Author wardrobe crisis – what do you wear at…?

March 22nd, 2012

What do you wear to speak at a literary festival or a book signing? Male authors seem mostly to emerge from the Boden catalogue – open-necked shirts, blazers, leather jackets, other jackets, chinos, raspberry chinos, utility trousers, or, occasionally, jeans. Rosie Turner, chair of the British Arts Festivals Association¬†and director of the Canterbury Festival¬†agrees : ‘Any public performance demands an indication that the speaker has made some sort of effort – within their own style – and for men this probably only means clean hair’.

But female litfest fashion varies wildly, from the elegant designer chic of JK Rowling, Joanna Trollope and Penny Vincenzi to the frankly scruffy. I remember seeing an author at the Folkestone Literary Festival in what looked like a poncho made of Army blankets. And I was once on stage alongside a novelist in a crumpled white t-shirt, unbrushed hair, no make-up, jeans and plimsolls. Actually, she looked really cool. Beside her, the rest of us felt over-coiffed and over-accessorized. But I don’t think I could get away with it.

Having watched a number of fellow authors tugging at their hemlines, I’d say the number one Wardrobe Tip is ‘don’t wear a short, tight skirt.’ Chairs on stage are almost always too high or too low. Either way, you will be trying to stop the audience getting a flash of your knickers. And the same applies to a low cleavage at book signings, says Rosie Turner.

The other issue is that festivals tend to be in spring and autumn, when the weather ranges from snow to heat waves. I appeared at the Henley Literary Festival last October with Elizabeth Noble. She had flown in from the US with black winter outfits. The temperature soared to over 90 degrees. She looked immaculate, but later revealed she’d felt distractingly hot.

Rosie Turner thinks that audiences ‘like to invest writers with the personality of their books’ so what they wear can reflect this – such as ‘wearing a devore velvet shawl if you’re a medieval historian.’ Fashion guru Maggie Alderson is also a novelist, so I asked her for Festival style advice. Many of her novels (Cents and Sensibility, Pants on Fire, Mad About the Boy, How to Break Your Own Heart) feature sassy women with high heels on the cover, and her approach reflects this:

‘Dress as you would for a lovely lunch party or a cocktail party – be the best version of yourself,’ she advises. ‘When I do a book tour I go to Fenwicks and buy three dresses, usually in brightly coloured silk. Then I buy some ridiculously high heels from TopShop. Wearing high heels makes me stay physically aware of myself – you can’t get too relaxed, which is good because you need some adrenalin in order to perform well.’

She dresses as if expecting good weather, and takes a coat in case it turns bad, ‘and if I’m on tv I take my dress and change into it when I get there (minimising creasing)’. A really good haircut from John Frieda just beforehand, and regular blow-drying on tour completes her working wardrobe.’

Rosie Turner’s team think that looking ‘arty’ is probably better than ‘too corporate’ but she adds that ‘women beat themselves up about how they look in a way that men never would – as an arts promoter the most important thing for me is that speakers are comfortable and confident enough to deliver the performance’.

So maybe the crumpled t-shirt and unbrushed hair was the way to go. Sometimes, when I dress up to talk to groups, a friend will say:’oh, you look very much the author.’ But I never quite know whether that’s a compliment or not. Is it a polite way of saying ‘you’ve got lipstick on your teeth and a mad look in your eye?’

3 Comments already, do join in...

  1. E.B.Pike Says:

    March 28th, 2012 at 1:38 am

    I love this post! I discovered it after author Susan Quinn tweeted it on Twitter. Funny thing is, I’m actually going to my first writing conference in May and was wondering what to wear.

    You’re right –men sure do have it easy! After reading your post, I’m thinking “dressy, but arty, not too corporate.” Now if I can only translate that into actual articles of clothing….

  2. Nina Bell Says:

    March 28th, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I think trousers get you out of the tight skirt situation, (if you feel comfortable wearing them), then something colourful on top – I’m always mindful of the famous Molly Parkin, who used to wear head-to-toe brilliant colour, including turban, for all public appearances, because if she was on a panel or on television, then she really stood out.

  3. Cal Orey Says:

    June 17th, 2012 at 3:42 am

    Good post. I have a B&N signing coming up for my new book. Can’t decide what to wear. Seem to be comfy in skinny jeans (even ones with tears that I purchased for the “look”), black tee-shirt (summer), black flats… A few times, I wore a “hippie” long, fitted skirt and turtleneck–got compliments. OK. Maybe it’s time to fold the bluejeans.

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