Sart-oral History

Talese on Tailoring: The Escape Suit

In the first installment of our series spotlighting key pieces from the expansive and eye-catching wardrobe of legendary journalist and author Gay Talese, we focus on the Brioni three-piece that helped him report Thy Neighbor's Wife—and escape to Italy in its aftermath.


[As told to Tyler Thoreson.] The story here is the affinity I have for Brioni, which started in Rome in 1959 [when Talese got married: more on that particular moment in a future installment—Ed.]. This particular suit was not bought in Rome, it was bought at Giorgio in Beverly Hills, which specialized in having Brioni make garments exclusively for Giorgio. I started going in there in the 1970s when I lived in Beverly Hills while I was doing research for Thy Neighbor’s Wife. I bought this suit in 1972. And I love the fabric because it’s appropriate for summer, but it has a body to it, and it has a kind of durability about it. I can testify to the fact that this is a suit of almost 40 years. And it looks like you could’ve bought it last week.

I had a terrible year in 1981. Thy Neighbor’s Wife had come out the year before and it just got killed. I mean, I thought it was a good book, but critics didn’t think it was a good book—they thought it was a terrible book—and moreover it wasn’t just a terrible book, I was a terrible person. Because I explored the sexual world, and explored it, they thought, too intimately.

Many people wrote articles about it: How could I do this to my wife, and I had two young daughters. Thy Neighbor’s Wife was a commercial success but it was a critical disaster, and I lost some friends, actually, because of that book. So in 1981 I just wanted to get out. I was thinking about writing about my tailoring forebears, and I went to Italy and I brought this suit. This picture, which was in Esquire, was taken down the Spanish Steps from the Hotel de la Ville. I had taken an apartment in Rome, and I spent the better part of the next five years in Italy… This suit was my coming out party to a more respectable career in a foreign country.

The suit is amazingly resilient and firm-fibered, showing no signs of wear and tear after more than a quarter-century of traveling with me around the world, including my late-nineties sojourn for five months in Beijing. I also wore it recently in Moscow, where I flew to begin my interviews with Russian-born soporano Marina Poplavskaya, who is the subject of a profile I’m writing now. The suit is adjustable to at least six languages.

What is wonderful about the suit is that you can wear it in the afternoon, and if you’re going somewhere at night you don’t have to change—because of some of the detail, particularly the style of the vest and the long curved lapels, which appeal to me: they’re rather saber-shaped. Also there is the six button arrangement at the base of the garment, designed rather like the vest one sees on a dinner jacket. You can go to a dinner party or to a restaurant and you don’t have to wear a dark suit. It has a kind of acceptability no matter what time of day you’re going to be on display, or what the weather is.

On the pocket square: Every suit has to have one. I must have 75 that I alternate. With this suit I could use yellow, or I could use different shades of red, or magenta, or other colors.

On the appropriate tie: With this outfit I would certainly never wear a tie with any design, not with all of the color and conspicuousness of the shirt. Everything else is rather sober by comparison. It’s about balance. When I wear a tuxedo I have a shirt—of course it’s formal—but it’s got red stripes on it.

On the trousers: I sometimes have cuffs, but usually not. I want a straight line, and I don’t want to call attention to anything except the shoes. The shoes have suede where the eyelets are, and you can see that better. The length of the trousers, the shape of the shoe, and the fact that there’s no cuff—it’s a cleaner look, I think. If there’s break I just tighten ‘em up with the suspenders.

Photo: Courtesy of Gay Talese

In Hong Kong in 1998.

Now the lack of pleats has come into the 21st century. In the 1950s, when I first moved to New York, trousers were without pleats; it was the style, and a holdover from a time when manufacturers, in the interest of cost-cutting, saw no reason to add even the small amount of material that pleats required. But in the more fashion-flamboyant and prosperous ’60s and ’70s, when people traveled more overseas and men’s attire was influenced by the Continental look—Brioni being only one of the leading exponents of it—pleats prevailed.

I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires this month, and I watched many tango-dancing couples perform in sidewalk shows as well as in dinner theaters: It was interesting to note that the men all wore multi-pleated trousers and 1930s-style double-breasted jackets with high-pointed lapels and jagged-edged pocket handkerchiefs. And, of course, their heads were adorned with wide-brimmed fedoras tilted down over their eyebrows, in Al Capone St. Valentine’s Day-massacre mode. It was all very explosive and exuberant, especially when accompanied by that lusty tango music.

I’m talking to you now in the late summer of 2010, and the suit looks every bit as it did when I got it. I’ve changed, but at least I’m still standing, and the suit is standing because of me.

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  2. Felix says:

    that is one amazing looking suit. The only thing I have a little niggle with is the colour, and even then, that niggle isn’t huge.

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