The hair was all 1920s Louise Brooks, only side-swept in a choppy bob that she favored all of her life. It framed large, dark Eastern European eyes that gazed out with some steely determination as Ayn Rand forged a life as a writer and intellectual — with ideas all her own.
However history might judge Rand's appearance — as she was fond of judging others — Rand certainly had her own "look" and she rarely strayed.
"If you tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful, you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty," she once famously said.
Ouch. And yet.
Virginia Postrel, cultural critic, former Reason editor and author of several books including The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, called Rand "very much a woman of her time."
"Her taste and personal style combined modernist design ideals with the movie glamour of the 1920s and '30s. They expressed who she wanted to be and how she wanted the world to be: scientific, strong, streamlined, and modern," Postrel said in an interview with The Atlas Society (TAS).
While many view Rand as an iconoclast, "her ideals of luxury in clothing and interior design are straight out of the costumes and sets of 1930s movies." Postrel said, and these styles showed up on her characters as well. Dagny Taggart, the executive heroine of Atlas Shrugged, notably wore a one-shouldered black evening gown that featured a cape that covered just one arm and shoulder.
"Unfortunately, she had Joan Crawford aspirations and a squat peasant body so, at least from the few photos we have, she couldn’t wear the sorts of clothes she described in her books. But she wore nicely tailored suits, with a cape when she wanted a little drama."
Writing in 2009 for The Daily Beast, journalist Rebecca Dana pointed out that Rand ramped up her fashion quotient during the '40s and '50s as she appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. She showed up to testify in frocks created by Hollywood costumer Adrian, who was then a designer for Hollywood's major film stars.
Rand also knew the importance of being noticed, Dana wrote, pointing out Rand's eccentricities.
"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."
"Ayn Rand was a precursor to both Isabella Blow and normcore." — Diana Middleton
Even as historians note Rand's unusual flair, her influence on fashion can still be felt today, New York City-based fashion critic Diana Middleton believes.
"Ayn Rand had a unique look — shapeless dresses paired with a future-forward haircut and a smattering of wild hats. Somehow, she was a precursor to both Isabella Blow and normcore,” Middleton said. “What's most modern and appealing about her look is the #girlboss aura — she wore clothes that didn't distract from her message or work. That vigor and simplicity is extremely relevant in today's cultural and political climate."
Biographers who have worked to describe Rand's style have not always been complimentary.
“When she came to Hollywood, people remarked that she had no style whatsoever," author Anne C. Heller wrote. "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’s influenced me as a person, and that comes out in my designs.” —Fashion designer Kimberly Orvitz
Heller noted in her Rand biography that Rand was frequently unkempt, did not bathe regularly, often had flyaway hair and also wore stockings with runs.
She was also known to be guided in life by her brother-in-law, Nick Carter, who was gay. His impact on her “look” was substantial, Heller noted. “He [Nick] didn’t flatter her, and he acted as her practical guide in matters of dress and entertaining,” she wrote.
Quoting Rand’s aunt by marriage, Millicent Patton, Heller added that the philosopher had “no clothing style at all.”
“Typically she wore a housedress all day long . . . and went around wiping her hands on it.”
Rand’s evening style, however, was often something more thoughtful, Patton told Heller, noting that Carter intervened when she stepped out in “a small white Dutch hat with a starched peak and a blue netty veil.”
“While Frank tactfully hemmed and hawed at the sight of the whimsical headpiece on the logical head, Nick told her to take it off,” Heller wrote. “He steered her — not always successfully — to simpler, more tailored clothing and a conventional entertaining style. This was important, because she was meeting influential people at political events and cocktail parties and beginning to give dinners.”
Today, several modern-era designers have found muse, not in her fashions per se but in Rand herself, including Shipley & Halmos, who embraced her work, The Fountainhead, in a Fall 2009 ready-to-wear collection. Their invitation to their fashion show carried Rand's line: “Life must be a straight line of motion from goal to
Kimberly Ovitz (right), daughter of Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz, is a fashion designer who also claims Rand has been influential.
“Honestly, it’s a broad inspiration that I get from her,” Ovitz told writer Dana in the same Daily Beast interview, noting that she is a big fan of Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness.
“I don’t design a piece and say, this embodies Ayn Rand,” Ovitz told the Beast. "She’s influenced me as a person, and that comes out in my designs.”
For all of the criticism of her fashion choices, Rand does earn style points for sticking with her look and never wavering. In a way, it was uniforming — much like Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, who clings to her bangs and bob — and an oversize pair of sunglasses. Or like Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, who continues to rock his fabled equestrian-meets-Goth black suitcoat and boots, along with his own menacing pair of dark glasses and gloves. For day. Always gloves.
It might not work on others, but it turns heads and sets them apart, making them culturally iconic. By turn, at least to some degree, so has Rand's — whether we all approve or not.
Rand’s presentation of herself to the world via her style was much like her philosophy as she turned inward for assurance rather than rely on the moving target of fashion itself. That sort of possessed resolution, in hindsight, seems perfectly fitting and another part of her unique persona. Her style was indeed all her own — and she owned it.