Tom Wolfe’s Other Legacy

Posted May 15, 2018 9:03 p.m. EDT

In the end, it may have been Tom Wolfe’s own chic that was most radical. Leave it to others to unpack the extravagant and often provocative literary legacy of the author, who died Monday at 88. Of almost equal fascination are the contents of his closet and the cut of his clothes.

It is hard now to remember that there was ever a time — in the ancient days before visual branding became a requisite for figures both public and private — when writers took it as an emblem of seriousness to dress like proles. When Wolfe first blazed onto the literary scene, many, if not most, male writers persisted in dressing like hardscrabble characters from a Clifford Odets play or possibly denizens of cartoonist Al Capp’s mythical Outer Slobovia.

Wolfe himself started out as a journalist and often talked about the sartorial standards of those early days. While jackets and neckties may have been requisite elements of a newsman’s uniform in the 1960s, dress codes in the profession lapsed a lot in the intervening years.

Coming across a group of working journalists today, as Wolfe impiously remarked at a 2003 Mark Twain lecture, was like encountering “the shape-up line for the homeless” waiting for a free food giveaway at church.

Arriving in New York in June 1959, from Richmond, Virginia, to take his first big-time journalism job at the New York Herald Tribune, Wolfe brought along his best set of clothes. It also happened to be his only one. The suit was green Cheviot tweed so well worn it was shiny as a tuxedo lapel. He also had a beat-up sports jacket and a pair of black flannel pants.

Back home in the South, it was customary for men to wear summer suits of seersucker or white linen, and with his first paycheck Wolfe bought one. It was a cleaner cut than the one his father favored, which had a back belt and old-fashioned bellows at the side. Wolfe’s was also a silk-tweed that, as he soon discovered, was too bulky to wear through a stifling summer in Manhattan.

Whether thrift or canniness inspired Wolfe to persist in wearing the suit into the following season, the effect was instantaneous, as he once said, “annoying people enormously.” Just by wearing white after Labor Day, he became the talk of any room he entered, and getting dressed each morning evolved for him into “a harmless form of assault.”

Unexpectedly, this became a boon for Wolfe’s reporting, according to Lynn Nesbit, the writer’s longtime literary agent. “It was counterintuitive, but he sort of knew that if he dressed like that, his subjects would learn to trust him,” she said.

Dressing as he did also gave Wolfe the advantage of being easy to single out from the journalistic pack. And so what began as a temporary sartorial solution became the proverbial permanent condition. Like Ed Roth (known as “Big Daddy”), the mercurial and brilliant car customizer Wolfe immortalized in his essay collection “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the writer himself may have been among the earliest punks.

Consider the outlandish figure he cut in meticulously fitted bespoke suits worn at the height of the free-love 1960s. Imagine him entering a room with Norman Mailer — dressed as a boxer’s cornerman or some old salt in a fisherman’s cap — and you get the idea. Picture how surprising it must have seemed in the determinedly drab settings of Manhattan literary gatherings when Wolfe strutted in, peacock resplendent, in immaculately tailored clothes in a palette of ice cream hues like French vanilla and butter pecan.

“He’s in a class of his own stylistically,” said Sean Crowley, a vintage clothes expert whose store in Brooklyn is a magnet for many in the menswear trade. “It’s really completely his own and out of nowhere. You don’t necessarily look at him and say, ‘I want to look like that,’ yet I give him enormous credit for never looking like he just came in from mowing the lawn.”

Although the uniform seemed unvarying, the components of the Tom Wolfe style evolved over time. The waists became more tightly nipped. The notched lapels grew until they sometimes looked like wing flaps.

With confidence in his own expertise, he experimented with buttoned waistcoats, extravagant homburg hats, shockingly bright colored shirts worn with polka-dot ties and shirts with collars so exaggeratedly Edwardian that the effect was that of putting his Roman senatorial head on display.

“Handled incorrectly or by a lesser talent, the effect could be shambolic,” Crowley said of the high-wire bravura of Tom Wolfe’s style, which in many ways resembled that of his prose. “Regardless of whether you liked it or loathed it, you have to concede it was executed perfectly.”