Top Ten most stylish women in books according to Anna Godbersen

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Anna Godbersen, author of Luxe, and her equally glamorous new book, Bright Young Things, takes us through the most fashionable women in writing.Take a look...

1. Lily Bart, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. The original New York girl, Lily, brought low by overspending on bad little habits like cigarettes, gambling and new clothes. She's beautiful, sophisticated and sharp, and then there's that scene where her instincts for the finer points of dress are put to spellbinding use as she recreates Sir Joshua Reynold's painting Mrs Lloyd. Unfortunately, these skills ultimately let her down, when she loses her job as a hat-maker because of her poor workmanship. Poor Lily.

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2. Holly Golightly, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Another New York girl walking that fine line between fabulosity and delusion. When Fred the narrator sees her, she's wearing oversized sunglasses and an LBD; later on, knowing she must read the kind of devastating letter that would send a lesser girl running for the tissues and Haagen Dazs, she demands her purse and utters the line: "A girl doesn't read this sort of thing without her lipstick."

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3.. Cleopatra, Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. It takes a legend to do glamour this big. A friend of her lover famously describes her opulent appearance thusly: "The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne/Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold/Purple the sails, and so perfumed that/The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver..." etc.

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4. Madame Merle, Henry James' The Portrait of the Lady. Isabel Archer may be the heroine, and she surely has plenty of nice things herself, but here as so often the stylishness really belongs to the slippery, mysterious villain. "She was, in a word," (using nine), "a woman of ardent impulses, kept in admirable order." The controlled and fashionable Madame Merle knows that dark secrets require a meticulously maintained facade; she says, "I know that a large part of myself is in the dresses I choose to wear."

 

5. Maria Wyeth, Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays. Sometimes the coolest girl in the room is the one in the middle of breaking down, and no one does breakdowns like Los Angeles-era Joan Didion. Let's not forget, style is about more than the clothes you put on, and though Maria has been a model, starred in a few "pictures," is married to/estranged from a bad boy director who lives on the "the Coast," what is so unforgettably stylish about her has nothing to do with her (surely unbelievable) 1960s wardrobe.

6. Jadine Childs, Toni Morrison's Tar Baby. The heroine of Morrison's novel of love complicated by race is a model too - a Sorbonne-educated one with Vogue clippings and an un-p.c. moniker, "the copper Venus." Plus she has a sexy scene with a sealskin coat. She's always represented New York cool because of a passage where she giddily imagines all the things she and her boyfriend will do in the city from the back of a luggage-filled taxi cab: "They would fall out of Max's Kansas City at 4a.m.; they would promenade Third Avenue from the 50s to Soho; they would fight landlords and drink coffee in the Village..."

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7. Cecilia Tallis, Ian McEwan's Atonement. This book contains perhaps the best ever scene that depicts a woman getting dressed for a party (and written by a man, no less); it is missing none of the neuroses and glamour and larger emotional implications that such a moment can contain: "Above all she wanted to look as though she had not given the matter a moment's thought, and that would take time." As the story moves alongs, McEwan uses the dress, "a figure hugging dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck," that Cecilia dismisses, and then ultimately settles upon to such striking and unforgettable and tragic effect.

 

8 Lady Brett Ashley, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. She's one of the boys, a hard drinking broad, but also, ahem, A Lady. I don't think anything needs to be added to Jake Barne's simple, vivid description: "Brett was damn good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy's.... She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with wool jersey." Sugarscapers, do we want to be her, or do we want to make out with her?

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9. Isabel Bradley, W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Isabel is a mid-western beauty who transforms into a svelte, Parisian sophisticate. In the years after she becomes a wife and mother; she is the niece of an eminent tastemaker, and she herself knows a great deal about style. However, she harbors feelings for an earlier love, and later in the book, she uses her knowledge of how to dress, ingeniously, to ward off a rival for his affections - it's hardly moral, but fashion never really is, and anyway, her manoeuvre is enough to get her on the list.

10. Myrtle Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Daisy is probably the chicest character in The Great Gatsby but my vote goes to the ill-starred Mrs. Myrtle Wilson, even if she is a little short on class, because, having changed into an "elaborate afternoon dress of cream coloured chiffon" for a little party, and subsequently received a compliment, she actually says the immortal line: "It's just a crazy old thing... I just slip it on sometimes when i don't care what I look like."

 

Has Amanda missed out on of your faves? Who's got an awesome style in books? 

Bright Young Things is out now. Click here to buy your copy from the Sugarscape bookshop.

Comments please!

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