What is the marrow in your bones? Ask yourself this. While you’re at it, ask someone else, too. Call your friends, your acquaintances, anyone you find interesting, and write down all their answers. Such was the process behind the new book by Beatrix Ost, The Philosopher’s Style. Blurring the line between the everyday and the extraordinary, it provides a kaleidoscope of unconventional wisdom, all gathered from that single question.
Ost is many things: author, actor, entrepreneur, fashion designer, theatre producer, Buddhist, style icon. Her idiosyncratic fashion sensibilities have landed her on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, in the editorials of Harper’s Bazaar, and as a regular on the popular blog Advanced Style, which features confident and sharply dressed women of a certain age. If you’ve seen her walking around Charlottesville, you’d definitely remember it.
Ost grew up in Germany in surreal post-war times and her accent still looms heavily. “I was the way youngest and I was a little bit forgotten in an after-war environment.” Before she became a walking work of art, before the butterfly emerged from the chrysalis, she was a rather unassuming girl. “My sister was the beauty and I was the brains. She was always riding around on a horse or something.” While Ost may have lacked her sister’s raw beauty, she did have a bubbling creative streak. Determined not to be overlooked, she would entertain her father through spontaneous one-act plays and improvised songs about her day. As she explained, “He was a Schopenhauer pessimist and I made him laugh.”
From there, the ball kept rolling. “When I was fourteen, I would make money modeling,” Ost recalled. After school, she would bring home a wad of cash from her efforts and fan it in front of her father. “He would say, ‘There you go, how clever you are. You got the brains. Nobody would pay anybody for a photo, but they pay you.’” She paused, then added, “But I was never called pretty, it was always something else.” Looking through the photos in The Philosopher’s Style, you can sense a sort of magnetism, a mystery, that extra glint in the eye. Today, Ost has nearly 45,000 followers on Instagram.
“At my father’s request, I studied Latin so I could be a doctor, but I was more interested in psychology.” Her interest in others is the driving force behind The Philosopher's Style. Two years ago, Ost was approached to produce a fashion book, but she refused. “I didn’t want to do a book on style, wanted to do a book on philosophy.” But when you’ve been repeatedly described as a style icon, why not write a book about fashion? She explained, “I can’t take it so serious. I have to write about something which grows here,” she said as she pointed to her chest, “and goes out. What I wear is just that kind of wonderful shell.”
The original publisher wasn’t sold on her vision and passed. It was Valentina Ilardi Martin, Editor-In-Chief of Grey Magazine, who later saw its merit, allowing her to move forward with the project. Despite her years as an influencer and despite her carefully curated collection of clothes, Ost asserts that she’s not the most equipped to write about fashion. “I’m not interested in the height of shoes, or the length of a skirt, or the color of a season,” she said. “It’s not about who you’re wearing, but what you like on your body.” As documented in her book, that can mean a hairless cat perched on the shoulder coupled with an ornate bird’s nest headdress, among other things.
“I have to write about something which grows here,” she said as she pointed to her chest, “and goes out. What I wear is just that kind of wonderful shell.”
Ost is constantly writing. Her writing career began unpredictably, as many things do with her. “I had no idea I could write and I wrote a 350-page historical book about life after the war.” She added, “I found Father’s letter to Mother and had to write it for my sons.” The Philosopher’s Style is filled with her stories, poems, and “interesting little observations.” Each piece was written in the two years since the book’s commissioning. When it came to organizing this anthology, she simply handed over boxes of material to her publisher and left it at that.
In addition to her stories and little aphorisms, Ost provides 40 carefully selected interviews with people from her life. Some are friends, some are acquaintances, some are cold calls. “I’d call and say, ‘I’ll only ask you one question.’” By the end of nearly 100 conversations, she had interviewed an award-winning chef, an Iraqi war veteran with missing limbs, a street preacher, a leather daddy, her gardener, and a transgender professor turned race car driver. She was even able to exchange words with the elusive Brandon Stanton, creator of the popular Humans of New York photography blog. “He’s very sweet. He was so intense. He was almost crawling into my lap,” she joked.
Each interview would begin with the same question: “What is the marrow in your bones?” Some more intellectual types had trouble over-thinking the question and didn’t quite know how to respond. Others, like the superintendent of her New York apartment building, just got it. Originally from Malta, he answered immediately, “You’ve got to love what you’re doing. I love this building. This building is like a woman to me.”
The thesis of this work is clear: everyone is worthy of a conversation. As Ost attests, just because you’re rich or famous doesn’t mean you’re interesting. “Some are famous and some are just people. I’m not fascinated by fame or any of that. It just is.” So while there will be a handful of names you’ll recognize, the emphasis is far from name-dropping. Her guiding principle, “I looked for people with things to say.”
For someone who is so unapologetically aristocratic, Ost is also intensely human. Inspired by her decades of Buddhist studies, an interaction with her is both an elevated experience and a personal transmission. “Buddhism is this moment. Buddhism is everyday. Buddhism is sitting here with you.” As you turn the pages and absorb The Philosopher’s Style, you see it’s not about high fashion or elitism. It’s about something we all share, the marrow in our bones.
The Philosopher’s Style is currently available from Grey Magazine at grey-magazine.com/shop. A book reading with the author will be hosted at the IX Art Park on Thursday, November 17 at 7 p.m. See more of Beatrix Ost’s world at beatrixost.com.
Photography by Tristan Williams