where I Was From.
Didion is alive and well at 84 years. Living now back on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Golden State a distant dream, if it was ever even real. But the author, the subject of a recent documentary and the star of a luxury fashion campaign, along with a myriad of editorial tributes, has seen the coals of her cultural relevancy stoked in ways the writer of Run River could hardly have imagined when she first published during the Kennedy administration. Lauded and mythologized more than ever in her 80’s, she received the National Arts Medal in 2013 from President Obama, in a dusty pink floral patterned dress that had shown on the Milan runway the season just before. The color of the dress looked similar to what I imagined Didion’s childhood bedroom in Sacramento looked like: a hue of “faded carnation pink” as Michiko Kakutani described it in the 1979 New York Times story. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Didion would faithfully return to this bedroom to finish her novels. Apt, though perhaps redundant, since the land and spirit of that place, the final frontier and last hope to her ancestors and contemporaries alike, elusive but beguiling, lived so fully in her pen and her person wherever she was.