In the Book ‘The Killer Detail,’ Considering the Essence of Chic

Wear a vintage Chanel jacket — with jeans. Wear a little black dress — with flaming red stilettos. Never dress yourself from head to toe in one designer; never wear everything new.

François Armanet and Élisabeth Quin, two of the best-known (and best-dressed) journalists in France, have turned this concept into a photographic and psychological study of the allure of 126 male and female writers, artists, performers and fashion figures of the 20th century.

In a book called “The Killer Detail,” published by Flammarion in both French and English, they focus on the gestures, poses and sartorial choices of the famous through the camera lenses of some of the world’s best-known photographers.

In their view, it is the offbeat, dissonant, original, flamboyant detail that creates the illusion of perfection. Or, as the 19th-century French novelist Stendhal put it, the charming flaw that crystallizes desire.

We see Marlene Dietrich in Paris in 1933, dressed in a tailored pantsuit, an ankle-length overcoat, a shirt, tie and sunglasses; Liz Taylor in a leopard-print one-piece swimsuit; Thelonious Monk in a black beret; Frank Sinatra in a gray fedora with a pearlized satin band.

Jean Cocteau’s there with his shirt cuffs rolled back. So is Jeanne Moreau holding forth with reporters in an upswept hairdo and a little black dress, and John Updike in checked pants and a white polo shirt.

But this is not just a book of beautifully posed photos. Mr. Armanet, a senior editor at the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, and Ms. Quin, the host of her own television show on Arte, have accompanied each photograph with text analyzing the connection between outer appearance and inner spirit.

“The elegance of each character springs not from haute couture, but from individuality: the wonderful flaw, the stylistic rebellion,” Ms. Quin said in an interview. “It’s the unique touch, the dash of creativity that attracts our attention and defines a certain brand of chic, even if it sometimes verges on bad taste.”

Brigitte Bardot graces the cover of the American edition, captured descending steps in the Italian hill town of Spoleto in the summer of 1961. Her blond hairdo is a mix of beehive, bangs and braids; she is wearing cropped polka-dot pants and Repetto flats, her signature shoes.

Fred Astaire loved accessories, and he dances for Bing Crosby in matching star-pattern socks, scarf and belt (a necktie tied around his waist).

The French novelist Marguerite Duras is enthroned on a squat velvet armchair in “an absurd mix-and-match approach to dressing”: platform espadrilles, a black-and-white tweed skirt, a wool shirt in a multicolor plaid, a flat cotton cap and a leopard-print chiffon scarf knotted high at the throat to hide evidence of a tracheotomy. Her look in the 1993 photograph is one of complete control as she stares into the camera of a friend, the photographer Dominique Issermann.

Jackie Onassis walks purposefully on a back street of Capri in 1970 in a photo snapped by her “official” paparazzo, Settimio Garritano. Her sandals were made in the workshop of Amedeo Canfora (she owned a dozen pairs). She is carrying a Gucci bag with a short canvas strap and a Hermès scarf worn low on her forehead like a pirate’s bandanna under Nina Ricci made-to-measure sunglasses perched on her head. Her white pants are ironed, and her T-shirt is black.

“The other way around makes you look like a waiter,” the authors wrote.

The sculptor Louise Bourgeois was clearly having fun with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe when she posed for him in New York at the age of 71. Flashing him a mischievous smile, she is carrying a 24-inch model of a phallus under her arm “as if it were a baguette or a swaddled baby.” Her shaggy black fur coat is ugly — intentionally so, the authors tell us. Bourgeois, “a female monster with a great sense of humor,” looks as “hirsute as if she were living in prehistoric caves.”

Proust, we are told, dressed with care but was not really elegant. He bought his shirts, undershirts, jackets and some of his ties from the fabled Paris shirtmaker Charvet. He wore expensive cattleya orchids from a Rue Royale flower shop in his lapel, and used that flower in his writing as a metaphor for possession, pleasure and female genitalia. The publisher Gaston Gallimard ridiculed his “tightfitting and badly buttoned black clothes.”

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