Part author, part star, 100-percent cult figure. At the age of 70, Fran Lebowitz, the heroine of Martin Scorsese’s recent Netflix series Pretend It’s a City, proves that wit and good clothes can take you far in life.
By Marc Beaugé.
Article originally published in L'Étiquette issue 6.
Her press officer warned us. “Fran has no mobile phone, no email. If you want to talk to her, you have to call her on her landline at a specific time. She’s expecting your call, so don’t be late. And let it ring long enough for her to get to the phone; it may take a while, but she always picks up in the end.” Sure enough, Fran Lebowitz answers on the eighth ring, her voice clear and cheerful. “Ah, you’re calling from a landline, I can tell. That’s good. I don’t like talking to people who call from a cellphone – you can’t hear a thing.”
Lebowitz doesn’t really have a job, but that doesn’t stop her from occupying a special place in American culture. Invited on TV shows, interviewed in magazines, quoted at dinner parties, she talks about everything and nothing with precision, elegance, intelligence – and, of course, a good dose of malice. She has the rare talent of being able to study con- temporary life and comment on it with the sort of observations we all wish we had come up with ourselves. A frustrated writer famous for her decades-long writer’s block, Lebowitz has recently been elevated to star status thanks to the Netflix series Pretend It’s a City, directed by her friend Martin Scorsese. She leads an unusual life, shaped in large part by her instinctive panache and attitude. Naturally, style is an important subject for her. Timeless, unswayed by fashion yet totally obsessive about style, Lebowitz has very strong views about what she wears – and about what we all wear.
L’ÉTIQUETTE. Can you tell us how you’re dressed right now?
FRAN LEBOWITZ. Okay, straight to the point. So, as you know, we’re in a pandemic, so I don’t get out of my house much, except to eat, because I hate eating at home and refuse to spend time in the kitchen. But anyway. No, I don’t slouch around in my pajamas. Nor do I wear indoor leisurewear or yoga pants, like everyone does these days. I’m just wearing a really old pair of Levi’s, which I must admit are a bit torn at the knees. I’ve also got on a white shirt with a button-down collar. And on my feet, I’m wearing an old pair of boots.
É. You wear boots in the house?
F.L. I always wear my boots.
É. What kind of boots are they?
F.L. Cowboy boots. This is my oldest pair, my very first. These boots must be about 40 years old; they’re literally falling apart, patched up all over. It took me a long time to find the right design and, especially, to find the right person to make them. Because people who make good cowboy boots aren’t based in New York, for obvious economic reasons. So I looked around and I went there, to where the cowboys are – but I won’t tell you exactly where I went – to have a pair made. It cost me a fortune. Really a fortune. But, 40 years later, they’re still hanging in there.
É. What do they look like?
F.L. The most important thing is the toe, of course. I don’t like a square toe, even less a pointed one. The toe’s quite rounded, with a floral pattern. Straight heel. They come up to mid-calf. I designed them myself with the bootmaker, based on a model from the 1930s I’d seen in a book. Now I’ve got four identical pairs. A recent pair, two well-worn pairs, and this completely dead pair, which I save for rainy days – it’s supposed to rain today. And even though I probably won’t get out of the house, it counts as a rainy day.
É. Have you always worn boots?
F.L. No, I only started wearing them when I was 30. I had a bad ankle then, which was very painful, and the doctor advised me to wear footwear that supports the ankle – so, boots. I soon realized it was a good way to gain a few inches, and I stopped wearing anything else. But when I was a kid, like everyone else in the States, I wore loafers, from Bass, of course, or from a brand that doesn’t exist anymore, Old Maine Trotters.
É. Were you already into clothes then?
F.L. Well, I could see that it was important. For my parents, it was almost an obsession. My mother, Ruth, never went out without gloves on, and I’ve never been able to wear them because of that. She was very well-groomed and tried hard to make sure my sister and I were, too. We had to look good to the outside world for the family image. At the public school we went to, there was no uniform, unlike private schools. But there was a dress code; we had to wear skirts. My mother always put a lot of care into preparing them nicely for us, and every evening, without fail, we’d come home a mess, covered in mud. It caused arguments every day.
É. And was your father, Harold, an elegant man?
F.L. Very elegant. He had Czech roots, which gave him a somewhat distinguished air. He was tall and thin. Like my grandfather, he was a truly refined man. During the week, he ran our upholstery and furniture store, and he would never have gone to work without a hat. When he was gardening on the weekends, he would take off his shirt and work in his under-shirt and suit trousers. Nowadays, a man who wears a suit is a dandy, even if the suit’s horrible, and he’s wearing a down vest under the jacket, but that’s the way it was back then: men wore suits. I don’t think I ever saw my father in jeans. He hated them. If he knew what we’ve become... poor guy. I can’t deny that it was my generation that created this disaster. Before us, jeans were only for teenagers and workers, or on building sites. Once you became an adult or finished building your house, you stopped wearing them forever. Not us, no, we started wearing them all the time, all our lives. Especially me. And I sincerely apologize for that.
É. While we’re on the subject, what kind of jeans do you wear?
F.L. I’ve always worn 501s, because that’s the only style that suits me. For years, it was all very straightforward. You’d go into a store and get your 501s. The size never changed, and the fit never changed. Everything was made in the United States. And then, sometime in the mid-1970s, Levi’s decided to change something that worked well and start doing something else that wasn’t as good. They started getting jeans made overseas, and it all turned into a big mess. Prices were cheaper, sure, but I couldn’t find my jeans anymore. I remember being interviewed on the radio at the time, while I was in San Francisco. I don’t know what I’d done to warrant an interview... Anyway, I called out the boss of Levi’s to give me back my 501s. At the time, there was another problem. I also really liked the corduroy 501s, and Levi’s had changed their material from 100% cotton to polycotton. So nothing was right. The funny thing is that the president of Levi’s called me right away. He’d found my hotel. He asked me what he could do to help. I told him that I’d need about 50 pairs to see me through my lifetime – I’d done a quick calculation. Unfortunately, I never heard from him again after that.
É. Are there any other brands that let you down like that over the years?
F.L. I know they’re in pretty bad shape, and I hate to slam them every time I’m asked about clothes, but I have to mention the Brooks Brothers scandal. Twenty years ago, they stopped making the US-made cotton button-down shirt that I loved. Just like that, without warning, they stopped making the shirt they’d been making for a million years. If they’d warned me, I would have bought a lifetime supply. When a garment becomes a public good, the brand has a responsibility. The government ought to be able to intervene in situations like that. Now I buy my shirts at Hilditch & Key, in Paris or London. Strangely enough, they have no stores in New York, but I always manage to get people to bring them back for me. I just get them shortened so they don’t hang down too much, but I’m not particularly picky about shirts. I’ve never had shirts made to measure, for example. I’m much more particular about suits and blazers.
É. Tell us about them.
F.L. The first time I went to Anderson & Sheppard in London was about 20 years ago, and at first they refused to make me a suit because they didn’t make suits for women. The only exception they’d made, in their entire history, was a suit for Marlene Dietrich. But I kept insisting, and eventually they agreed. I had my heart set on a tuxedo [Lebowitz is wearing that very tuxedo in the photo at the beginning of this article] because you couldn’t find one for a woman in ready-to-wear, and I needed one to go out. So the first fitting began, and I sensed that the tailor wasn’t very comfortable. He was a gentleman, very distinguished and meticulous, as you might imagine. He didn’t dare touch me so as not to offend me. But at some point, you have to be brave enough; other- wise you just can’t make a good suit. So I said to him, “Well, John – his name was John – you’re going to have to go for it, otherwise this just won’t work.” So he did, just a little, really only with the very tips of his fingers. I could tell it wasn’t his thing. But the result was wonderful. I still wear that tux a lot. At one time, I might even have worn that jacket two or three times a week.
É. Were the buttons on the men’s or women’s side? [On women’s jackets, the buttons are on the left; on men’s, on the right.]
F.L. On the men’s side, of course. I insisted on that, it’s important.
É. Two or three buttons?
F.L. Three buttons, sir.
É. Do you have many suits and jackets made by them?
F.L. I have more than I need, certainly. And more than I can afford, that’s for sure. Plus, they’re coming to New York now, so I don’t even have to travel anymore. From a financial point of view, it’s a real problem. On the one hand, I’m not interested in money at all, and I don’t have a clue about saving. And on the other hand, I’m very materialistic. I like beautiful things. I’m irresistibly drawn to them. When I go into a store, any store, my taste always leads me to the most expensive thing, even when I know nothing about it. It really is the worst combination. Sometimes I think it would be easier to have bad taste. Or to have lots of money.
É. Have you ever made a mistake ordering a jacket or suit?
F.L. I had a tweed suit made that I never wear because it’s much too hot. But it’s not a big deal. I take risks. When I’m drawn to a garment but wonder if it’s a bit too much, I always say to myself: “Don’t worry, Fran, people aren’t looking at you.” I look at other people a lot, more than they look at me. So I usually go for it. One day, at Anderson’s, I was looking at fabrics, and a pattern with wide green and blue stripes caught my eye, with sort of a boating feel to it. I thought “not bad,” but I saw that they were making a face: “No, no, don’t do that, you’ll regret it.” Well... We did it anyway, and it’s turned out to be one of my favorite jackets. Same with a pistachio-green jacket. They didn’t want to make it for me, but I love that jacket.
É. You’ve been wearing the same uniform now for years – jeans, shirt and blazer. Isn’t it frustrating sometimes to always dress the same way?
F.L. No, because I don’t think I dress the same way every day at all. When I change my shirt or jacket, it’s not the same. And when I change my cufflinks – I love cufflinks and have tons of them – I feel like it’s a whole new outfit. If you think I dress the same every day, you’re really not looking very closely.
É. Have you ever been tempted to wear very feminine dresses?
F.L. If it ever happened, frankly, I don’t care to remember it.
É. You did have quite a lengthy Shetland sweater phase.
F.L. Yes, but it wasn’t very feminine, was it?
É. No, not really.
F.L. I really had a lot of them at one time. May- be 50 or so. Between the ages of 20 and 30, I wore them almost every day, even in the summer, with jeans and a shirt underneath. When I come across old interviews with me on TV – by accident of course; I don’t play them back – I’m always wearing one.
É. Why did you stop wearing them?
F.L. At one point, I thought I was too old to wear them. I thought it looked childish, and I gave away my entire collection.
É. I heard that you introduced Martin Scorsese to bespoke tailoring.
F.L. No, not bespoke tailoring. Marty loves clothes and knows what they’re about. But I took him to Anderson & Sheppard. He asked me to. One day I was wearing one of their seer- sucker jackets, and he fixated on it. I told him where it came from, and since then he regularly gets clothes from them. When we are going to meet up, we call each other first to make sure we don’t show up dressed the same way.
É. Do you think New York is a well-dressed city?
F.L. Honestly, it was for a long time. Up until about 20 years ago, I’d say. We had this very serious thing going on, a bit snobbish, which meant that we’d never let clothes make us look ridiculous. Everyone dressed in dark colors, that was the rule. And then we got caught up in modern life and this desire for comfort. There’s an outfit for everything now. When you go cycling, you have a special outfit. When it’s cold, you put on something that looks like a ski suit. I’m not against progress, just the opposite. I’m surprised, though, that young people today are constantly rehashing clothes from the past and making versions that aren’t as good. I’d like them to be more inventive when it comes to clothes, but I don’t understand why we should give up any form of elegance. Be comfortable, sure. But you can also make an effort. I’m always amazed at how many men in shorts you see in New York in the summer. I could never have imagined that I’d see so many men wearing shorts in town. It’s the social revolution of the last 30 years, as far as I’m concerned.
É. Still, there are some nice shorts.
F.L. [Laughs] Don’t get me wrong: the problem isn’t the shorts, it’s the legs. I think every man should ask himself a few questions when he puts on shorts. Do my legs deserve to be seen? Could I be a leg model? If the answer is no, then on with the pants. It’s not fair. There are some very beautiful people – not many, but they do exist – who can wear absolutely anything at all. A scruffy T-shirt, an oversize jumper, dirty hair – they always get away with it. The problem is that they give the impression to the rest of us, the not-so-good-looking people, that we can let ourselves go as well when, in fact, we can’t at all. You have to make an effort.
É. Do you have any hang-ups?
F.L. Well, I know I have to make an effort. I dress properly, and I treat my clothes with respect. When I get home, I hang up my coat and jacket, I change my shirt. Once a week, I shine my shoes. I put my cufflinks in a box. I wash my jeans. I avoid dry cleaners because I don’t trust them. I don’t know what goes on there. The expression “dry cleaning” doesn’t sound quite right to me, so I make sure I steer clear of dry cleaners. If I really have to, I’ll go to the best in town. It’s annoying, isn’t it?
É. But why is it so important to be well-dressed?
F.L. [Laughs] Because.