Patti Smith Gets Dressed

Grant Cornett

Contributing to the exhibit “Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion,” the singer describes one of her memorable looks.

On September 1, 1975, Robert Mapplethorpe photographed me for the cover of my debut album, Horses. My attire, though carelessly worn, was a deeply conscious choice. Modeling myself after Charles Baudelaire, I elected to wear the uniform of the poet—white shirt and black silk ribbon tie. These threads spoke not of gender but of a blessed affliction, and I had hoped to serve as a spoke of the wheel, wherein the great poet served as hub. With this in mind I stood before Robert, as Baudelaire before Félix Nadar, ready to face the world.

Baudelaire’s coat spoke of him, just as a king’s purple speaks of a king. Baudelaire, at once modern and romantic, encompassed it all. His excitable nature and heightened aesthetic had to be perfectly represented in his apparel. He sketched what he envisioned he should wear and had it made—a blue serge suit with metal buttons like Goethe’s, a black swallowtail coat, silk top hat and waistcoats of black kerseymere, the finest garments with details that he spent long hours conceiving. He went into considerable debt to express himself through his attire, just as had the likes of Mozart and Beau Brummell.

Baudelaire’s choices of fine shirts and black silk cravats were directly lifted from Brummell. Both men had dark ends to their intense time on earth. Both dressed themselves in finery and died in rags. Apart from their tragic ends, both left a powerful legacy: Brummell transformed men’s fashion, giving it new life in the modern world. Baudelaire, the undisputed father of modern poetry, transformed literature. And one can well imagine that, even in their respective poverty, there was something about the way they wore it that distinguished them from other ragged souls.

Adapted from Yale University Press’s catalogue for “Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion,” an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design running through August 18; 224 Benefit St., Providence; risdmuseum.org.