Chloë Sevigny’s voice boomed over the speakers at Proenza Schouler’s fall 2023 show as the actress and It-girl read fictional diary entries from the author and It-girl Ottessa Moshfegh. In London, Sir Ian McKellen opened S.S. Daley’s show by reading one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems. If it seems like the line between fashion shows and literary readings is starting to blur, you’re not mistaken. Across the fall collections, a singular icon emerged: the nerdy intellectual with a library card. Think Miu Miu’s artfully mussed librarians in tortoiseshell glasses, Altuzarra taking inspiration from Greek mythology, Thom Browne paying homage to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and Sandy Liang’s bow-adorned belles (above) walking in the New York Academy of Medicine’s library.
Valentino recently featured text from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life printed on clothes at its spring 2024 men’s show. Off-runway, Bottega Veneta released an haute version of the Strand bookstore tote, and Chanel’s Rendez-vous littéraires rue Cambon program presented house ambassador Charlotte Casiraghi in conversation with female writers such as Siri Hustvedt and Jeannette Winterson.
Fashion’s literary renaissance seems to be a counterbalance to screen time. All this bookishness serves as a sentimental reminder of what we had before social media—and taps into the power of great storytelling. In their ready-to-wear show at New York Fashion Week, Jackson Wiederhoeft debuted a collection steeped in references to Orpheus and Eurydice and Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” For its fall 2023 collection, the emerging label Melke referred to Roald Dahl’s 1961 children’s novel James and the Giant Peach, with peach-embellished pieces and fuzzy knits inspired by whimsically creepy-crawly creatures.
“Books paint pictures in our minds…and as designers, we are able to translate those images and stories into fabric,” says designer Emma Gage. For novelists Claudia Dey and Heidi Sopinka, their label, Horses Atelier, complements their literary endeavors. “We often speak of fashion as a form of autobiography, tracking the phases of your life through the act of dressing,” Dey says. She is inspired by the concept of adorning the characters in her novels and the women who wear her clothing in real life strategically. Dey and Sopinka’s latest collection was inspired by Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.
Some of the new literary looks feel like a grown-up extension of Dark Academia, the online subculture rooted in the personal style of writers like Donna Tartt. “The nerdish aesthetic…is like a wave of nostalgia for millennial shoppers specifically,” says Tiffany Hsu, chief buying officer at Mytheresa. “We are seeing a lot of these pre–social media trends coming through right now.” She cites pairings like white socks with miniskirts or oversize knit vests styled with white shirts.
“We need books,” says Dey bluntly. “I think we have sickened ourselves with the endless death scroll—to correct the imbalance, we want something that our minds must conjure.” Adds Wiederhoeft, “There’s this feeling like we’re leaving earth for a place far away, and literature feels like looking back through the window of the spaceship, waving goodbye.”
This story appears in the September 2023 issue of ELLE.
Kristen Bateman is a contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Her first fashion article was published in Vogue Italia during her junior year of high school. Since then, she has interned and contributed to WWD, Glamour, Lucky, i-D, Marie Claire and more. She created and writes the #ChicEats column and covers fashion and culture for Bazaar. When not writing, she follows the latest runway collections, dyes her hair to match her mood, and practices her Italian in hopes of scoring 90% off Prada at the Tuscan outlets. She loves vintage shopping, dessert and cats.