For years, I believed in the legend that Albert Einstein wore the same outfit every day. (That’s genius. Brain cells are better used on bigger questions than “what to wear?”!) While the man loved his gray sweatshirts, this story is false. Yet for many years it inspired my personal fashion sense. I used to credit my Northern California upbringing with instilling in me anti-materialism and respect for the unseen. Having considered fashion soulless, I used to wear a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers or sandals nearly every day. Then I got my big break in journalism, working in New York at Conde Nast, the publisher of Vogue, Glamour, Lucky, Vanity Fair. The company’s decadent lifestyle magazines outnumbered its cerebral publications like The New Yorker and Wired.
I was working at the launch of a short-lived business magazine, with some other fellow denim-wearers. But beyond our offices, the halls of Conde Nast felt like a world-class museum, where the “works of art” walked and made small talk. I had never before, in person, seen spiky abstract art on feet. Around this time, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein came out. It was a reassuring reminder that Einstein always wore the same simple outfit.
Then one rainy day, I experienced a conversion moment. Grabbing the elevator in the Conde Nast lobby, I was suddenly joined by the commanding presence of a 6-foot-7 African American man in an olive plastic poncho, dripping with rain. It was Andre Leon Talley, or better known as ALT in the fashion universe, where he sits on Mount Olympus as a larger-than-life contributing editor for Vogue. At Conde Nast, run-ins with Vogue staffers were not unusual; the young women had these famous seemingly practiced steely stares. My beat-up Keds were sometimes at the receiving end of their scowls.
But something about this run-in struck me on an intuitive level. It made me mute. Me, a mile-a-minute talker and typer, paid to interview business leaders, even crash a C.E.O.’s birthday party at the Waldorf if I had to. It was a feeling of reverence rather than intimidation, similar to the time I unexpectedly burst into tears upon seeing Toni Morrison at a book signing. Riding with ALT in the elevator, I looked down at my typical uniform of fraying jeans, a gray K-Mart v-neck t-shirt with a collar sewn in, and worn beige Keds. He was looking at me as though “can you believe this rain,” yet I couldn’t bring myself to make my usual intrusive California small talk.
Curious by my reaction, I read his book A.L.T.: A Memoir. The first thing that struck me was the warmth and elegance of his voice, his small-town down to earth wisdom as he went on this Jonathan Swift journey through Diana Vreeland’s Met Costume Ball and unbelievably glamorous life, 1970s New York, and of course Vogue. Reading about Talley’s life growing up in North Carolina, devoted to his grandmother Bennie Frances Davis who raised him, was very moving. She was a domestic worker who taught him the importance of household chores, and being polished. He writes:
“My grandmother never had to tell me to stand up proud, never had to explain to me or convince me that although we did not have much money, we were equals of any people in town. I knew this just by looking around me. When I saw the beauty of our home and the many small luxuries with which we were blessed, when I took pride in our appearances on Sundays, I knew my place in the world. Perhaps that’s why when I came to live in the whirlwind world of fashion, I was able to stand my ground and never lose sight of the importance of family, religion, and other basic values I learned as a child.”
Fashion, as I came to understand it from reading ALT, is a deep sense of personal pride. It wasn’t a daily nag, or a law of New York survival. It was a celebration of one’s roots, appreciation of personal and world history, a link to affectionate memories. Soon after reading his memoir, I wore a pair of red leather Ukrainian boots to work, a reminder of Ukrainian dance camp in upstate New York, my family’s history of escaping the Soviet Union, a glamorous symbol of survival. Spring had sprung in my closet.
Fashion, like art, knocks the dust off of life. It is good for the brain that seeks and loves novelty, which in turn enhances learning, writes Jennifer Baumgartner of fashion in Psychology Today. Of course, as ALT explains in his memoir, one doesn’t have to “put on the dog” every day; comfortable wear is preferred when one prefers it. Fashion is just another avenue for expressing energy, as is writing, Tweeting, painting, and seeking knowledge.
In ALT, Talley also writes about his journey becoming a confidant and close companion of Diana Vreeland, the Picasso of fashion editors, a radical eccentric who continues to be a matron saint for the passionate. He frames his story by telling his life through the influences Vreeland and his grandmother both had on him, their very different lives but shared values. Together, these two indomitable women shaped Talley’s sense of self. He would need it. One of my favorite moments in his memoir is how Talley describes photographing former First Lady Barbara Bush in the White House for Vogue. She wrinkled her noise with disdain at the large gold rose in his lapel, and didn’t speak to him for the rest of the photo shoot. But what he took from that incident has become, for me personally, a reassuring mantra:
“I have always known that if you follow your own beat, you might not always be dancing in time with those around you, but you will turn out to be a very good dancer.”