Book Review: “Women in Clothes”

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“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What I’m Thinking About Today: Jeans

Jeans. I bought a pair yesterday and was so excited that they fit exactly how I wanted them to fit. The tag said, “high rise, skinny fit”. I liked the sound of high rise because I’m sick, sick, sick of low rise pants that wiggle down your hips with every step you take. I don’t like feeling like they’re going to end up around my ankles if I don’t  keep tugging them up and I’m sick of having to tug them up. I’m so happy the style of pants is going back up and less down so women aren’t forced into buying low rise. I was skeptical about the “skinny fit” part because I’m certainly not skinny but I figured it was worth a try. I liked the dark wash and the fact that the front pockets were deep enough to be useable. Designers take note: skimpy pockets suck. Anyway, they fit like a glove and I’m happy.

It feels like I’ve been shopping for the perfect pair of jeans my whole life. I imagine I’ve owned literally hundreds of jeans over my lifetime. When I was a teen in the ’70’s I wasn’t so picky about them even though I wore them almost every day of my life, then. But, in the ’70’s no one was picky about what they wore. Everyone wore jeans, some kind of tee, peasant or baby doll top and Earth shoes. Remember Earth shoes? I bought a pair of shoes yesterday, too, that looked like the old Earth shoes except they have a tall wedge heel. They’re comfortable and adorable. But back to jeans…..

My best friend when I was 17 or so had a pair of jeans that I coveted. There were so many patches on the booty that there was probably no actual denim fabric there. I thought she looked so cool and I wanted them so bad and finally one day she gave them to me. On me they were tight whereas on her they had been slouchy-cool. It wasn’t the same but I wore them for a while until I got tired of feeling like a stuffed sausage.  Around that time I had another pair that I loved and wore a lot. They were faded denim, frayed bottom and had a red weenie dog patch on the knee.

All my friends and I had maybe two or three pairs of jeans but tended to wear a favorite pair most of the time. We would take wet washcloths and hand scrub over the legs to get some of the dirt off then put them right back on. It took too much time to wash and dry them in the machines and we were too impatient to wait.

I’m reading a book right now about clothes and the relationship women have with their clothes called “Women in Clothes” by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton. The authors interviewed and surveyed over 600 women during their research and the book if just filled with all kinds of great stories and photos. It was released yesterday (September 4) and I’ll be reviewing it here in the near future.

So I think the book is why I’m thinking of the jeans I bought yesterday and wondering if the style is appropriate for a woman in her 50’s. Maybe, maybe not. All I know is they’re comfortable, stylish and they make me feel good. They’re part of my style. I’m keeping them.

With my niece in my favorite jeans, 1987

With my niece in my favorite jeans, 1987