I’ve long suspected that the amount of time I spend thinking about clothes – the ones I have, the ones I want, how I can manage to fund the latter and still feed myself and pay rent – borders on extravagant. Despite this, I’ve never for a moment believed that fashion is a trivial concern. I’m far from alone – several books this year have addressed the cultural and personal significance of clothing, from Lorelai Vashti’s charming memoir Dress, Memory to Frances Corner’s fascinating commentary Why Fashion Matters. One of the latest releases on this theme is the highly-anticipated and undeniably ambitious Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton and ‘639 others’.
The book’s premise is inspired, if a potential logistical nightmare: keen to investigate how women of all nationalities define their relationship with clothing, Heti, Julavits and Shapton composed a survey of over 50 questions, asking women to analyse their personal style. They distributed it first among friends, before uploading it online where anyone could complete it. The ‘639 others’ credited on the book’s cover are the respondents whose words made it inside.
But Women in Clothes isn’t just a collection of surveys. Only a handful of respondents (including a male cross-dresser, a five-year-old girl and a woman in a nursing home) have their several pages of answers included in the book. Interspersed with these are fragments of other people’s survey responses grouped by theme – ‘Naked and Modest’, ‘Protection’, ‘Gut Feeling’, ‘Glamour’ and many more – alongside various conversations and projects: artist Miranda July photographed six strangers wearing each other’s favourite outfits; musician Kim Gordon spoke to novelist and editor Christopher Bollen about looking cool; pre-school teacher Dina Goldstein chatted with her son, radio host Jonathan Goldstein, about schmattes (ragged garments). There are also photographs, illustrations, poems, short essays and other miscellany, including one woman’s breakdown of what she spent on clothing, toiletries and beauty during a six-month period (this made me feel a lot better about my sartorial spending habits).
It’s an unusual structure, and a risky one. The book’s subject is so broad and its contents so fragmented that it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the meaning and intent of Women in Clothes without sounding vague or obvious. Yes, clothes are an important part of how many women construct their identity – but you probably don’t need to read 500+ pages to figure that out. I don’t think the editors are really seeking to prove a hypothesis here; they want to peel back the layers of their topic, squeeze it and shake it and scrutinise it, not argue a point. Women in Clothes is described as ‘a conversation’, and that’s exactly what it is – a convergence of voices from all over the world, ruminating on the same thing in very different ways.
Inevitably, the results are hit-and-miss – much like an actual conversation, there are parts of Women in Clothes, such as the occasional photo collage of someone’s cashmere sweaters or friendship bracelets, that failed to capture my attention or interest. But the wonderful flipside of this was how often I’d stumble across something delightful or moving. ‘Mothers as Others’ features photographs of survey respondents’ mothers taken before they had children (‘My mom is the one with fake eyelashes and headband, smoking a cigarette, being badass’). Emily Gould’s ‘The Pink Purse’ is a sweetly resonant tale about a Marc by Marc Jacobs handbag the author bought as a 22-year-old publishing assistant, convinced that it would help her become ‘a specific kind of New York City woman’, and the bag’s stoop sale fate six years later. Both segments remind us how much we emotionally invest in our appearance and how closely entwined clothing and accessories can become with our personal histories.
On a more sobering note, ‘Clothes on the Ground’ includes interviews with three garment factory workers in Cambodia, conducted by journalist Julia Wallace. ‘I have been interviewing garment workers about their lives for more than three years’, Wallace writes, ‘but I never thought to interview them about what they wear’. One lady, Sophal, tells Wallace, ‘I never knew this Chanel. I cannot read, so I don’t care what it means, personally’.
Although some critics have accused Women in Clothes of failing to represent a diversity of voices, there’s an impressive chorus to be found here, from an Israeli teenage soldier and a stay-at-home mother, to a smattering of celebrities (including actress and writer Lena Dunham and artist Cindy Sherman). While the women all share individual experiences and observations, there’s a charmingly universal quality to the meaning they find in what they wear.
One of the book’s biggest strengths is its lack of commentary from people with a professional background in fashion. Women in Clothes wants to tell a more inclusive story, to reveal the pleasures, hang-ups and complexities that reside in the simple act of dressing ourselves, and to remind us that we don’t perform our style rituals in a vacuum. ‘What’s been kind of a revelation is seeing that other women think about this stuff not so differently from me,’ says Sheila Heti in the book’s introduction. ‘It makes it a bit more pleasurable knowing that everything you’re feeling you share with other women. It makes the act of getting dressed seem more like a communal thing.’