TSY STYLE HALL OF FAME | TOM WOLFE THE ORIGINAL THIN, WHITE DUKE

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“There are just two classes of men in the world, men with suits whose buttons are just sewn onto the sleeve, just some kind of cheapie decoration, or—yes!—men who can unbutton the sleeve at the wrist because they have real buttonholes and the sleeve really buttons up.”

The Secret Vice, by Tom Wolfe

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In 1952, a promising young pitching prospect out of Washington and Lee University showed up for a tryout with the New York Giants (the baseball Giants, that is– they hadn’t yet decamped for San Francisco).  The prospect made a decent showing: three innings, three men on base, no runs scored.  Good screwball, nice sinker, not much heat.  “If somebody had offered me a Class D professional contract,” says the prospect– whose name was Tom Wolfe– many decades later, “I would have gladly put off writing for a couple of decades.”  But the Giants cut Wolfe after two days, and he became a giant of another kind. (Via)

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From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

Recently, in the wake of the recession, Wall Street greed, and the wreckage of Lehman Brother, Merrill Lynch, Bear Sterns et al, the term “Master of The Universe” keeps getting thrown around to describe these fallen titans of Lower Manhattan.  Whenever I hear this term I always think of the man who penned it, my nominee for the TSY Style Hall of Fame, Tom Wolfe.

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1970s, New York City — Author Tom Wolfe — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

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Cultural Chronicler is another term that also gets thrown around a lot– I mean one well reviewed novel and Bret Easton Ellis was the voice of his generation (I remember I lived through it), but few American wordsmiths can actually lay claim to writing about the people and events that shaped a lot of the last 50 years of the 20th Century as a largely inside observer, and in the process coining some phrases that became part of the popular lexicon.

Tom Wolfe always managed to get underneath the surface of events and reveal the most primal of human emotions-greed, arrogance, courage, humor, longing-and come up with phrases like “Radical Chic”, “The Me Generation”, “Social X-Ray”, “The Right Stuff”, and one of his favorites “Good Ol Boy” which he used to describe the racecar driver Junior Johnson.

Other than being an avid reader of Wolfe’s work I have a somewhat personal connection.  For a few years we lived in the same NYC neighborhood and while I can never say I spoke to him, he was impossible to miss.  A tall man, with an aquiline nose Wolfe was always decked in an immaculate white suit, high collar Jermyn Street custom dress shirt, splendid tie, pocket square that screamed dandy, white shoes, and occasionally white hat.  His style was very much like his writing, elegant but with a sense of humor and irony.  I mean who dresses like that anymore!  Yet Tom Wolfe looked crisp on the hottest of days.

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Tom Wolfe — the American journalist, pop critic and novelist, 1980. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

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The thing I have always admired about Wolfe’s writing is he always seemed to hit the mood of the era he was documenting– The New Frontier enthusiasm of the early space program in The Right Stuff, the sixties East Side liberalism in his now epic account of Leonard Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers in Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catcher’s, and of course the hubris of the Wall Street of the mid 1980’s in The Bonfire of The Vanities. If you look at a lot of the photos of Wolfe, he has a wry smile– disdainfully ironic and somewhat amused.  Not surprising, here was a guy who wrote about people who took themselves way too seriously at times, and ultimately some of them fell from spectacular heights.  He also chronicled some of the most diverse strains of American culture– Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, NASA during the space race, The Black Panthers, New York Socialites, and was able to make you feel like you lived and travelled in that world.  I’m curious if Tom Wolfe will write another classic about the last decade and the financial crisis that ended it.  I know he’ll get the tone of the times just right and be immaculately attired the entire time.

Eli M. Getson

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Oct. 1966, corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, San Francisco — Author Tom Wolfe talks with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and the band’s manager Rock Scully. — Image by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS

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NEH Chairman Bruce Cole discusses fashion with Tom Wolfe–

Cole: One final question. As well known as you are as a writer, you cut a figure in and out of literary circles for your white suits. A friend of mine wanted to know if Vincent Nicolosi is still your tailor.

Wolfe: Yes. In England, you’re not supposed to tell the name of your tailor, but I want to make sure that the tailors flourish.

Mr. Nicolosi is a perfectionist in details. He does his own sewing for jackets. There’s a million stitches. And he does nice little things with curves on the end of cuffs and so forth. He’s very attentive to details. But he’s much more flexible than British tailors. The British tailors will tell you that they will do anything for you, but they won’t. They have an idea of what a suit should look like and that’s it.

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1988, Paris, France — American writer Tom Wolfe — Image by © Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

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Cole: When I lived in Italy as a graduate student, nobody bought suits. You’d have your suits made. That was absolutely incredible for me.

Wolfe: I think today, given how much suits cost in the department store or a boutique, you might as well have them made. For a little more, you’re going to get exactly what you want.

My father lived in a small town in Virginia and there was no such thing as a department store. He was born in 1892. All men had their suits made.

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Tom Wolfe Image by © Sam Falk/New York Times/Getty

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Cole: Why is fashion important? What does it tell us?

Wolfe: Every man and every woman is equally fixated on fashion. Men who would bridle at that suggestion are usually men who want to fit in in whatever milieu they want to be in. They do not want to stand out in any way, shape, or form. That’s just as true in the stands at the stock car races as it might be at Sullivan and Cromwell, the law firm.

Somebody like myself, perhaps, stands out on purpose with just minor variations on the conventional. My suits are conventionally cut. They just happen to be white. The same with shoes, everything else.

I feel it’s to a writer’s advantage, since he sells a mass-produced product called a book, to catch attention any way he can. This is not shared by my fellow writers, you understand. But you’ll notice how few writers are willing to appear on the back of a book with a necktie on. That’s a bohemian fashion that’s supposed to show one way or another you’re thumbing your nose at convention. Then it becomes a convention itself. If I saw one more writer with an open shirt, the wind blowing through his hair, I was going to stop buying books. They’ve calmed down a little bit, but still the tie is anathema.

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1966, New York City — Tom Wolfe at Leo Castelli’s gallery under a Roy Lichtenstein painting. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

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18 thoughts on “TSY STYLE HALL OF FAME | TOM WOLFE THE ORIGINAL THIN, WHITE DUKE

  1. I have to admit (and I know I shouldn’t), I haven’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but I’ve always thought he cut a sharp figure. Definitely a style icon.

  2. Yikes! I haven’t read any Tom Wolfe either!
    I will have to now…
    Love his take on the necktie.

  3. After I read The Pump House gang I wanted to take up surfing – which I did. Tom Wolfe’s depiction of the southern Californian surf and car culture of the 60′s was truly inspirational. In these depressing days of the global casualization of wardrobe it’s great that some icons stick with the classics.

    I was in a meeting at an ad agency the other day – and every single person including clients and account execs were dressed casual. Made me want to start wearing a suit every day just like Tom.

  4. Wolfe is an American Treasure. His work will stand up over time, and after he is gone. If you haven’t read his work, do!

    His later work, “A Man In Full” is a great start. It’s a sweeping tale of the modern South. Looking for historical adventure, you can’t get much better than “The Right Stuff”.

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  6. Don’t forget what the pump house gang wrote on the wall at Windandsea (or however you spell it): “Tom Wolfe is a dork”. He kind of is…a poseur, really. To me, Gay Talese is a better example of style in a tailored suit, and he wasn’t a poseur.

    • Gay Talese was a bit too short for my tastes, guess it was the neighborhood connection and the fact that I have read all of Tom Wolfe’s books and the quotables that have been handed down from them. Different strokes, ya know…

    • I think Wolfe is kind of by definition not a poser. I would imagine that when he was interviewing surfers or hippies he still showed up in that dorky white suit of his. Unlike say Hunter Thompson who bought a bike and tried to be a Hell’s Angel. As much as I love him, Thompson was much more of a poser.

      And are you sure he coined the term “good ‘ol boys”? That seems really unlikely.

      • Hmm..all good points. Maybe the term isn’t poseur, but dandy..in a pejorative way. It’s not just the clothes, but the way they’re worn. Talese had swagger, Hunter earned his street cred by getting his @ss kicked and Wolfe has neither.

      • Yeah, I know what you mean Gordon. His style seems like such an affectation that in a way he’s not even a real dandy but a guy who adopted what he thought was an “out there” costume so as to say “look at what a dandy I am”. I guess he’s a poser dandy!

      • mk,

        Somebody, somewhere, comes up with all our new phrases, or new meanings for old words. Who decided that a malicious computer program ought to be called a “virus”? Somebody did, but we may never know who was first Ior maybe we do and I’m just ignorant).

        On the other hand, successful authors get their phrases noted, and indeed, Tom Wolfe is acknowledged as the source of “good ol’ boy.” Did he pick it up from someone else and use it, thereby getting credit for what was not his own invention? Maybe. Happens all the time. Then again, given his proclivity for creating memorable phrases–”the right stuff,” “radical chic,” “the Me Decade”–perhaps he did coin “good ol’ boy” after all.

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  8. I like both Talese and Wolfe, am actually big fans of both, but while Talese is more consistent, Wolfe’s work has a ton of “aha” moments. For Talese, I must recommend Portraits and Encounters, his collection of nonfiction pieces (particularly “Looking for Hemingway” his rip on the Paris Review set, “Vogueland” on fashion, and the self-explanatory “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”). For Wolfe, every nonfiction collection of his is tremendous, but I favor Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (love “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”, though I believe it’s also on esquire.com). Also, his iconic “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” which is at nymag.com.

    Agree with the above sentiment–Wolfe isn’t really a poseur, but a dandy. In a promotional interview for Charlotte Simmons he talks about going to a frat party in a white suit. Now, if there were any situation in which one might feel pressured to fit in (or at least not stand out in a white suit) I’d suggest it would be at a frat party. Thus, he doesn’t seem to be posing per se, but eccentric. I think what perhaps rubs wrong is his self-realization of this eccentricity. It seems that what traditionally makes an eccentric is a lack of awareness for their own quirks.

    Question for you all: does anyone else feel Wolfe’s endings to his fiction always fall way short? Particularly A Man In Full and Charlotte Simmons–both expansive forays into the intricacies of sub-cultures–seem to wrap up their stories into hastily tied little bows not fitting the bigness of their stories.

  9. I had no idea there existed such a thing as suits with sleeve-buttons that could actually unbutton. I’ve certainly never seen one, and it never occurred to me to wonder why all suit-coats have decorative buttons on the cuffs.

    Then again, I’m a lawyer who’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt in the office today.

  10. Not only are the buttons on his coat sleeves functional, but the collars on his shirts are detachable (3rd and 5th pictures). You just can’t get that look with an attached collar.

    Very stylish, but too affected for most. Why don’t we take some inspiration from him anyway?

  11. My favorite Tom Wolfe piece; Radical Chic.

    Really nasty, funny stuff. Tom at his best.

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