Why the late writer Joan Didion’s estate sale has sent the fashion world into overdrive.
JOAN DIDION IN HER APARTMENT IN 2005 | STAR TRIBUNE VIA GETTY IMAGES / GETTY IMAGES
WHEN JOAN Didion passed away last December, aged 87, one publication opined that her death marked the end of the “chic writer” era. It’s almost certainly true that no other literary figure has loomed quite so large in the fashion industry, nor featured quite as prominently on designers’ mood boards over the years. Most memorably was Phoebe Philo, who in 2015 had an octogenarian Didion front that year’s Juergen Teller-lensed campaign for Cèline eyewear.
So it’s no surprise that the recently-announced estate sale of Didion’s possessions has sent the overlapping worlds of fashion, literature, art, and interior design into a full-blown frenzy. The full list of available items (you can peruse them here and, if you’ve got cash to spare, place some bids ahead of November 16th), is a testament to Didion’s dual lives as both a literary icon and a sophisticated tastemaker. Much like her spare and refined approach to prose, Didion’s personal affects display a desire to curate, to select only the best things and surround yourself with them. Among the highlights? A six-piece Le Creuset set, a Loro Piana cashmere throw, multiple artworks by Ed Ruscha, a Cartier clock, and, of course, a pair of tortoiseshell Celine sunglasses.
There’s a reason why many of these items are slated to sell for thousands of dollars (New York Magazine astutely noted that Didion’s years-old, oil-stained Le Creuset pans will sell for far more than a brand new set), and why the sale is getting write-ups in The New York Times, and a slew of fashion magazines. The most obvious reason is that we, as a culture, are obsessed with the memorabilia of dead icons. In 2016, Truman Capote’s ashes sold for almost $45,000. In 2019, the dirty cardigan Kurt Cobain wore for Nirvana’s legendary MTV Unplugged set sold for $344,000. Auction houses like Julien’s in Beverly Hills make a serious living selling the possessions of departed idols, from Steve Jobs worn-in Birkenstocks to a diamond ring worn by Elvis Presley. These items offer the illusion of proximity to greatness, and we hope by owning them that we may somehow catch some of that greatness ourselves.
TED STRESHINSKY PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE / GETTY IMAGES
Joan Didion’s estate sale has a secondary appeal. Perusing the items Joan Didion lived amongst gives us some sense of how she lived and, by extension, of how we should live ourselves. In 2017, to coincide with the release of the documentary The Centre Will Not Hold, AnOther ran a piece titled ‘How To Live Like Joan Didion’, solidifying that to “be more like Joan” is a worthy goal for any fashion-obsessed woman.
Joan Didion’s estate sale drives home the fact that the way the later writer lived stands in almost direct contradiction to how we live and consume in 2022. Her personal style was timeless — she’s photographed in white T-shirts, cashmere knits, wrap skirts, and silk scarves in every decade from the 1960s to 2020s. She famously packed the exact same bag for every writing trip she ever went on — including two leotards, a bottle of bourbon, and a mohair throw. Didion was a giant in the writing world but she lived quietly, rarely giving interviews, rarely sitting for portraits. She was uninterested in following trends, courting fame, or parading her own successes. All of which makes her ubiquity on social media both aspirational and totally ironic.
So while many of us are unlikely to be able to buy a piece from Joan Didion’s personal archives (this writer will be diligently bidding on some of her books, but I don’t like my chances), we can continue to take inspiration from how she lived in our own lives. To embrace a personal uniform that isn’t swayed by the trends of the day, to commit to telling the truth, even if it isn’t popular, to let the value of our work speak for itself. And above too, to — in Didion’s words — ”live recklessly, take chances, and seize the moment.”