Clothes have, they say, more important offices than keeping us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. – Virginia Woolf
Dressing is a function, a necessity, but it can also be something wonderfully indulgent, allowing one the opportunity to escape a certain image of the self, transforming the mundane to the outlandish, the couture to the dishabille. In this way, fashion becomes transcendent, with dressing becoming a daily act in becoming, whether it be through something found in the back of the closet or something new.
Literature allows us a similar chance to reinvent our aesthetic. How amazing is it to read something and trace the way the words on the page bleed over into our lives, changing the way we think, talk, and yes, sometimes, even how we dress?
Driving this column is a curiosity about what people pull from books and onto their bodies, how people make books physical, and how they take on story and are influenced by it.
For The Open Bar’s inaugural foray into the intersecting worlds of style and literature—and this column’s humble beginning—I would like to introduce you to Bernadette Pascua of New York City. Bernadette is a photographer, illustrator and stylist with an eye for the simple line of Agnes Martin and an intuition for the high impact of a few suitably chosen words. Her blog, Decade, is an enviable collection of well-curated sartorial selections set against the backdrop of her illustrations and photographs, juxtaposed with whatever art is influencing her impeccable style at the moment.
I posed to her the question (which will act as somewhat of a guiding principle throughout the lifespan of this column): How has literature influenced your personal style?
Bernadette’s response, in keeping with her aesthetic, inevitably whisks us off to a place of space and light and gently swaying pinons, to the waters of the South of France just before the dawn of the années soixante.
“I ran up the stairs, getting somewhat entangled with my skirt, and knocked at Anne’s door. She called me to come in, and I stopped on the threshold. She was wearing a grey dress, a peculiar grey, almost white, which, when it caught the light, resembled the colour of the sea at dawn. She seemed to me the personification of mature charm.”- Francoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse
Francoise Sagan’s concise yet lush prose in Bonjour Tristesse leaves so much room for the imagination to fill in the blanks of the unspoken. For the fashion conscious, it is a movie waiting to be made in the mind, filled with the invented costumes of its three central female characters, each so different from one another. Sagan doesn’t elaborate much on Anne’s show-stopping dress but, as I’ve been lucky enough to witness the sea at dawn, I can see it so clearly in my mind. Gathering from the story that Anne is a pragmatically elegant and lightly made up character who drives a classic American convertible through the 1950’s Mediterranean seascape, I instantly envision her in one of Raf Simon’s stunning strapless pale gray “New Look” style dresses from his final Fall 2012 collection at Jil Sander. It was a collection that spontaneously moved its audience to its feet for a standing ovation.
When I first read Bonjour Tristesse, I was seventeen and instantly felt a connection to the narrator, Cécile, also of the same age. The tiny book transported me from upstate New York to her beautiful French world. She, too, is a girl who has self-confessed to the love of books, records, flowers and clothes.
It’s easy to imagine Cécile. To be seventeen in the summertime, when the world is its brightest green and sweetest blue. I’d give her a pair of half-cat eye tortoise sunglasses to wear under the dazzling sun and different brightly colored bathing suits to change into each day. There are the pajamas she wears to petit déjeuner in the villa—I’d say silk and of the classic matching style complete with contrast piping. She has lighthearted yet sophisticated outfits and sentimentally gifted delicate jewelry for dancing in Saint Tropez or drinking on café terraces by the sea. Of course, stripes for sailing. She has sensible white tennis sneakers when running through the pines to meet her crush and brings along a pair of Valentino heels to wear with her one evening dress “made of exotic material, probably too exotic for a girl of my age.”
My own summer at that age has been reduced to a fleeting memory of faint heat on bare shoulders, an impossibly inky night sky and riding in cars with nineties-style boys, feeling perfectly happy. There is no shame or foresight at that age and it’s this vulnerability that makes Cécile’s undeclared style endearing. The tinted sadness Cécile found herself complicit in was a feeling I often had at that age. I imagine she, too, has wistfully tried on adult clothes—or as it is imagined in Otto Preminger’s movie adaptation, she often wears her philandering father’s oversized button down shirt tied at the waist.
I loved Bonjour Tristesse so much that it was one of the books I took with me the following Fall when I moved to New York to start college in the city. It had been a summer spent far away from the ocean with no money; the book took me there and it was eventually lost between moves. Eleven years later, I found myself in a bookstore in London where a pink-covered copy with a handwritten title sat perched on a ledge. I purchased it and found myself revisiting Cécile’s world again with fresh eyes.
Where I once related to the book because of Cécile, I now connected to the older Anne and Elsa. Elsa, the worldly, femme fatale who prefers the dizzy life. She likes to frequent artist studios and bars. Anne, the intelligent and chic fashion designer with a soft maternal side. She prefers freshly cut flowers and accomplishment. I can now see so clearly those two who had been fuzzy figures in my imagination because, like most women, l now realize that I can be all three of them at once. I instantly align them with my favorite designers of today. Anne probably in Céline and Elsa in Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent. While Cécile, still in pajamas, is as vivid and clumsy as ever.
Bernadette Pascua is a freelance multi-disciplinary artist based in New York City. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her partner, photographer Andrew Stinson, and their adopted Shiba Inu, Rocky.
Veronica Martin is a poet and freelance writer living and working in Portland, Oregon.
Banner design by Aidan Koch.