“We are always asking for something when we get dressed. Asking to be loved, . . . to be admired, to be left alone, to make people laugh, to scare people, to look wealthy, to say I’m poor, I love myself.” — 28 year old participant
This book is not at all what you expect it will be. When my friend, Harriet, gave me this book I immediately thought “fashion book” which meant, to me, how to dress either for the (upwardly mobile) working world or the fashion world or, maybe, how to dress like one of those many Housewives of Whatever City from those (so-called) “reality” shows. But when I began thumbing through it I saw that the book didn’t appear to be any of those things. It looked quite interesting. And it is.
‘Women in Clothes,’ by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton and over 600 participating women of diverse nationalities and ages is a collaborative wonderland exploring every attitude, judgement, or question about clothes and our relationships to them that you can think of and some you can’t . The book is 514 pages that passed through my fingers rather quickly because almost everything written in it is fascinating. Some of the content is the result of surveys completed by all kinds of women: artists, writers, mothers, activists, students, garment-workers, soldiers, transgendered women, religious women, and many others. You’ll find essays, interviews, poetry, visual collections, snippets of street conversation, and all kinds of other media. I really feel inadequate trying to describe this book so I’ll share some of the chapters and some quotes I flagged while reading it. That should give you an idea of what’s inside this book.
Mothers As Others, Parts 1 & 2 – Participants share a photo of their mother before she had children and tell us what they see. I loved this chapter.
I Do Care About Your Party by Um Adam – Um talks about her clothing style which is wearing a jilbab (loose pants and a long,very loose shirt) and hijab. She talks about what dressing like this means to her in terms of respect for her body and her religion. She says, “God made no mistakes when He made me. He made me perfect. Sorry if I sound arrogant or overconfident, but I am confident about my appearance. Why wouldn’t I be? I was created by the most perfect – my Lord- in perfection, and I don’t need any man, clothing designer, or makeup artist to tell me what is perfect.”
If Nothing Else, I Have an Ethical Garter – Interview with Mac McCelland, Human Rights Journalist – She talks about the textile industry, warehouse and factory workers, and how her work influences her choice of clothing. She also talks about how she doesn’t like to own much stuff. She says, “Then I have some weird disaster issues, like I lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. To me, things that you have are just things you will lose or could lose, so don’t get attached to them.”
Handmade – Participants talk about making their own clothes or re-purposing clothes. Also about women in their families who sewed their own clothing and that of their families’. I liked this comment by Rachel Kushner (author of “The Flamethrowers”, a book I really liked) especially: “My mother is a southern Protestant beatnik who wove see-through tank tops on her loom and wore homemade pleather hot pants. No bra, never shaved her legs. She has waist-length bright red hair. DIY was instilled in me, I guess.”
This Person Is a Robot – “A smell scientist sniffs coats in a busy New York City restaurant’s coat-check closet.” Hilarious!
The Pant Suit Rotation – Interview with Alex Wagner, Journalist and TV Anchor – On the disparity between how men on TV dress and how women on TV are expected to dress.
The Mom Coat by Amy Fusselman – Well, I’m not a mom but I found this essay so interesting and insightful into a world I’ve never inhabited. She says, “The Mom Coat is a sleeping bag you walk around in. It turns you into a pod. I almost cease to be human when I wear it: I am just a shroud with pockets. And, of course, because I have kids, my pockets are always stuffed with Kleenex, hair clips, Goldfish, et cetera. The Mom Coat is like a minivan in that way. You are inside and piloting a receptacle for your kids’ stuff.”
In between essays, there will be chapters dedicated to answers from the survey questions such as “Women Looking at Women”, “Protection”, “Sisters”, and “Do You Consider Yourself Photogenic?” The myriad answers entertained, educated, and surprised me.
There are pages dedicated to a series of items (collections) belonging to individual women such as “Gwen Smith’s concert tee shirts”, “Tara Washington’s knitted hats”, and “Tift Merritt’s handmade guitar straps”. Some of the collections are kind of lame (“floss sticks used over the course of a week” – really?) but most are interesting.
I love that there is no striving for perfection in this book. Every woman is allowed to be herself, to express her own unique style and personality in her own way without apology in this eclectic and satisfyingly original book. It’s like having a conversationn with 639 different women and never getting bored.
“Rompers are not ever going to be on my body.” — Roxane Gay