Through original interviews, conversations, surveys, projects, diagrams and drawings from over six hundred contributors – including Miranda July, Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, Rachel Kushner and Sarah Nicole Prickett – Women in Clothes explores the wide range of motives that inform how women present themselves through clothes, and what style really means. Fashion writer and researcher Rosie Findlay reviewed the book.
When do you feel at your most attractive?
Usually when I fly long-haul— and, let’s be honest, living in Australia means that virtually every flight is long-haul— I have a whole wardrobe and skincare situation figured out beforehand, so when I land, I bear at least some resemblance to my usual appearance in the world. It is a careful, timed choreography: I wear “nice clothes” to the airport to increase my chances of an upgrade to Business Class, and after I have been checked-in—invariably, I’m afraid, into Economy— I change into my “travel clothes”. These usually consist of some combination of navy, jersey, black, loose, and legging. No bra. Thick bedsocks. I tie my washed-that-morning hair high, so that it doesn’t get weird and limp during the snatches of sleep I drift through over the next 28 hours, and moisturize religiously after each in-flight movie. I have it down to a fine art.
Despite giving me some measure of comfort and normalcy at 40,000ft, this routine does not make me feel particularly attractive. But when I land, and pull my hair down and change back into my “nice clothes”, I feel like I’ve cheated the system somehow by emerging from the arrivals gate without wan skin and a depressed outfit. To be in the world feeling confident and comfortable in my skin: that’s probably when I feel most attractive.
It was on the most recent of these flights, the marathon between London Heathrow and Sydney Airport, that I started to read Women in Clothes. I must confess that I felt some trepidation about it before I picked it up. I’ve experienced a recurring disappointment with many books about fashion and dress and had a suspicion that this one prove to be no different. You know the kind I mean: they tend to prioritise a thin, absolute version of style over any content of substance, consisting of brief glosses about fashion serving to support the real focus, the fashion photographs, or self-indulgent essays without the weight of a good idea to draw them in a strong direction. Sheila Heti, one of the writers of Women in Clothes, describes something similar in her search for a volume about women’s thoughts on dressing. On the hunt in a bookstore, she found “books about Audrey Hepburn and books filled with pictures from Vogue, but nothing that felt useful to me at all.”
It was this frustration that led her to conceive of Women in Clothes, a multi-authored book shaped by Heti, Leanne Shapton and Heidi Julavits, which explores women’s diverse experiences of clothing: of being dressed and appearing in clothes (which are two different things), negotiating embodied identity, of making and losing and finding garments. Woven in with these discussions are musings on the other aspects of human experience that fold around us and into our clothes: relationships with mothers and fathers, with lovers, with one’s self, and the full gamut of affect that clothes have the peculiar power to draw out: making a home of your body in a nest of fabric, brimming with your own electric sexiness, or smarting with self-consciousness about your own perceived lack of personal style.[ref]The idea of clothing as nest for the body derives from, is developed and advanced in Stella North’s thesis “Clothing the Space of Flesh: fashion as material narration”, University of Sydney 2014[/ref] You can already tell that Women in Clothes is something entirely different.
What sort of women do you tend to notice or admire?
Heti, Shapton and Julavits composed a survey that they circulated widely, and the content of the book is drawn from the diverse responses they received.[ref]The full survey available on the book’s website, and the subheadings of this review are a sample selection of questions from it.[/ref] The contributors are collectively described in the frontispiece as “famous, anonymous, religious, secular, married, single, young, old”; some will be known to readers, including noted artists, writers, thinkers, and activists, and many will not. Many do not like fashion or consider themselves particularly stylish, and the responses run the gamut from remembering the purchase of her first It bag to talking about the process of adopting a single dress design to be worn each and every day.
The authors deliberately chose not to include pictures of the featured women so the focus would remain on the impression made by what they have to say about clothes. As such, Women in Clothes invites thoughtful engagement with its subjects, and an imagining of the garments they describe (I particularly enjoyed imagining a French girl hoeing a vegetable plot whilst wearing green velvet bell-bottom pants, as told by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman.)
The experience of reading the book is akin to joining the conversation happening within its covers. It prompts personal memories and recognitions while it introduces other people’s own unique points of view. I found myself unwilling to put it down, to leave these fascinating women somewhere I couldn’t hear their voices, and so I lugged it around on buses, heaved it onto my nightie-clad lap in bed, forgetting its significant heft as soon as I was reading.
What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?
Certain moments have lingered. The sharp Sarah Nicole Prickett, whose writing I like best when it’s so visceral it practically has its own heartbeat, describing what she wore to fall in love (key quote: ‘After a meeting I go to a cheap salon and get nails as white as Wite-Out […] I also text Jesse. White, I say, ‘cause it’ll look so good on your dick.’) Heidi Julavits being nervous about Skyping with someone, so she put on perfume. The mental image of four Cambodian garment workers choosing clothes to buy from the ground ‘under the umbrellas’ whilst sewing perfect stitches on jeans and bras for export (‘When I’m sewing seams, I always think that these jeans must be very expensive, they cost at least $40 to $50 per pair, and I‘m wondering how those people could ever afford them. They look beautiful, and I think how beautiful I would be if I wore them.’) The unforgettable account of Bangladeshi garment worker Reba Sikder, a survivor of the devastating Rana Plaza factory collapse. And the wonderful, almost-imaginary story of Ida Hattemer-Higgins, who, whilst aimlessly walking in Athens, discovered a grand, old and very decrepit store full of dusty designer clothes arranged haphazardly in piles. Her description of the first piece she bought there— ‘a deep green pencil skirt of delicate wool twill, made by Yves Saint Laurent circa 1965’ that clung to her ‘as if it were liquid’— was almost enough for me to immediately book a plane ticket to Greece.
The personal essays, snippets of surveys and question-and-answers that reveal these stories are interspersed with sketches, photographs of people’s collections of the same article (cardigans, nightgowns, blue jeans), and photographs of mothers taken before their daughters were born. As such, it explores women in clothes through more than words, suggesting that our photographs, the stains on our clothes, the jewellery we wear every day and our actual clothes themselves have much to reveal about this relationship too.
What are you trying to achieve when you dress?
Some sections of the book are stronger than others: the ‘wear areas’ project, for example, seemed a little unnecessary, as it had subjects identify notable areas of their body— parts they’re proud of, parts that stand out or make mobility challenging, and so on— which can be interesting, but didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book, as it had little to do with clothing. The missing link here was a consideration of the possibilities of clothing to helping us negotiate our complex relationship with these parts of ourselves, something the book engages with in other sections, such as Emily Stokes’s diary detailing her efforts to find clothes to fit her small frame (she is 4ft 8) and accommodate her orthotics and cane.
Don’t we all make these negotiations, all the time, in different ways? Dressing to marry our perception of self comfortably with the way we wish to be seen in the world, whilst also daily recalibrating the sliding scale between comfort and aesthetics according to what stakes we are playing on any given day. What I so enjoyed about this book was that it made space for considerations such as these, focusing on the habitual interplay between body and cloth and all of the memories, emotions and experiences this can provoke. That these considerations were so varied, ranging from playful to wistful to pained, and that they spanned so many different ways of engaging with clothing shows how personal and important dressing is to our understanding of ourselves in the world.
Women in Clothes edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton & 639 others is published by Particular Books.
Rosie is a writer and fashion researcher. At the moment, she is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, where she also did her PhD, and she is a columnist on fashion theory for The Conversation. Her research interests include the performance of fashion, embodiment and fashion, fashion blogging, catwalk shows and fashion photography.