This exclusive interview with bestselling author and esteemed journalist Gay Talese by Cristoffer Neljesjö of Welldressed and Nicola Linza of Manner of Man was conducted in New York March 2010.
No.1. How did my Italian-born tailor father, and my mother (who operated a dress shop) influence my taste in clothes?
Both parents had a tremendous influence. First, my father: he both made beautiful suits for himself and modeled them in public, serving as a walking poster figure for his talents with a needle and thread. He'd walk along the main street at 9 am to get the morning edition of The Times at the corner cigar store looking like a guy out of men's fashion magazine, stacks of which were lined up along the counter of his own tailor shop. He subscribe* to a Chicago-based magazine called "Apparel Arts" I believe (not exactly sure of the full title; but it was published by the same company that produced Esquire). But the Apparel Arts magazine had glossy pages of photos and articles showing finely-dressed gentlemen and also, glued to the pages, were swatches of material that prospective customers could select for suits they might order from their favorite tailor. My father had great pride in his skill and demonstrated it, as I say, in how he appeared in public. His public appearance meant much to him, for "appearance”, carried great weight with a man who had little else going for him; what I mean is: he did not make much money from his fine tailoring, since few men in our little town — Ocean City, NJ, pop. 5,000 year-around — would or could afford the prices my father heeded to charge to justify the time & effort he'd spend on making bespoke suits and coats for clientele. Although he wasn't a financial success, he did not want to give the appearance that he wasn't; he wanted to look rich in the eyes of his follow citizens, and never did he leave the door of his store or residence without dressing up, being photograph-able in the manner of men who posed for his favorite magazine Apparel Arts.
My mother: now it was she who made the money in our household, since the dress business — unlike the men's tailoring business--was a source of revenue. She sold dresses to overweight women with deep pockets. These women were the matrons of the town, the wives of the leading lawyers, car dealers, and real estate moguls of the area. I've written a lot about my parents in "Unto the Sons" and other books & articles; but in sum: my mother, no less than my father, dressed in a way that advertised her livelihood. She was, unlike her clients, slender. She kept her weight down all her life (she lived to be 99, dying in 2006) ; and weighed at her death what she did when she married father in 1929 — 123 pounds. In clothes, she was gorgeous , both in summer frocks and winter-weight tweed suits and fur-trimmed coats & capes.
Finally, if you'd go to my website (Gay Talese Home Page) you'll probably find photos that will explain visually what I'm writing here. You'll also see how/ since my boyhood, I dressed in conformity to the custom-tailored parents who raised me. I was never casual in attire even as a schoolboy. This created a distance between me and those around me. But I didn't care. I felt "apart" anyway, partly being a minority Italian in a very-WASPY town that had a smallish Catholic community dominated by the Irish that ran my parochial school, and didn't make me feel I belonged. So I just kept my distance, as I say, and the clothes I wore (my father's tailoring) reaffirmed my desire to be different since I didn't feel one had much choice anyway.
(This difference, incidentally, also served me well when I decided to become a journalist. Journalists by nature are (or should be) "outsiders." I certainly was by nature an outsider, and it never changed very much even after I left town and blended in with big city life in Manhattan.)
No.2. How do I look at bespoke tailoring today in contrast to 50 yrs ago?
I love it when I see it, and I see it within seconds of looking at it, since I have a practiced eye when it comes to examining shoulder lines, the fit of fabric on moving bodies, the cut and shape of garments produced by prideful craftsmen. Men who dress exceedingly well are a rare breed, and this was true when I was young and remains true today as I'm in my late 70s. Still, there are those distinguished few men in every city in this nation and around the world who pay much attention, as my father did, to how they appear in public places (and private, too); meaning that they have a lofty sense of self, see themselves as special, different, individualistic, men on their own trip even if sitting still in a cocktail lounge or a train ride through the country side. In their heads they are "leading men," "matinee idols," "dandyfied dudes" whatever—even if, in real life, (again like my father) they are acting roles, acting upwards. A bespoke suit is easy to spot as a rule; and usually its owner is an individual who is not reticent about making bold statement? And representing himself in a style that is special and singular. Among my writer friends and contemporaries, no one does this better than Tom Wolfe.
No.3. Do I see a lack of honesty in reporting of men's style today?
I don't know how to best answer this. But when I review men's fashion ads in magazines, I often ask myself "What's fashionable about these clothes?" The ads show men wearing perfectly acceptable but hardly distinguished attire. On the other hands, the ads are intended (I guess) for ordinary consumption, for people who want to blend in with what passes for a modern mode and has mass appeal. The only ads that strike me as making a fashion statement on a grand scale, are the Ralph Lauren ads. His models usually exhibit masculine aspirations toward competition with the good-looking women posed next to them. The men in those ads are as strikingly turned-out as the women. As for the "reporting" that you ask, there is not much reporting really. I don't know if Tom Ford has written about male fashion (I assume he has, but I've not researched the matter); still, in the Tom Ford tailoring I've seen in store windows, and of course the fashionable film scenes that abound in his recent movie, establish him as the personification of what we're trying to discuss here, it seems to me.
No.4, Have I witnessed greater divide between...custom tailoring & pedestrian push of items the media are primarily hawking?
I think I've responded to part of this in my statement above. What is being "hawked" is pedestrian, but then again it is hawked with the hope of getting a larger customer base, and not appealing to the special few who really seek to invent (or to reinvent) themselves through what they wear.
No.5. Street style portraiture?
I think of Bill Cunningham as being one of the main photographers of street style, mainly because his work is published in The New York Times. What do I think of it? Its interesting, for it is journalistic and thus timely; it tells the reader what people are wearing in the streets, which sometimes is what the ads are telling us, too. Ads can be historically important as well, to be sure. Whenever I've gone back to look at old newspapers, say going back to the 1940s or 1930s or earlier, I'm more interested in the ads than in the articles. The articles concern things that were important at the time of publication, but are usually of no importance years later. The ads, however, show in visual detail what was reflective of society's tastes and means in times past. The clothes advertised during the Depression '30s era certainly give us a picture of the frugality that prevailed during that period, whereas the 1920s ads boast of the boom times that Fitzgerald's Gatsby evoked. In the ads, too, you see the cars that were selling, the jobs that were available, the price of rentals, etc.-yes, ads are historically useful when a researcher is delving into the distant past.
No.6. A change in talent of designers today?
If there is a change it is difficult to detect. But then few men's designers have ever become as famous as designers of women's clothes. Think of all those world-famous men & women whose names are in the headlines of fashion pages and the facades of shops in major cities? and think of how few names are associated with men's wear. There are the golden oldie enterprises (Brooks), the Italian continentals (Brioni), the aforementioned country gent/horseman (Lauren), and some designers who have had their names above the titles—Armani, Zegna, etc....but rarely does men's fashion bring fame 5, fortune to designers in ways rivaling designers for women's fashion, yes?
No.7. Media rooms today vs 1950s? What changes do I see?
I'm afraid I don't have anything to add here that I didn't cover already in this account.
No.8. Technology & journalism today?
I think that technology has had a ruinous effect on literary journalism and the lost art of magazine writing. I've written a lot about this (consult my Gay Talese Home Page with reference to my books & published pieces); but in short: the first bad innovation was the popularization of the tape recorder. This caught on in the late 1950s, and it slowly but surely ruined the careers of anyone who hoped to make a good living as a freelance magazine writer. I never used the tape recorder—I don't even use cell phones, e-mail, etc. etc. now—being that I insist on face-to-face interviews, and insist equally on having time to "hang out" with the people I'm writing about, and rarely do I even take notes (I carry pieces of trimmed shirtboard in my pocket) and if I do take notes, I make brief notations when I'm not in the presence of the people I'm interviewing. This whole process—my way of working—is covered in an interview in last summer's The Paris Review, conducted by Katie Roiphe; so you can get it from there, if you're interested.
But back to the point I'm trying to make: the tape-recorder led to the Q&A interview, meaning that magazines could get interviews with famous people (film stars, etc) for cover stories that would sell on news stands, and pay the "writers" very little since the writers had to only spend an hour or two with a recorder for a Question-and-Answer style encounter... and this reduced the magazine challenge to an "indoor" rather than "outdoor" situation...the writer was indoors with a tape recorder fixed on a coffee table in the hotel suite of a film star, for example... whereas in my day, when I was writing big pieces for Esquire and elsewhere, I was "outdoors," I was moving from place to place in the presence of the people I was profiling... When I was doing Sinatra ("Frank Sinatra Has A Cold") I was outside with him at a prizefight in Vegas, I was traveling to a Burbank studio to witness him rehearsing for a TV spectacle, I was in a nightclub watching him drinking at a bar with two blondes, etc...
In my piece on Joe DiMaggio, I'm following his foursome on a golf course in Napa Valley.... In my piece on Joe Louis/ ex-heavyweight champ, I'm traveling with him through Harlem at night, bar hopping.....In my piece on Peter O'Toole, I'm moving through the Irish countryside with him, and also listening to him chatting with his fans in a tavern in Dublin, etc etc....
What I'm saying is that the technology today has worked against the "art" that used to be on display decades ago in major periodicals... The well-tailored articles, like the well-tailored public, are not faring well in this time of technology in which everything is propelled by linear thinking, cost-cutting budgets, goal-oriented researchers who spend too much time behind the laptops and not enough time going outside and exploring the larger world, something’s going to places (and discovering things) that they did not expect would come their way. Serendipity!
No.9. Where do I get my suits?
Most of my suits are made by tailors, but I do also buy off the rack sometimes. My favorite off-the-rack shop is in Paris—Francesco Smalto. I first bought a suit there in 1980, and have bought things there as recently as last year, a splendid jacket that fit so well I didn't have to have it altered.
No.10. The 1930s is my favorite period.
The look of '30s tailoring—wide-lapelled sharply pointed blazers and suits is the look I favor, and I have many such examples.
No.11. Paris and Rome are my favorite cities.
(Nan and I were married in Rome fifty years ago, and have reunions annually there)…Numerous restaurants are known to us in both cities (Paris and Rome), and as to what we wear on those occasions? As always when going out (or even staying home) we dress with a sense of zest…after all, we’re alive and well, and ready to dine after first toasting the fact that we’re never too old to enjoy a pre-dinner sip of a dry gin martini.