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The genius of Tom Wolfe’s white suits

Tom Wolfe in his New York apartment in 1998. (Jim Cooper/AP)

Tom Wolfe would have been just as brilliant without the white suit, but he would not have been nearly as interesting. His fashion harked to the past while his prose immersed us in the present. The suits alluded to civility while his books slashed away at the uncivil. In his white minimalism, he was the ultimate peacock.

Wolfe’s white suits didn’t make him look cool; they made him look odd. And what he seemed to understand was that odd was far more intriguing than cool. Odd is full of shadings and contradictions, frustrations and delights. The odd man fascinates. His personality must be unpacked; he is worth considering. But he also must be approached with caution and care. Who knows what he might do? Cool is overrated. People recognize cool when they see it, but once it’s witnessed and documented, it’s finished. To be cool is to be part of an era or a movement. But Wolfe surpassed his times. He stood apart. He was singular.

Wolfe, who died Monday at 88, wore white suits in public and in the solitary time he spent writing. The white suits were a constant visual contradiction. They made him look courtly at a time when irony and sarcasm were the rules of conversational engagement. He had the appearance of an awkward outsider as well as that of a man who was the star of his own play. The suits were beautifully tailored but desperately out of fashion. The white suit was a Southern affectation that Wolfe did not succumb to until he called New York City home. It made him the center of attention in any room even though his journalistic profession was best served by his ability to be the unnoticed observer.

[Tom Wolfe, apostle of ‘New Journalism’ who captured extravagance of his times, dies at 88]

The suits gave him a rather old-fashioned appearance even as his journalism boiled with news, freshness and the sense that he was seeing the dawn before anyone else. He was not the daring adventurer in black, the rebel in leather or the man’s man in tweed and lumberjack plaids. He was the fop — a man who appreciated style and iconoclasts. That white suit announced that he did not plan on rolling into the muck; there’d be no roughhousing. There would be decorum.

His strike would be witty, charming and precise. Bloodless yet deadly.

The wearing of the white suits began, according to a 2015 profile in Vanity Fair, when Wolfe moved to New York in the summer of 1962 after quitting his job at The Washington Post and taking one at the New York Herald Tribune. At the time, wrote Michael Lewis, Wolfe “owned two sports jackets. Herald Tribune reporters all wore suits, and so he went out and bought a suit: a white suit. The suit wasn’t some kind of statement; it was what you wore in the summer in Richmond, Virginia,” where Wolfe grew up. “The first time he wore it, however, he realized the suit wasn’t of summer weight. It was thick enough to wear in cold weather, too. That’s how strapped for cash he is: he wears his white suit into the fall so he doesn’t have to buy another.”

Like so many aesthetic flourishes, the suit was not simply an accident; it was serendipity. The suit reflected his Southern upbringing and said something about the sort of proscribed politeness that goes along with that geography. It’s the bless-your-heart brand of gentility that is decorous and polished on the surface but sharp and piercing just below that. He was costumed like the angel of deadly prose. His innocent wonder was murderous.

Wolfe’s white suit was also a statement of rigor. A white suit is not something easily worn. It suggests control and order. It doesn’t hide a thousand sins; it reveals every dropped crumb. It highlights inattentiveness. Wolfe is said to have been a disciplined writer, one who sat daily at his desk with the goal of producing 10 pages, no matter how long it took. Writing might be an art, but producing a steady output of legendary work is a science. He was the white-coated new journalist: experimenting and researching. He was a clean slate heading into subcultures and reporting back.

The fashion industry owes an enormous debt to Wolfe. Not because his white suit started any trends, but because he saw the way fashion had infected the culture, and he acknowledged its power. He gave us “social X-rays.” He fleshed out what it meant to be a “master of the universe.” His skill was not in characterizing these archetypes with a laundry list of expensive designer brands. He captured their essence, the mind-set and insecurities of a particular class of women and men who fueled the fashion industry during the exalted 1980s and who continue to exert enormous sway over it today. He was the white-coated fashion anthropologist.

Wolfe, in contrast, owed fashion nothing. His white suits were his alone. They were his style, his creation. They were an establishment uniform — recognizable and reassuring — but repurposed to his unsparing specifications.

Washington Post critic Ron Charles explains how Tom Wolfe revolutionized the world of fiction writing. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)