Boys, Queens, and Tough Guys

An interview with Edmund White

What should a couturier wear? It’s a question Edmund White put to me during the course of this interview, and the answer is complicated. While a couturière can wear her own creations, a couturier depends on other designers for his clothes. What should a fashion writer wear? A writer’s concern is stylish sentences, which can’t be worn, alas. What does fashion care for words?

Since he began publishing, in the early 1970s, Edmund White has put out novels, short stories, and all manner of belles lettres. Many are classics: the coming-out novel A Boy’s Own Story, the AIDS-inflected The Beautiful Room Is Empty. His biography of Jean Genet, Genet: A Biography,won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris is White’s most recent work. It’s a memoir of the decade and a half—from the early 1980s to the late 1990s—that he spent in the capital of fashion. During that time he befriended some of the great couturiers of the day. I asked him about them, and about fashion, and about fashion and writing. I asked him for gossip. He obliged me.

—Derek McCormack


THE BELIEVER: How did you dress when you went to Paris?

EDMUND WHITE: I was a Village bohemian who wore jeans with holes in them and leather jackets and T-shirts. In America, it was definitely the Village People look that was considered hot. The hard hat, the jeans and leather vest. I remember David Rieff—he told me that in Paris, just to go to buy a loaf of bread you had to put on a coat and tie, so you better change your ways. I did change my ways. I tried to dress nicely. I had just lost a lot of weight and I could fit into nice clothes.

In America, the only sexy image for men was working-class men. In Europe, businessmen, intellectuals and professors, artists—all those people could be considered sexy. When I came back to New York, there was a very hot gay guy living above me on Lafayette Street. I remember he said, “Oh, my god, you smell like cologne, that’s so revolting; if there’s one thing I hate, it’s cologne on a man.” And I thought, Oh boy, that takes me back. It took me back to the rules for getting into the Mineshaft: no cologne. Everybody was supposed to smell like old sweat. That was supposed to be hot. [Laughter]

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Derek McCormack’s most recent novel is The Show That Smells. His previous novel, The Haunted Hillbilly, was named a best book of the year by both the Globe and Mail and the Village Voice, and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.

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