Katie Tobin

Unpacking our enduring obsession with poets’ style

Poets in Vogue at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, 17th February – 10th September 2023.

Repeat Patterns: Poetry and Fashion as part of Poetry International Festival at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, 22nd July 2023.


In 1967, the audience of the Southbank Centre’s first Poetry International Festival were reportedly horrified when Anne Sexton, donning a scarlet dress, blew them a kiss. For Sexton – who was already widely criticised as a sensationalist – the incident cemented her status as one of poetry’s most audacious performers. Although she stood accused of ‘excessive self-revelation’ by the New York Times, the poet continued to defy her critics and wore the dress for countless readings afterwards. Today, her carefully constructed performance – an amalgam of unashamedly confessional writing and outlandish clothing – stands as a testament to her legacy as a poet. Fashion, in Sexton’s case, is armour; her dress and kiss blowing, an act of defiance. 

A replica of the dress currently stands on display at the Southbank’s Poets in Vogue exhibition, curated by academics Sophie Oliver and Sarah Parker and expert costume maker and mounter Gesa Werner. ‘It’s always seemed to me strange, but also explainable through misogyny, that the idea of thinking about dress… somehow undermines the serious business of literature and poetry,’ Parker tells Rosalind Jana in Vogue, dismissing ‘the idea that it’s trivial, and that it’s not tapping into serious questions about race, sexuality, gender, class and identity’. It’s here that the exhibition asks viewers to abandon any preconceptions they may have about the frivolity of fashion – or its limitation as just aesthetic form. 

Anne Sexton’s Red Reading Dress: A Recreation. Polyester interlock jersey. Photo by Arnaud Mbaki.

Unveiling the importance of fashion as a form of ‘embodied practice’ within poetics, Poets in Vogue carefully walks the line between presenting the garments as an important stylistic choice without diminishing the achievements of their owners. Sexton’s dress stands alongside a number of other carefully reconstructed garments by Werner; a veil worn by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in Aveugle Voix (1975), Stevie Smith’s collars, a gown worn by Edith Sitwell while performing as Lady Macbeth, a vivid imagining of the zoot suit from Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith’, and a kaftan closely based on a garment in the Audre Lorde Collection. These items have been placed alongside a curated selection of poems, photos and recordings, and on loan from feminist rare bookshop, The Second Shelf, Sylvia Plath’s tartan skirt is the exhibition’s only original artefact.

Dress/Theatre: Amplified Interpretation of Edith Sitwell’s Gown. Mixed fabrics (polyester brocade, velvet, silk, felt), wood, metal, glass. Based on a gown worn for the role of Lady Macbeth, performed by Sitwell at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950 and photographed by George Platt Lynes. Photo by Arnaud Mbaki.

For Poets in Vogue, Plath – whose obsession with style lingers throughout her work – serves as a useful figure to unpack the complex relationship between poetry and clothes. Her writing career began at Mademoiselle, a primarily fashion-oriented publication that occasionally published short stories, including those of Truman Capote, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, and Flannery O’Connor to name but a few. Her 1952 short story, ‘Sunday at the Mintons’, was selected for first prize and publication in the magazine. Her stint as a guest editor for Mademoiselle in 1953 inspired much of The Bell Jar, in which protagonist Esther Greenwood similarly takes on a summer internship at a women’s magazine. Throughout her journals, Plath’s obsession with fashion as a transformative tool also looms large, where clothing was not only a signifier of elevated social and economic status but also of her desirability: ‘I want to be silverly beautiful for him,’ she writes, ‘a sylvan goddess.’ 

Since her death, however, Plath’s synonymy with tragedy has necessitated an intervention into her aesthetic legacy. A 2017 Spanish edition of Glamour, as one example, published a Plath style guide featuring clothes and jewellery the poet might have worn, and a gas oven. Elsewhere, The Bell Jar’s fig tree passage has similarly taken on an unruly life of its own online, misinterpreted and misappropriated to further Plath’s tragic image. Plath was many things – and many of them contradictory unto themselves – but her profound ability to capture the depths of the human experience remains pivotal to understanding her work. The skirt on display at Poets in Vogue captures that very essence, returning the focus of Plath’s influence to her humanity and her craft. 

Skirt owned and worn by Sylvia Plath, c. 1956. Tartan plaid, on loan from The Second Shelf, a feminist rare bookshop. Photo by Pete Woodhead.

Women’s experiences are not a monolith, as Plath shows us, and neither is beauty. The asymmetrical tunic on display is inspired by Lorde, whose right breast was removed following a cancer diagnosis in 1978. She chose ultimately to not wear a prosthetic in a radical move for her time, instead opting for clothes that accentuated ‘the changed planes of [her] own body’ and her identity as a queer Black woman. At Poets in Vogue, the kaftan testifies fashion’s liberatory potential to rewrite beauty standards, and more widely, what it means to be a woman. 

Asymmetrically printed caftan, after Audre Lorde Silk. Recreation closely based on garment in the Audre Lorde Collection, Spelman College Archives, Atlanta. Photo by Pete Woodhead.

The exhibition, while powerful in its own right, is by no means the final say on which poets’ style matter most. Notably absent from the collection is the vast cohort of male poets whose stylistic sensibilities still inspire today; Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsburg, and John Cooper Clarke to name but a few. At this year’s Poetry International event, Repeat Patterns: Poetry and Fashion, Parker conscientiously addresses this question during a Q&A with the audience, noting that whittling down the selection was a near-impossible task. She does, however, crucially note that the collection is far from the finished product of this important inquiry, urging us to instead think of Poets in Vogue as simply the ‘beginning’. As Jana writes, ‘the reciprocal relationship between fashion and poetry can help to illuminate both forms of craft further’. And it’s only by understanding the fabric of these poets’ everyday lives that we can truly begin to comprehend the playful interactivity between form and structure, text and textile, and where they may take us all next. 

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