All This and Brains, Too: 5 Signature Literary Fashions

Who else but James Joyce could pull off an eye patch?

james joyce literary fashion

Aside from their literary masterworks, these writers are also associated with their keen fashion sense. Whether it be rocking an eye patch, bandana, or jazzing up every day wear with a crisp white suit, these five writers know all about the elements of style. 

1. Tom Wolfe's White Suit

tom wolfe in his iconic white suit, literary fashion

Michael Lewis tells us that Tom Wolfe bought a white suit as a young man because it was customary in the South (specifically, his hometown of Richmond, Virginia) to wear such a thing in the summer. The suit was a heavy enough weight to carry him into fall, and being a young magazine writer hard-up for funds, Wolfe just kept wearing it as the seasons changed.

Boris Kachka claims Wolfe "started wearing white suits to make other people nervous," and that he relished those who scoffed at his fashion faux pas.  Perhaps the suit that became Wolfe's public image started as a poor-man's necessity, but became a badge of honor, a way to weed out the snobs. But of course, Wolfe isn't the first writer to be known for this article of clothing.

2. Mark Twain's White Suit

mark twain iconic white suit

Unlike Wolfe, whose suit was a young man's accident, Twain's white suit was adopted late in life with much purpose and intention aforethought. In December of 1906, when he was 71, Twain was called to appear before Congress in a hearing on copyrights (Twain's position was that copyrights should be extended for the life of the author plus 50 years, to ensure their families benefited from their writing proceeds).

As a gesture of defiance (and always with a flare for the dramatic), Twain appeared at the frigid, blustery hearing in head-to-toe white, topped off by his windswept mop of stark-white hair. The effect was as he intended: the headlines obsessed over his out-of-season garb and the photograph of him from the hearing became one of the most iconic photos of Twain. Explaining his choice more poetically, Twain mused: "You see, when a man gets to be 71, as I am, the world begins to look somber and dark. I believe we should do all we can to brighten things up and make ourselves look cheerful. You can't do that by wearing black, funereal clothes."

3. David Foster Wallace's Bandana

david foster wallace white bandana
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  • Photo Credit: By Antonio Monda - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Much to Wallace's chagrin, his recognizable bandana has sparked as much discussion, speculation, and controversy as his books. He claims he tied it on during a particularly hot day in Tucson to avoid dripping sweat onto his pages, and?heavy perspirer that he was?the practical item sort of stuck. Wallace was pictured wearing the bandana on Infinite Jest's book jacket, which exploded the odd headpiece into his trademark.

Wallace's fashion necessity was unfairly criticized for being "commercial" and "gimmicky," and Wallace had to self-consciously decide whether removing it was cow-towing to an uninformed public, or whether persisting in wearing such a notably odd object was indeed attention-seeking.

Though Wallace hated the notoriety, he turned it into poetry as only he could, saying: "[After putting on the bandana] I began thinking about the phrase 'keeping your head together.' It makes me feel kind of creepy that people view it as a trademark or something? it's more a recognition of a weakness, which is that I'm just kind of worried that my head's gonna explode."

4. James Joyce's Eyepatch

james joyce eyepatch

Joyce can be such an inaccessible writer that it's easy to view his eyepatch as an eccentricity. While Joyce wasn't missing an eye, this patch was hardly an affectation. Joyce struggled with a series of eye problems necessitating dozens of different surgeries (late nights penning Finnegan's Wake probably didn't help).

He was forced to lie in dark rooms for days at a time, eat special diets, and undergo unsavory 19th century treatments like vapor baths and sweating powders. Modern science suggests that Joyce's eye problems were likely caused by a long bout with syphilis. A more literary view: maybe it was a subconscious homage to the famous "cyclops" in Ulysses?

5. Walt Whitman's Gardening Hat

walt whitman gardening hat

"I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out," wrote Whitman, and indeed, most images of the poet feature him in casual outdoorsy clothes and the same rumpled brown hat. With a Dumbledore beard and a look that says "I'd rather be gardening," Whitman's image epitomized his sensual agrarian poetry and naturalist sentiments. Likely a practical pull for his days outside, Whitman's famously frumpy hat is the subject of sweet admiration.

If you want a chance to emulate the father of free verse yourself, you can join hundreds of other "Whitmaniacs" at the annual marathon reading of Song of Myself, held every June at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. But make sure to bring your umbrella: in true Whitman form, the event is free, outdoors, and held rain or shine.