Fashion Magazine

A Beckettian Style This Fall

By Dieworkwear @dieworkwear
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Among the many things to love about fall style – the ability to layer, the tactile pleasure that comes with wearing tweed and flannel – is the sensation that the clothes are a better expression of your personality. At least among the more normal among us. I’ve never been upbeat and cheerful enough for a proper spring/ summer wardrobe. I end up looking like this when I have to wear vivid yellows and bright blues, and I can’t even imagine throwing on something made from a colorful patchwork madras. Instead, give me bleak and bitter clothes, such as stony gray flannels, indigo blue work shirts, and chocolate brown tweed sport coats. Those feel like second skin. 

The patron saint of bleak style is Samuel Beckett, the Irish avant-garde novelist and playwright who could have doubled as a fiery apostle. In fact, the term Beckettian today is synonymous for bleakness. The writer’s best known work, Waiting for Godot, is a tragicomedy about the futility of man’s existence in a world that’s hurling towards apocalypse, as man waits for salvation from an entity that never arrives (the meaning of that entity continues to be shrouded in mystery, perhaps it’s a stand-in for God, self-assurance, or happiness in our lives). Waiting for Godot is one of the greatest works of modern theatre, a perennial best seller, and performed everywhere from prisons to public stages. As the Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn wrote: “After Godot, plots could be minimal; exposition, expendable; characters, contradictory; settings, unlocalized, and dialogue, unpredictable. Blatant farce could jostle tragedy.”

Beckett was a bleak pessimist in every way, from his style to his personality to his work. In an often-repeated story, he was walking around a London park one warm afternoon, when his friend remarked, “this is the kind of day that makes one glad to be alive!” Beckett dryly replied: “I wouldn’t go that far.” And yet, in the middle of that pessimism was also a courageous and charitable spirit. In the final words The Unnamable, he ends with: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” It sounds a bit sentimental in 2018, but Beckett was about searching for hope while living with a stoic sense of acceptance. For Beckett, how we wait is how we find meaning. 

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Beckett, who lived in France most of his adult life, waited a lot on his friends. He lived on the Boulevard St. Jacques in an apartment adjoining that of his wife, and would meet up with his buddies at his favorite Left Bank cafes. He played chess with Marcel Duchamp, and he smoked cigarettes and drank double espressos with Alberto Giacometti. For a bleak pessimist, Beckett was undeniably loyal and loving. In 1964, he wrote this tender letter to his theater friend Alan Schneider, whose father had just passed away:

My very dear Alan — I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow’s fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds. Ever Sam.

That’s the kind of character I can identify with: a man with a bleak outlook on the world, but is also not necessarily bitter or angry about it. 

The Irish playwright was also the James Dean of modernists. His style perfectly encapsulates the best of fall style, with his heavy reliance on ribbed turtlenecks, slept-in tweed sport coats, and comfortably-cut rustic trousers. His shirts were tidy, but not pitch perfect; his coats were heavy and shrugged on. Beckett’s style was simple, but he carried it off with composure. Obviously, it didn’t hurt that he had that handsome, craggily old face and set of piercing eyes – a glorious quality that his friend, the writer Ms. Nancy Cunard, once compared to “a magnificent Mexican sculpture.”

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If Beckett’s style seems nonchalant, it’s because he cared little about how he dressed. He once lamented to a friend how his mentor James Joyce paid him in-kind instead of cash (for fifteen hours of proofreading, Joyce gave him 250 francs, an old overcoat, and five ties, which Beckett found hurtful, but he didn’t say anything). And when he was invited to Trinity College Dublin to accept an honorary degree, he complained to another friend that he had no clothes but an old brown suit. “If that’s not good enough, they can stick their Litt.D. up among their piles,” he wrote in a letter. 

Still, the fine details of clothes didn’t escape Beckett, he just didn’t like “lording the hat” (as he once said to describe dressing up). In his play Endgame, Beckett recounts one of his favorite fables. An Englishman is frustrated with his tailor and doesn’t understand why his trousers haven’t been competed after three months and multiple fittings. He erupts and reminds the tailor that it only took God six days to make the world. “Yes,” the tailor responds. “But look at the world and look at my trousers.” 

Beckett’s style has a sense of bleakness and minimalism. It’s committed, but not precious, and relies on hearty materials. It’s sustainably small, yet useful, and doesn’t require any more accessories than the necessities (a tie with suits and warm scarf with coats). Crucial to the look is the cut. The clothes are well-fitting, but not tight, and aside from a few lapel shapes, most of the silhouettes here could still work today. 

If you want to incorporate some Beckettian style this fall, try a comfortably cut sweater – an Inverallan cable knit or Inis Meain flecked turtleneck – along with some five-pocket Ralph Lauren corduroys and Clark’s Wallabees (Padmore & Barnes was the original Irish manufacturer of that style). A blue sport coat such as this Shetland tweed from Sartoria Formosa would finish off the look well, and then you can style your hair with Brylcreem or Murrays (what Beckett would have likely used at the time). I like Garrett Leight’s Wilson and David Kind’s Kodachi for round-wire spectacles, if you’re trying to nail the look. That craggy face, however, has to be earned. 

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