Dressed for Success


Our Daily Correspondent

Barbara Pym. Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society

Sarah Jessica Parker, the actress and shoe designer, has named a shoe after Donna Tartt, the writer. The Tartt is a glittery Mary Jane with a chunky low heel. The color is called Scintillate. It retails for $385 and sold out within hours on 

Here’s how Neiman Marcus describes Parker’s shoe line:

She became a fashion icon starring as the quintessential shoe-obsessed New Yorker. Now Sarah Jessica Parker is taking the next natural step: designing her shoe collection. The SJP Collection is her own expression of style with personal touches woven throughout. Take for instance, the grosgrain ribbon details. Adorning every shoe, they’re a nod to the ribbons Parker wore in her hair as a young girl. Some design elements borrow from the legendary wardrobe she wore as Carrie in the show Sex in the City. Even the names of each shoe, such as “Sophia” and “Raquel,” reference her favorite fashion influencers. To create the collection, Parker turned to a familiar name in the industry. George Malkemus (the shoe-guru himself) teamed up to share his thirty years of design expertise. The results? Classic styles that feel as current now as they will in seasons to come. And to ensure they’ll last, every pair has been crafted by artisans in Italy.

But with all respect to Parker and “the Tartt,” when I think of literary fashion influencers, I think of Barbara Pym. 

Maybe you’d turn first to spinsters or sly comedy of manners or vicars or India tea. But if you look, there’s a thread of clothes-consciousness that runs through Pym’s novels, and it’s more or less unequalled in modern letters. She describes clothes with a gimlet eye. In An Unsuitable Attachment,Sophia herself was wearing a green jersey suit and a small hat, but she felt that she did not look so absolutely right as Ianthe, whose plain blue woollen dress was set off by a feather-trimmed hat which had just the right touch of slightly dowdy elegance—if there could be such a thing.” Meanwhile, in perhaps the clothesiest of all her books, A Glass of Blessings, Wilmet Forsyth’s clothing is a motif throughout; she plans each outfit with impeccable care, going through her wardrobe “allowing for every possible kind of weather”: “a sort of mole-coloured velvet dress” with Victorian garnet jewelry for a suburban cocktail party; “a dress of deep coral-coloured poplin, very simple” for an abortive liaison. She remarks on the tension that exists “between a woman who is well-dressed and one who is not.” 

Pym herself cared a lot about clothes; the annotated letters in A Very Private Eye are full of them. At one point, for instance, Pym discusses dressing for a wartime wedding in “a dull pink crepe dress with a lovely romantic black hat with a heart-shaped halo brim.” She handmade most of her clothes. In what’s maybe the best known of her author photos, she’s wearing an outfit of her own construction: a matching vest and jabot, carefully tied. In another, Pym wears a different vest, and holds a cat as if it’s an accessory. The image is iconic enough to have made the leap from photo to doll.

When Alessandro Michele debuted his first Gucci line to loud applause, his seventies-inflected collection seemed to me quite Pym-like. I don’t, of course, think he was influenced by her. But there was something of her in it. It’s not just the pussy-bows and the prints and the vests that are inspiring, but the feeling that clothing is allowed to be endearing. Of course, any collection that did pay homage to her would break your heart. 

In Excellent Women, the narrator Mildred observes of a successful rival, “She was fair-haired and pretty, gaily dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright jersey, while I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt.” And Pym’s correspondent Philip Larkin called that novel “a study of the pain of being single, the unconscious hurt the world regards as this state’s natural clothing.”

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.