10.18.09 10:39 PM ET
Ayn Rand Power Dressing
With two new biographies, the mother of Objectivism is so in vogue now that even designers such as Ralph Lauren are finding inspiration in her writing. VIEW OUR GALLERY. Plus, the weirdest celebrity auctions, photos from the red carpet, and more on Sexy Beast.
Ayn Rand—author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, mother of Objectivism, and the conservative movement’s most rapacious cougar—leapt back into popular culture this year as the hero of the Obama-hating far-right.
But it’s not just Glenn Beck and his minions who are drawing inspiration from the writer, who died in 1982. This fall, the dowdy Russian émigré is en vogue with a whole different set: the free-wheeling, Obama-loving, arugula-eating fashion world.
“Honestly, it’s a broad inspiration that I get from her,” said Los Angeles designer Kimberly Ovitz. “I don’t design a piece and say, ‘This embodies Ayn Rand.’ She’s influenced me as a person, and that comes out in my designs.” Ovitz, a Brown graduate and the daughter of CAA-cofounder Michael, discovered Rand three years ago, on the recommendation of a friend. Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness is her favorite work. “ The Fountainhead is about the story. That’s Rand using fiction to get her ideas across. [ Selfishness] just gets right to the point.”
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That point, which has to do with the ruthless pursuit of artistic integrity (among other things), has been a powerful cri de coeur for fashion designers for decades. Even when Rand wasn’t an explicit inspiration, her ideas have been pervasive—especially in the go-go 1980s, the decade of big shoulders and bigger hair that we are now reliving, recession be damned, thanks to recent trend-setting collections from Marc Jacobs, Balmain, and others.
But Rand seems to be on everyone’s bee-stung lips these days.
Designers Shipley & Halmos drew inspiration from Rand’s philosophy for their fall 2009 collection, which they called The Individual as an homage. They quoted The Fountainhead in their show’s invitation (“Life must be a straight line of motion from goal to further goal.”) and sent models marching down a zigzagged runway to emphasize their unwillingness to be swayed. “For anyone in a creative business to read that book, it can only be an incredible sense of inspiration, a sense of empowerment, a sense of purpose,” says Sam Shipley. “That’s kind of what she’s all about.”
Ralph Lauren declared Rand his favorite writer (along with Ernest Hemingway) in a recent interview with Vanity Fair and a host of Indian designers have avowed their admiration as well. One, Ritu Beri, told an Indian newspaper that as of September, she’d read The Fountainhead “almost 50 times.” Another, Krishnu Mehta, also counts the book as her favorite, saying it was “written brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly.” This summer, a photo assistant for Elle urged readers to pick up a copy of Rand’s Anthem, a dystopian novella written from the perspective of fictional narrator “Equality 7-2521,” a citizen in some future socialist hellscape. “It’s a short read,” she wrote, “perfect for an end-of-summer day at the beach exercising your free will.”
Rand herself was never much of a dresser. She was raised in a bourgeois Russian household and escaped to the United States during the Russian Revolution, eventually making her way to Los Angeles in 1926, where she immediately endeared herself to director Cecile B. DeMille. “When she came to Hollywood, people remarked that she had no style whatsoever,” says Anne C. Heller, the author of the forthcoming biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made. “All her life, when left to her own devices, she tended to wear shapeless garments for days on end. She was between 5’ and 5’2” and stocky and didn’t wear clothes terribly well. She loved her legs, though. She loved to wear high heels.”
For three years, Rand worked in the costume department for the film studio RKO and hated every minute of it, says Heller, who used to be an editor at Esquire, Redbook, and Self, and who helped develop the shopping magazine Lucky during a stint at Conde Nast. On the cover of Heller’s book (and of another forthcoming biography, Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right), the notoriously antisocial Hollywood anti-socialist is pictured wearing her typical uniform: a black wool shift with a gold dollar-sign brooch.
It was only in the 1940s and 1950s, especially during Rand’s expansive testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee during Hollywood’s communist purges, that she allowed herself the luxury of couture. Rand arrived to testify each day in elaborate suits designed by famous costumer Adrian, who dressed Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and other stars in the MGM galaxy, and designed the costumes for many hit films, including The Wizard of Oz. (His ruby slippers are now in the Smithsonian.) Rand had a habit of appearing in Adrian clothes at odd times, once wearing a silk and velvet dress embossed with astrological signs, with a 12-inch fan-shaped train, to dinner with another couple. “She was extreme,” Heller says. “On the one hand, her husband was always upbraiding her for her stockings that had runs and her hair that was never washed or combed. On the other hand, she loved to dress up.”
Rand kept her distance from the fashion and design community, although Heller does see some of her spirit in the bold shoulders and extravagant clothing in the 1940s, when Rand was at the peak of her fame. There are also undeniable hints of Objectivism in fashions that celebrated the profligacy of the 1980s and of the pre-bust 2000s. This fall, Ralph Lauren showed a collection that looked like the wardrobe trailer for the long-awaited film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, which is scheduled for filming next year. There were windswept ball gowns and broad-brimmed hats perfect for railroad executive Dagny Taggart—and some elaborate menswear for women, the sort of thing Gordon Gekko would have admired. (Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, and Anne Hathaway have all been mentioned for the Taggart role, although the project is still in an early stage of development.)
In the meantime, Rand fans have taken to the Internet, imagining outfits for their leader and her characters on sites like Polyvore, a social network for the fashion set. In one outfit, designed for Fountainhead heroine Dominique Francon, creator “princess70xox” pairs $404 Christian Louboutin satin ballet flats with a silky ivory-colored $207 Gareth Pugh dress. She cites as her inspiration a passage in the book: “She wore a white silk dress with long sleeves... a nun's garment that acquired the startling effect of an evening gown only by being so flagrantly unsuited to that purpose. She wore no jewelry.” Commenters voiced enthusiastic approval. Wrote one: “So earnest. I love the sincerity. I used to have those Louboutins, but that was quite a few seasons ago. This set is divine.”
For their part, the fashion set isn’t paying too close attention to Rand’s other fans—the ones talking about “going Galt” and hoisting copies of Atlas Shrugged at anti-Obama tea parties.
“People can interpret something any way they want, and they certainly do in the land of politics,” says Shipley, who plans to re-read Atlas Shrugged during a vacation to Mexico over Christmas. “The message of [Rand’s] writings is a message that can be shared by both political parties. And I wish they would share it maybe because it would bring people together.”
Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.