9 Outfits in J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, Ranked
Some writers speak the language of clothes, and some do not. J.D. Salinger speaks it fluently. Clothes, in Salinger, are used to define character, to move the plot along, to add depth and weight to a scene. He cares more than almost any other writer that I can think of. I would go so far as to say that he is obsessed. He has a thing about coats, and about women’s party dresses, and hats. The man loves a hat. He loves a precise description of a pair of pants, and he will always tell you when a character is not wearing shoes. He knows that this stuff counts.
Compiling this list was hard, because there are so many good outfits in his work as a whole (Franny Glass’s coat in Franny and Zooey, the bride’s father’s uncle’s silk hat in Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, Holden Caulfield’s red hunting hat, of course, everything that is going on with Bessie Glass), so I limited myself to the nine best outfits in the Nine Stories. Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes is disqualified because for some reason there is not a single solid description of what anyone is wearing. This is probably one of the main reasons why it is easily my worst story in the collection.
This list is subjective, and determined by how I feel about the stories themselves. It is also correct.
- John Smith’s dinner suit in De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period
There is not a whole lot to say about John Smith’s dinner suit, except that he wears it when he decides to get drunk for the first time, and “feels compelled to dress for the tragic occasion.” I will freely admit that I do not exactly know what a dinner suit is, or why it is important, and I don’t care enough to look it up.
- Eloise’s cardigan in Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.
Eloise has married the wrong man, and she is stuck in the suburbs with a kid who gets on her nerves, and she is bored to absolute tears. She is also in love with a dead person, Walt Glass, the only boy she ever knew who could really make her laugh. Over the course of the story, Eloise and her old college roommate get drunker and drunker, and sadder and sadder, and Eloise remembers how happy she used to be with Walt. She remembers sitting on a train with him, just wildly in love, wearing a borrowed blue cardigan, having the time of her life. The borrowed blue cardigan is the thing she was wearing when she was happiest, and now she is sad, and the whole thing is just brutal.
- Lionel Tannenbaum’s entire situation in Down at the Dinghy
This is such a good one. Check out Lionel, son of Boo Boo, in his “khaki-colored shorts and a clean, white T-shirt with a dye picture, across the chest, of Jerome the Ostrich playing the violin.” Jerome the Ostrich! Who is that? Who is this four year old kid wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon ostrich playing a violin on it? The best kid ever, that’s who. I wish I had that t-shirt so hard.
- Ginnie Mannox’s camel-hair coat in Just Before the War With the Eskimos
Salinger really does have a thing about coats, and Ginnie’s is a good one. It is a polo coat (like the dinner suit, I do not exactly know what this is), and it is camel-hair, and that’s all great, but the important thing about Ginnie’s coat is the pockets. A boy she is crushing on gives her half a chicken sandwich, which she does not want to eat (no one in Salinger ever wants to eat), but she likes him, so she puts it in her pocket. Just a girl walking around with half a chicken sandwich in the pocket of her polo coat, crushing on a boy.
- Esme’s Campbell tartan dress in For Esme with Love and Squalor
This is probably the most iconic outfit in the whole collection, and should probably be higher up the list. I don’t really like this story though (too adorable), or the narrator (too thrilled with himself), or Esme herself, really, so she stays at number 4. Sorry Esme. It’s a good dress, though: “a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day.” I must also mention Esme’s incredible little brother, Charles (who writes a letter to the narrator that goes HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO LOVE AND KISSES CHARLES), and his spot-on outfit: “brown Shetland shorts, a navy-blue jersey, white shirt, and striped necktie.” You the best, Charles.
- Teddy’s handsome alligator belt in Teddy
Everything that Teddy is wearing, really: “extremely dirty, white ankle-sneakers, no socks, seersucker shorts that were both too long for him and at least a size too large in the seat, an overly laundered t-shirt that had a hole the size of a dime in the right shoulder, and an incongruously handsome black alligator belt.” Teddy kills me, with his rubbish parents and his desperate need of a haircut and his ridiculous belt. Not to ruin any surprises or anything, but this story ends very badly, and the minute you see Teddy in that belt, you know that he is done for. You just do. The saddest belt in the world, for the sweetest boy.
- Seymour’s terry-cloth robe in A Perfect Day for Bananafish
Seymour. In his terry-cloth robe, lying on the beach, breaking my heart. There is a lot of talk about clothes at the beginning of this story: the telephone conversation between Seymour’s terrible wife and her terrible mother mostly consists of them energetically criticizing what other people are wearing, but the first important item of clothing is Seymour’s terry-cloth robe. It is the first robust signal that he is Not Like Other People, and again, not to ruin any surprises, but it is a fairly telling sign that things are not going to end too well for old Seymour Glass. He is too different, and too out of place, too weird for this world in his terry-cloth robe and his bare feet. Special mention must go, of course, to tiny Sybil’s canary yellow bathing suit, which Seymour tells her is blue. She looks down at him and says ‘This is a yellow,” and he tells her she is right, and they go for this great swim, and you wish it would just end there, with Sybil and Seymour having a cool time in the sea, but it emphatically does not. Seymour.
- Mary Hudson’s catcher’s mitt in The Laughing Man
Mary Hudson is a legend. There are a lot of cool girls in these stories, but Mary Hudson owns them all. You meet her first in a photograph, stuck above rear-view mirror of the windshield of a condemned-looking bus, wearing an academic gown. Then, in a beaver coat (again, no real idea what this is but it sounds powerful) stepping onto that same bus. She is a babe, Mary Hudson (the narrator describes her as having “unclassifiably great beauty”), but that’s not the point of her. The point of her is that she is a real sport, ready for anything. She plays baseball in a catcher’s mitt and a beaver coat, and she is very good at it, and every last boy in that story is madly in love with her. Mary Lennox doesn’t care, though. She just grooves around in her beaver coat and her catcher’s mitt, an inspiration to us all.
This post was originally published in December 2016.