Women in Clothes

by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton et al.

Blue Rider Press, 2014

528 pages

I have an ambivalent relationship to fashion.

I love clothes. I love expressing myself through what I wear. I love the idea that, by picking out an outfit, I can give people a piece of the code to who I really am (provided they care enough to pay attention). I love seeing how other people express themselves through what they wear. And I love parsing the interplay of color, line, fabric, flow, and drape in beautiful garments.

What I don’t love is what the fashion industry sells to women (and I don’t mean clothes). The sweatshops and wage-slave labor used to make the clothes we wear. The stale, sexualized commodification of the female body. The relentless onslaught of images of skinny, pale teenagers presented as an ideal of beauty for all ages, races, and body types.

So I love to read fashion magazines, but I don’t leave them lying around where my daughter can see them. She’s only nine; I want her love of body and self to be more fully formed before she experiences regular exposure to waifish models and slit-to-here-or-there dresses.

Fashion, in short, so often feels like my guilty pleasure–the mild vice I have to pretend not to participate in or care too much about because otherwise I might have to turn in my feminist card. Kind of like the way I feel about James Bond movies.

This is why I was drawn to Women in Clothes, which the summary I read described as a book about “a philosophy of fashion.” The blurb promised personal stories, photographs of the authors’ mothers, wry commentary on how women feel about their clothes, their personal style, and their bodies.

I think the person who wrote the blurb might actually have read the book, because she was spot-on. Heti, Julavits, and Shapton deliberately developed the book as a way to express and explore the side of fashion that so often gets short shrift in magazines and books: the why of choosing clothes, the way Everywoman feels about her body and what she wears, and the ways fashion and style are passed down or over to us from mothers, grandmothers, aunts, lovers, cousins, siblings, and friends.

The foundation of Women in Clothes is a survey, one full of both expected and unexpected questions that have to be answered in long form. Questions like “Do you notice women on the street? If so, what sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?,” “What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others?,” and “What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?”

The authors shared this survey with hundreds of women they know, and they posted it on the Web for strangers to complete. Excerpts from responses form the core of the book, which also includes photographs of women’s fashion-related collections (e.g., one woman’s collection of vintage skirt suits, another’s collection of black cotton underwear, and still another’s collection of clogs), snippets of overheard fashion-related conversations, interviews, parodies, and more.

Unlike my fashion magazines, Women in Clothes is full of women of every race, shape, age, and size. And they are all brutally, disarmingly, engagingly honest about fashion and their relationship to it.

There is the long-time fashion editor who praises her assistant’s habit of buying everything at Goodwill–not for frugality’s sake, but for the sake of Pakistani teenagers in sweatshops and overflowing landfills. There are the women who talk about their own jiggly thighs and sagging breasts–not ruefully, but affectionately. The women who remember certain items of clothing not because of how they looked in them, but because of precious memories associated with the days they wore them.

Reading Women in Clothes inspired me to love myself and my personal style a little more, to be more confident in wearing what fits my body, and to just enjoy the beauty of clothes. It was a much-needed reminder that there are other women out there trying to be thoughtful about what they wear and why.

Will I still read fashion magazines? Yes, though probably a little less often. Will I still think that it would be nice to lose the 5 pounds I seem to have suddenly gained now that I sit at a desk all day? Sometimes. But will I be more focused on what’s going on below the surface when I choose an outfit? Definitely.

In short, this book has inspired me to be more thoughtful about what I wear and why, and to be less heedful of what magazines and designers and culture tell me I should look like or wear. In short, it’s inspired me to be more me. And that’s always a good thing.

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