Women in Clothes is a book unlike any other. It is essentially a conversation among hundreds of women of all nationalities—famous, anonymous, religious, secular, married, single, young, old—on the subject of clothing, and how the garments we put on every day define and shape our lives.
It began with a survey. The editors composed a list of more than fifty questions designed to prompt women to think more deeply about their personal style. Writers, activists, and artists including Cindy Sherman, Kim Gordon, Kalpona Akter, Sarah Nicole Prickett, Tavi Gevinson, Miranda July, Roxane Gay, Lena Dunham, and Molly Ringwald answered these questions with photographs, interviews, personal testimonies, and illustrations.
Even our most basic clothing choices can give us confidence, show the connection between our appearance and our habits of mind, express our values and our politics, bond us with our friends, or function as armor or disguise. They are the tools we use to reinvent ourselves and to transform how others see us. Women in Clothes embraces the complexity of women’s style decisions, revealing the sometimes funny, sometimes strange, always thoughtful impulses that influence our daily ritual of getting dressed.
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SHEILA HETI is the author of five books, including the critically acclaimed How Should a Person Be? She writes regularly for the London Review of Books and is an editor and interviewer at The Believer magazine.
HEIDI JULAVITS is the author of four novels, most recently The Vanishers, winner of the PEN/New England Fiction Award. She is a founding editor of The Believer and an associate professor at Columbia University.
LEANNE SHAPTON is a Canadian illustrator, author, and publisher based in New York City. She is the author of Important Artifacts and Swimming Studies, winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
LUISE STAUSS’s over-the-knee socks
JANUARY 8, 2014
Skype meeting. Leanne and Heidi are in Leanne’s studio in New York. Sheila is in her apartment in Toronto. Leanne has recently cut her hair.
SHEILA: Oh my god, look at your hair!
LEANNE: I know. (laughs)
SHEILA: I love it, I love it! It’s so good.
LEANNE: Are you wearing fur?
SHEILA: No, I’m wearing a throw.
HEIDI: I have no new hair to share, no new hair. Sheila, are you growing your bangs out?
SHEILA: Not intentionally.
LEANNE: This is how our book should start: Hi, are you growing your bangs out? What are you wearing, are you wearing fur? We’re like a bunch of chickens squawking at each other!
SHEILA: You look like Peter Pan.
HEIDI: Have you ever had short hair like this before?
LEANNE: Not this short. Well, when I was ten.
HEIDI: Yeah, that’s the last time I had short hair, too. Sheila, have you ever had short-short, pixie-short, boy-short, hair?
SHEILA: Yeah, in high school I had like concentration-camp short. That’s what my mother called it.
HEIDI: Oh my god.
LEANNE: So wait, in terms of how we want to write the introduction, I like the essays we wrote a year ago when we first started thinking about the book. I think we should just rewrite those to some degree. And I also like your idea, Sheila, of talking about what’s happened to us since we began the project.
HEIDI: So why don’t we, right now, ask each other questions that we can use as connective tissue in the intro? So I might say, Sheila, how did you get dressed this morning, what did you think about that’s different from what you might have thought about eight months ago?
SHEILA: Well, I didn’t really get dressed.
SHEILA Until this year, I never put much thought into clothes. I bought my silk 1930s ivory-colored wedding dress in about half an hour, made impatient by the task. I wore black shoes that hardly matched, but which were in my closet already.
What changed to make me more interested in dressing? I suppose it was that (a few years after my divorce) I began living with a man who cares a lot about dressing and clothes. I had never, up close, seen what that looks like. I’d always assumed the well-dressed just happened to be that way—not that it was an area of life that people excelled in because they applied thought, attention, and care to it. Living with my boyfriend, I began to see that dressing was like everything else: those who dress well do so because they spend some time thinking about it.
Clothes and style became more interesting to me. For someone who is fascinated by how people relate to one another, it’s hard to overlook personal style as a way we speak to the world. One day I just decided, Today is the day I’m going to figure out how to dress. I biked to a bookstore—one of those very big bookstores—and went to the section where there were fashion and style books, looking for one that would tell me what women thought about as they shopped and dressed. But there was nothing like that. There were books about Audrey Hepburn and books filled with pictures from Vogue, but nothing that felt useful to me at all. I thought, I’ll have to make this a project. I decided to begin by asking some of the women I knew the very questions I’d hoped to find answered in a book.
FROM: Sheila Heti
DATE: Sun, Apr 8, 2012, AT 1:00PM
SUBJECT: fashion survey
TO: Heidi Julavits
Hey Heidi, I might write a little piece about women’s fashion and I was wondering if I could bug you (as a fashionable lady!) to fill out my survey. Please answer as many times and in as much detail as possible to each question listed (if you’re interested!). xo Sheila
ps: I was partly inspired to think about dressing after reading your latest novel. Also, I’m not sure if the q’s are exactly right.
QUESTION 1 What are some dressing rules that you have for yourself, that you wouldn’t recommend to other people necessarily, but which you follow?
QUESTION 2 What are some dressing or clothing rules that you think every woman should follow?
QUESTION 3 What are the shopping habits you follow? Ex: are you always looking? do you only look for particular items when you need them? do you shop online? do you save up for great pieces?
QUESTION 4 Which people from culture, past and present, do you admire or have you admired, fashion-wise? Are there any people you took as models who you tried to emulate, even if only in details, not the whole?
QUESTION 5 Are you a fan of certain brands and labels, and if so, what are they?
QUESTION 6 What is dressing about, for you? What are you trying to do or achieve when you dress up?
FROM: Heidi Julavits
DATE: Sun, Apr 8, 2012, at 7:45PM
SUBJECT: Re: fashion survey
TO: Sheila Heti
hey sheila! sorry i’ve been on west coast and not online—but i LOVE these questions!!!! maybe you and i should write a women’s fashion book that isn’t stupid like all women’s fashion books. i was just reading in three cities and believe me, i gave questions like this way too much thought—actually packed a whole suitcase and wore the same outfit for two days, and on the third i wore a dress i bought in seattle, which was white and see-through (muslin, basically), and i hadn’t brought any white underthings, just black, and the store woman suggested that i “own it,” so i did, and wore the dress with very visible black underwear to a reading and i kind of liked that the people in the audience might think that they knew something about me that i didn’t know about myself.
On Fri, Apr 20, 2012, at 7:38PM, Sheila Heti wrote:
I think this could be a great book collaboration! I was trying to find a smart women’s fashion philosophy (philosophy of style) book this weekend, and not one! I love your black-underwear story. I’ve added some more questions. Are we missing anything? Do you think any should be cut?
QUESTION 7 How does makeup fit into all this for you?
QUESTION 8 What’s the situation with your hair?
QUESTION 9 Describe what you’re wearing on your body and face, and how your hair is done, right this moment.
FROM: Heidi Julavits
DATE: Sat, Apr 21, 2012, at 9:25AM
SUBJECT: Re: fashion survey
TO: Sheila Heti
i think these are all great! i’m just going to throw some other questions out there that may cant this in an “identity” direction:
QUESTION 10 Do you ever find yourself channeling an old outfit of your mother’s (i.e., from your childhood), and is this a good or bad thing? (but maybe we don’t want to drag mothers into this.)
Also, the idea of sharing clothes—I had a roommate once in my twenties and our closets became essentially conjoined—and even though I was the greater benefitee of this arrangement, the whole idea made me sort of uncomfortable, and I found it to be a boundary I didn’t like negotiating. Thus,
QUESTION 11 Do you share clothes with friends or roommates?
and QUESTION 12 What are the rules about “copying” an obviously original look? Say if your friend wears a down vest over a bikini top . . . Can you copy it? Or is it only ok to copy from strangers? xx
FROM: Sheila Heti
DATE: Sat, Apr 21, 2012, at 10:19AM
TO: Heidi Julavits
Heidi, I think we should ask Leanne Shapton if she wants to be in on this project. Leanne would be wonderful to get to pass the survey around, as she knows many people in lots of different countries, and many artists, too. Perhaps she could also provide illustrations, if we wanted them, and do the cover and lettering inside.
Already Leanne has added some good ideas (I sent her a survey, too). She thought there shouldn’t be photographs of the women we’re profiling. That made me start thinking about the book differently.
I think the one thing we want to steer away from is pronouncements on fashion from people like Coco Chanel or Diane von Furstenberg (“A woman’s style is in direct proportion to her misery” or whatever, i just made that up). I think we’ll want regular women, not only the most fashionable. People who aren’t that fashionable may be quite smart, nevertheless, about what they have on. We should send surveys to whoever we’re curious about and inspired to learn about and hear from. xo S
On Sun, Apr 22, 2012, at 11:03PM, Heidi Julavits wrote:
i so admire leanne and would kill to work with her.
LEANNE First I took cues on how to dress from my brother and drawings from children’s books. Then, as a teenager, from movies. I knew other girls knew more than me. I had subscriptions to Seventeen and Sassy and loved looking at and reading them, but could not relate.
Then at twenty-eight I bought a bikini with another tomboyish friend. A magazine could never have convinced me to buy a bikini, but the afternoon I shared with this friend did.
When I started dating my future husband, he was the editorial director of an international stable of magazines. Many of the women he had dated were fashion editors, models, or socialites, women who knew how to put themselves together and wore and could afford beautiful clothes. Women who were photographed. During our first years together he bought me designer clothes, which I wore uneasily.
I dove into fashion magazines and read them regularly for the next seven years, absorbing the language of promotion and hype and enthusiasm. I met designers and muses and terrifically photogenic people and went to fashion parties and the Met Ball and the Oscars and places where what women wear is noticed and noted. There was constant gushing about clothes and style, and beauty and power. But to me, only a handful of people looked truly great.
SHEILA A problem I’ve always had with fashion magazines is that women are encouraged to copy other women. While I suspect that many men enjoy copying other men (consider the idea of the alpha male and beta males), and while part of what makes a man “superior” is how close he can get to “embodying manliness” (in clothing terms: the suit), I feel it’s the opposite for a woman. The most compelling women are the ones who are distinctive, who are most like themselves and least like other women. There is no other Marilyn Monroe. There is no other Anaïs Nin. And being as iconic and inimitable as they were would be better than being like either one of them. It’s almost as if fashion magazines don’t understand what a woman wants. I think she wants to be unique among women, a creature unlike any other.
HEIDI I don’t check out men on the street. I check out women. I am always checking out women because I love stories, and women in clothes tell stories. For years I watched other women to learn how I might someday be a woman with a story.
Even when I was very young, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be stylish, because to be stylish was to be poised on the precipice between reality and fiction. I grew up in a house that bordered a private school I didn’t attend. These girls, and the clothing they wore, told stories about places to which I otherwise had no access. To understand their style was to be a tourist in the habits and traditions of a strange world. To watch them was not terribly different from reading a book. I learned that style isn’t what you wear, it’s how you wear it. I learned from one girl that I should wear my big wool sweaters inside out so that the threads and seams were revealed. I learned from another girl that instead of tying my anorak arms around my waist when I wasn’t wearing it, I could tie them with one arm over one shoulder and one arm under the other, so that the sleeves crossed my chest diagonally.
But style, I also learned, is not about strictly copying others, because style is not transferable. There are too many variables. I once followed a woman down the street in New York. She wore white clogs and a flowered headscarf and a long skirt. She had high cheekbones and a long neck; she looked like an early-twentieth-century immigrant from Eastern Europe who’d just arrived at Ellis Island, though of course she was probably an artist who lived in Brooklyn. I loved her style but knew that I couldn’t pull off a headscarf. My cheekbones aren’t high enough. My neck is too short. But the white clogs, those could contribute a small and beneficial mutation to my existing wardrobe. I bought a pair. Twelve years later, I wear them still.
JANUARY 8, 2014
SHEILA: So right now I’m wearing this, like, black silk slip that I wore to bed last night, and then because it’s sort of cold here I put on these black tights, without feet, and then this scarf. Because I was only going to be seeing you guys over Skype, I didn’t feel the need to get dressed today. But I think it looks better than . . . like probably, a year ago, I would have been in a sweatshirt. I don’t know. I basically feel like if you guys came into the house now, I wouldn’t be embarrassed.
HEIDI: Wait, you would or you would not be embarrassed if we came into your house?
SHEILA: Wouldn’t. Even though it’s basically pajamas, it’s still an outfit.
HEIDI & LEANNE: (laugh)
SHEILA: I have a little more appreciation for the aesthetics of an outfit, and take more pleasure in it. I guess a year ago I thought there would be some big change in me once the book was done, but it’s more like a slight shift in the way I see things. I now feel like—my choices are my choices and that’s good and that’s enough. I realized there was nothing so terribly wrong with me. Whereas a year ago I felt like there was something terribly wrong with the way I approached clothes.
SHEILA: I think other women have that same feeling, too. Yet reading all the surveys makes me see that none of us are doing anything terribly wrong, and that realization gives you the confidence to make deliberate choices.
LEANNE: I don’t care in the same way about dressing anymore, and that’s interesting to me, and it’s probably got to do with childbirth and having your body torn apart, but I agree with what you’re saying—you just have that thing on and you’re not going to be embarrassed.
HEIDI: For me what’s changed is, well, I always thought that aspiring to have the right clothes and style meant trying to look like somebody else. But now my aspiration is to look like some former version of myself in a specific time or place. Not like “I wish I was fourteen again, so I’m gonna wear hot pants”—not that I ever wore hot pants when I was fourteen—but it’s more about trying to have some sort of emotional connection to a part of myself that I feel I could lose touch with if I don’t re-inhabit it every once in a while.
LEANNE: I love the idea of a version of yourself.
HEIDI: It’s not just an age thing, it’s also a place thing. This has been coming up a lot in the last few weeks because we lived in Berlin this fall, and I really don’t like being home. For four months I had worn only what I brought in this one suitcase, and while I never thought, “Ugh, I’m bored, I wish I had my other clothes,” I did have these moments of missing ...
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