I spent most of my high school years convincing myself I only wanted to write for the rest of my life, except for a brief period when I wanted to be a fashion designer instead.
I set aside the assiduously ruled page for a blank, slightly more textured one and began dressing like Mary-Kate Olsen on her coffee runs circa 2006, chaotically layered. By the age of 16 I had crept around the Balenciaga flagship store in Manhattan enough to know that clothes could radiate a presence all on their own, without needing a person to fill them. In fact, it was I who desired the presence of these garments to touch something blank and inarticulate in me, and fill it with significance.
At the time, I thought of my blooming fashion mania as a departure from my previous interests. Writing and designing, reading and dressing, seemed distant from one another. I went to one of the fabric stores on Sixth Avenue and left with way too many feet of the tackiest Where-Is-Waldo patterned cotton imaginable, with which to make — I don’t know — a shirt? Clearly that wasn’t writing. And as I sketched another heron-like lady who was 80 percent leather boot, I prided myself on believing my hand no longer moved across the page in disciplined lines. In truth, though, I was only following new ones: the faint line of her spine, the angles of her hips, the basins of her waist, all of which would be erased eventually or disappear beneath bolder marks.
My obsession with fashion was like a body that fed on itself and only became more capacious. I watched all the runway shows over and over, ranked every season, even resort collections. Then I ranked and took notes on my favorite models, favorite designers, favorite ad campaigns. Again, I was building a world that unfolded largely in my imagination, however often I tried committing it to paper.
The summer before my junior year I worked at a clothing store on Kenmare Street, which doesn’t exist anymore but once sold jeans worn by Santigold. A day came when one of the models whose name I had written down on one of my lists walked into the store, browsed for a minute, bought a pair of sunglasses, and left. She looked like if a doll had been planted in the earth and magically sprouted into a woman. She was about eight years older than me and had a babyish face, like mine, wide-set eyes. I judged her face to be perfect, then I felt my cheeks light up with desire and shame. Once I’d recognized the beauty of her face it took me no time at all to conclude that mine was its hideous reflection.
To my mind the writer Elena Ferrante has no face. She has no body. Everything she writes, beginning with her own name, is an elaborate or humble garment, not made for prying so much as desiring, envying, contemplating its shape, experiencing distress or awe in its presence. This garment, as I imagine it, hangs resolutely in a dark closet (which by some illumination of the unconscious I can see all of) and definitely belongs to someone. To her. By which I mean “Elena Ferrante” the writer who has published eight novels in 30 years and insists in interviews that, despite using a pseudonym and participating in public life only through writing, she is not an anonymous writer, but, rather, an absent one. After all, her books are signed.
Throughout The Frantumaglia — a collection of her interviews, correspondences, and essays— Ferrante is clear about her disdain for the media’s promotion of the “author’s image over his work.” She warns that such priorities will lead to a book that, whatever else it may be, “functions like a pop star’s sweaty T-shirt, a garment that without the aura of the star is completely meaningless.” Ferrante herself doesn’t tangle with the dirty laundry that notoriety and self-promotion attracts to itself. There is a kind of purity in her project which doesn’t wash out. Pure, but definitely not unworn or unlived in. The books are almost unbearably intimate, which must emanate partly from the tight-knitedness of the author to the protagonists of her novels by virtue of their all having been written into existence.
Everything she writes, beginning with her own name, is an elaborate or humble garment.
In her fiction, fashion is often the medium through which this intimacy — among characters, between Ferrante and her characters — gets expressed. This is perhaps illustrated most concretely in her first novel, Troubling Love, whose small cast of characters is significantly increased by a coterie of enigmatic outfits. The story, desperate and dreamlike, is told in the first person from the perspective of a 45-year-old woman named Delia in the days following the mysterious drowning of her mother, Amalia, who worked for much of her life as a seamstress. In a scene that comes towards the end, Delia, typically vacillating between hatred and love for Amalia, recalls in a somewhat critical tone watching her mother at work, how with her craft she would “reduce” real women’s bodies until they “became paper patterns that, fastened to the fabric with pins, portrayed on it the shadows of breasts and hips.” Then a few lines later a sudden fondness overtakes Delia’s narration and she decides that actually she “liked that woman who in some way had completely invented her story, playing on her own with empty fabrics.”
The author-character Elena Ferrante uses strikingly similar descriptions in The Frantumaglia, as when she says that her own mother was a seamstress who similarly breathed life — and with it all kinds of troubling love — into her creations. Ferrante felt a mixture of jealousy and embarrassment as she watched her mother go about the neighborhood in elaborate dresses of her own design with “silver-screen splendor,” yet she was also “pleased with her novel-like beauty.” Ferrante insists that she’s, “always felt that dresses aren’t empty, that they are human beings who at times stand empty in a corner, desolately lost.” In answer to an interviewer’s question “What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?” Ferrante replies, “a dressmaker.”
In a Ferrante novel you don’t get a lot of florid descriptions of faces, descriptions of outfits, or definitive judgements of beauty. Yet in every one of her books at least one fashion accessory or item becomes deeply enmeshed in its plot and imbued with a flagrant symbolism. These wearable objects possess an autonomy which allows them to be taken up as totems and instigators of the unfolding drama. For instance, her second novel The Days of Abandonment features a pivotal moment where the protagonist Olga, whose husband Mario has recently left her and their two children to live with his girlfriend, sees the lovers on the street and notices that the other woman, Carla, is wearing earrings her husband had once bestowed upon her. Delia is, of course, enraged. “I wanted to rip them off her, together with the ear,” she tells us, “I wanted to drag along her beautiful face with the eyes the nose the lips the scalp the blond hair, I wanted to drag them with me as if with a hook I’d snagged her garment of flesh.” As in Delia’s description of her mother’s “reduced” customers, there’s something here of the other woman as a pattern, a projection, a false copy. The remark is at once unkind and unmistakable.
Often the fashion object seems enchanted by resentments and betrayals, like the bracelet in The Lying Life of Adults, whose lineage I wouldn’t want to spoil. Then there is the hat pin which Leda, the academic and mother of two adult daughters who narrates The Lost Daughter, gives to the young mother Nina, whom she befriends on holiday. At the beginning of the novel Leda steals a doll belonging to Nina’s daughter Elena, for reasons she doesn’t seem to understand, throwing the child into turmoil. Nonetheless, and since Nina is unaware of the betrayal, the two women construct a curious intimacy throughout the novel, as on the windy day when Nina begins telling Leda of secret troubles in her marriage. Leda gives her advice, and the pin to secure her hat, inducing Nina to trust her even more and placing her slightly in Leda’s debt. When Leda gives back the doll, revealing herself to have been the cause of Nina and Elena’s suffering, the balance of debt dramatically shifts back onto Leda. So shattering is this rearrangement of obligations that the pin cannot be merely passed back to Leda. It must pass through her instead.
This past November, at the invitation of the Centro Internazionale di Studi Umanistici Umberto Eco, the Italian actress Manuela Mandracchia delivered a series of lectures written by Ferrante the previous year. A brief introduction to In the Margins, the recently published manuscript of these lectures, informs us that Mandracchia executed her performance at Bologna’s Teatro Arena del Sole “in the guise of Elena Ferrante.” Video footage of the event further clarifies that Mandracchia wore royal blue pants, a crisp white long sleeve dress shirt covered in tiny black shapes, and a black and white jacket patterned with several kinds of trees and zebras of different sizes. It is unmistakably the sort of pattern I would have lusted after at the fabric store when I was sixteen.
Although it is incredibly apparent that dressmaking and wearing are themes in Ferrante’s oeuvre, it wasn’t until I read In the Margins of all things — which amounts to a long, elegant craft talk — that I realized I had not given much thought to how a Ferrante novel relates to fashion as a medium more than others, and what this might mean for her readers. It is one thing to use sartorial metaphors to describe a text — to find it “tailored” to one’s taste, or “cozy like a favorite sweater.” But in the case of Ferrante any other art form that comes to mind — tableau, orchestral piece, rock album, sculpture, architecture, whatever — seems to me a less apt comparison.
The first of the three speeches deals with writing as an effect of bodily acts. There are descriptions of Ferrante writing in journals as an adolescent and filling out workbooks in elementary school. She fixates on the lines in those workbooks: “The writing was supposed to move between those lines, and those lines — of this I have a very clear memory — tormented me.” She also recounts recently witnessing the first writing exercises of a little girl she knows and is “very fond of,” who she names Cecilia. The girl’s attempts to write her own name are both serious and comical. “She aimed sometimes up, sometimes down,” Ferrante writes, “assigning the letters—each consonant, each vowel—random dimensions, one big, one small, one medium-sized, leaving a lot of space between the individual marks.” These descriptions suggest an array of images we’ve encountered previously in Ferrante’s work: Amalia, and Ferrante’s own mother, cutting their “paper patterns”; a girl playing with her own name as if with discarded scraps of fabric. Of course I can’t help imagining, either, Ferrante present in the spirit of Mandracchia’s jacket as she speaks these lines, dressing her up as if she were a doll.
Ferrante goes on to outline the thesis of her lectures, which is that her process brings about a “double writing” that combines “diligent” writing with writing “that goes over the margins.” Fans of the Neapolitan Novels will also recognize this as the Lila-Lenù writing. Lenù is the writer who leaves her small neighborhood in Naples and goes on to publish books in which she never replicates but can at times induce “the convulsive, disintegrating type of writing” with which she credits her brilliant childhood friend, Lila, who writes without becoming an author. Ferrante, describing this alchemy in her own work, writes, “I got in the habit of using traditionally rigid structures and working on them carefully while I waited patiently to start writing with all the truth I’m capable of, destabilizing, deforming, to make space for myself with my whole body.”
This writing “with my whole body,” continued to absorb me. At certain moments in the lecture the phrase suggests a body of reading that includes literary tradition and goes beyond it. “Writing is getting comfortable with everything that has already been written,” Ferrante advises, “great literature and commercial literature, if useful, the novel-essay and the screenplay — and in turn becoming, within the limits of one’s own dizzying, crowded individuality, something written.” Then there are times when Ferrante is more explicit about this “double writing” tracing and then stepping outside the boundaries of the male literary canon, to fashion new shapes for fiction. Ferrante recounts how reading the work of 16th-century Italian poet Gaspara Stampa had a profound impact on her when she realized that Stampa, “didn’t confine herself to utilizing the great clichés of male poetic culture…but grafted onto it something unexpected: the female body that fearlessly seeks, from the ‘mortal tongue,’ from within her own ‘human flesh,’ a garment of words sewn with a pain of her own and a pen of her own.”
Clothes, it seems to me, are capable of producing “double writing” in just this way. They are emblems of all that is hardest to disassemble: conventionality, shame, beauty’s market fluctuations, violence. For women especially they can be the very expression of one’s agreement, willing or not, to be watched at all times by another. A form of reading and being read that redeems the traditional balances of power. At the same time, clothes have the capacity to pretend, to resist, and cross lines. They remind us of who we were, and give us a claim to who we want to be next.
“Inhabit the forms,” Ferrante urges her audience, but particularly the women writers, “and then deform everything that doesn’t contain us entirely, that can’t in any way contain us.” This dictum, which Ferrante has followed as far or farther than any writer of her time, gets to the heart of what makes her novels feel alive, both unfamiliar and terrifying real. They seem to have less to do with the new novels I read than with some of the first novels, plays, and stories I ever loved, whose authors were nothing more than inconspicuous tags stitched into the seams of an astonishing material. They are more like garments that transform the people they fit than labels that can only proclaim what they are. After all, her books no longer conceal the woman who made them with her body, who long ago acknowledged the limits of the page and has become more than mere style. She is already in a distant city with a different name and is never coming back.
Hannah Gold is a critic and fiction writer based in NYC.