Joan Didion Wrote How She Dressed

Margaret Bourke-White. Sierra Madre Mountains, California. 1935. Courtesy MoMA.

For me, getting dressed in the morning is a process of trial and error, of play, of unfound potential in garments I’ve had forever but hadn’t thought to pair together. What do I want to say to the world today? How do I want my body to feel? When I create an outfit, I also create a story. As a natural outcome of my relationship with fashion in daily life, clothes remain the indisputable tool I turn to when telling a story. A thread I can’t stop myself from pulling. I use it to project how characters feel or juxtapose who they are with who they want others to see them as. I centre plots around precious items in someone’s closet, hand-me-downs, or the glamorous mystique that draws us to a person immaculately dressed.

By no means do I believe I’m a pioneer in this symbiotic relationship between personal style and writing style. My literary hero Joan Didion was a prominent writer and member of the fashion community, yet in reading about her life, her fashion persona and her writer persona rarely seem to cross paths in our construction of who she was. But I believe her personal style and her writing style were in dialogue throughout her life. Personal style is a way of performing to the world, a play of who we are and who we want to be seen as. The way Joan Didion dressed herself and her characters and how she approached fashion on and off the page show she understood this.

In a 2020 New Yorker article titled ‘The Perfect Prose of a Joan Didion Photo Caption,’ Brian Dillon takes us back to 1956, when Didion was serving as junior editor of Vogue. Allene Talmey was the associate editor who oversaw the copywriters, which included Didion: ‘Talmey herself recounted how she would ask Didion to write a caption of three or four hundred words, and then together they would cut it down to fifty. “We wrote long and published short and by doing that Joan learned to write.”’1

But her experience writing for a fashion magazine had a wider influence on Didion’s future work than her minimalistic writing style — it also had an effect on her material which paid close attention to clothes. As author Claire Luchette put it in an article for Racked in 2017, ‘A shirt is never just a shirt in Didion’s work. It’s a symbol, a message, a sign of life.’2 And how could she not do this when in our daily lives an item of clothing is exactly those things? Think about that quarter-zip Patagonia fleece sweater that populates the streets of New York right now. Add an embroidered logo from a business school, a bank, or a start-up to it. That fleece sweater means that whoever is wearing it belongs to a kind of club. It says ‘I work with money.’ It says ‘I don’t want you to think that I care about fashion but I really, really do.’

Joan Didion’s fixation on clothing extended beyond the page and into her life, creating her own aesthetic. This was mostly marked by her participation in two big fashion campaigns as a model. The first was a Gap ad from 1989,3 shot by Annie Leibowitz, in which she posed with her daughter Quintana in black turtlenecks. The second was the 2015 Céline ad,4 in which, at the age of eighty, she posed in a sleek black top and chunky golden locket, with big black sunglasses. There was also the iconic photoshoot by Julian Wasser for Time magazine.5 Didion captured in her home in Malibu and with her yellow Corvette Stingray in 1968. She wore a long-sleeved dress and thong sandals, an ensemble so simple that it managed to remain fashionable decades after. Clearly, fashion played a key role in Didion’s work and in her personal life: it was a realm through which she expressed her aesthetic affinities, which could also be called her style.


‘Self-respect, Its Source, Its Power’ was first published in Vogue in 1961, and then retitled ‘On Self-respect’ when included in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s 1968 collection of essays. While this piece of writing is not specifically about personal style, in it Didion attributes self-respect to having character: ‘In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues […] Nonetheless, character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,’ she writes.6

In 1978, she told The Paris Review that: ‘if style is character — and I believe it is — then obviously your sexual identity is going to show up in your style. I don’t want to differentiate between style and sensibility, by the way. Again, your style is your sensibility.’7 Didion creates a parallel between character and style: getting dressed reveals something from our identity to the world.

Furthermore, for Didion, writing style and personal style seem interchangeable. Let’s take into account the photograph of Didion that Vogue included in the digital publication of Didion’s essay in 2014, a portrait taken by Quintana.8 We see the author on a beach, with her feet in the ocean, the water covering her shins. She wears a thin-looking long-sleeved top with the sleeves scrunched above her elbows, and a sheer wrap skirt, which she holds with one hand to her hip so that it falls to just below her knees. On one elbow she carries a tote bag, on the other hand she holds her sandals, the dainty kind that tie around the ankle, with a sensible hill. On her face, wide square-shaped sunglasses.

Now, if we look at the picture against a couple of the sentences in her essay, we can establish an example of how her personal style and writing style bleed into each other, creating her aesthetic identity, how she is perceived publicly as a writer and as a fashionable woman: ‘There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all.’9 Contrary to the common superstition, both her outfit and her writing here could be described as simple, direct, and feminine.

But this example also drives forward the point that Joan Didion learned to write at Vogue. The Vogue online archive explains that she had to write this essay to an exact character count to make up for a missing piece in an issue as it was going to print. Her word choice had to be as precise as her choice of shoe in the photo. At Vogue, she faced the formative challenges that taught her to behave on the page as I imagine she might have learned to behave in front of her wardrobe. Even though clothes aren’t directly present in ‘On Self-respect,’ the glossy magazine style that was simple and thoughtful at the same time was already there.


At least in her public appearances such as the photographs and the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, nothing on Didion’s body ever seemed random or out of place. The fact that she dressed her characters so carefully makes me think that she knew what she was doing when dressing herself.

In 1966, Didion interviewed singer/songwriter and activist Joan Baez and wrote a piece about her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. It begins with a scene at the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, where Baez was being accused of violating Section 32-C of the Monterey County Zoning Code with the Institute because certain community members believed that using the land like this was ‘detrimental to the peace, morals, or general welfare of Monterey County.’10  While painting the scene, Didion describes the accuser and the accused. The former is characterised as ‘a plump young matron with an air of bewildered determination, and she came to the rostrum in a strawberry-pink knit dress.’11 Meanwhile, the latter ‘was wearing a long-sleeved navy blue dress with an Irish lace collar and cuffs, and she kept her hands folded in her lap. […] She has a great natural style, and she is what used to be called a lady.’12 As we have established, for Didion, style is character, ‘a kind of moral nerve.’13 All she needs is a few lines describing each of the parties in order for the reader to recognise, in this particular situation, who is right.

From narrating the scene at the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, Didion moves on to tell us Baez’s story. A few descriptions of the young singer/songwriter resonate with the image of the long-haired lady sitting very still in her Irish-lace-collared navy blue dress. Didion narrates Baez’s success as a folk singer almost matter-of-factly, as if there was no other way things could have gone for the very same character she introduced us to in that first scene: ‘In the summer of 1959, a friend took her to the Newport folk festival. She arrived in Newport in a Cadillac hearse with ‘JOAN BAEZ’ painted on the side, sang a few songs to 13,000 people, and there it was, the new life. Her first album sold more copies than the work of any other female folk singer in record history.’14

We then learn about the contradictions entrapped in Baez’s success: ‘She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the birds and the deer […] Now, at an age when the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez rarely leaves the Carmel Valley [her home and the location of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence].’15 This is how the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence came to be, founded by Baez with anti-war activist and educator Ira Sandperl.

Just as the outfit Didion wears in the famous portrait of her covering the hippie movement in San Francisco (in 1967, not long after she wrote about Joan Baez), with the stripe-patterned shirt underneath the bulky leather bomber jacket and the scarf loosely tied around her neck,16 her writing about Baez is layered. We begin with the very surface: what outfit Baez wears to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, in comparison to her opponent. But in the end, we learn that founding the Institute was Baez’s way to reconcile with the fact that her politics are vague, based on feelings, and approached by instinct and pragmatism. This reaches unforeseen depths for a subject intentionally hard to reach, hidden behind the ‘curiously improvised web of wrong numbers, disconnected telephones, and unreturned calls’17 when Baez located herself in Carmel Valley. Over the course of fourteen pages, we get a deep sense of who Joan Baez is, and this can only be accomplished thanks to the way the artist was introduced in the beginning, through her clothes.


Nevertheless, Didion is not widely recognised as a voice of fashion writing. Her work is instead put into the categories of fiction, literary non-fiction, or New Journalism. But isn’t fashion the common thread that ties Didion’s diverse body of work?

Fashion was an area of play and analysis throughout Joan Didion’s career as a writer. In the relationship between character and style she made an effort to draw, the subject of fashion gains depth. To her, character meant the inner world of a person, their values, hopes, and dreams, and she viewed the people she wrote about, fictional, real, or herself, through this lens. As she had discussed with The Paris Review, she understood style as a tool to show said character, a way to translate the inner world to the public. She took her character’s wardrobes as seriously as her own, never letting clothes be a surface-level detail, but rather an impeccable curation with a message underneath. This way, she created a system of rules, an aesthetic, a set of principles where clothes were always meaningful and often fun.

May Didion’s aesthetic live on through her words, photographs, and film. May we learn in her absence to never again dismiss fashion as a ‘worthless,’ ‘frivolous,’ or ‘lesser than’ subject.


Laura Rocha Rueda is a Colombian writer and researcher living in New York.

  1. Brian Dillon, “The Perfect Prose of a Joan Didion Photo Caption”. The New Yorker. September 22, 2020. Retrieved from 

  2. Claire Luchette, “Why Joan Didion Writes ‘So Much’ About Clothes”. Racked. March 31, 2017. 

  3. Allison Davis, “See the 1989 Gap Ad Starring Joan Didion”. The Cut. January 8, 2015. Retrieved from 

  4. Juergen Teller, Joan Didion, Celine Campaign Spring Summer 2015. 2014. Retrieved from 

  5. Abby Aguirre, “Joan Didion Remembers the Day Julian Wasser Took Her Portrait”. Vogue. June 20, 2014. Retrieved from: 

  6. Joan Didion, ‘On Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s 1961 Essay from the Pages of Vogue.’ Vogue. October 22, 2014. Retrieved from 

  7. Linda Kuehl, ‘Joan Didion, The Art of Fiction No. 71.’ The Paris Review. ISSUE 74, FALL-WINTER 1978. 

  8. Quintana Roo Dunne, Joan Didion.,c_limit/holding-joan-didion-self-respect.jpg 

  9. Joan Didion, 2014. 

  10. Joan Didion, ‘Where the Kissing Never Stops.’ Collected Essays: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and After Henry. Kindle, 2018. 

  11. Ibid 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Joan Didion, 2014. 

  14. Joan Didion, 2018. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Ted Streshinsky, Joan Didion in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Library of America. 1967. Retrieved from 

  17. Joan Didion, 2018.