On everyday attire and the women inside

Women in Clothes collects diverse and complicated reflections on fashion, style and taste from over 600 famous and average women.

Women in Clothes editors

Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton and Sheila Heti.  Photo by Gus Powell

When author Sheila Heti woke up one day and decided she wanted to change the way she dressed, after never having given much thought to her attire, she decided she’d better find out how other women went about the basic daily task of adorning their bodies.

That initial curiosity developed into Women in Clothes, a new collection of conversations, essays, photos, illustrations and more on the topic of, well, women in clothes. At just over 500 pages, the book is an extensive, insightful and thoroughly enjoyable exploration of the often complicated attitudes and feelings women have about their clothes, their relationships (or lack thereof) to fashion, style and taste, and of the many ways our clothes affect how we relate to each other.

womeninclothes-600Edited by Heti in collaboration with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes features submissions from over 600 diverse women, including well-known personalities like Cindy Sherman, Tavi Gevinson, Miranda July and Lena Dunham, alongside relative or complete unknowns.

The reflections of the contributors were inspired by an in-depth, 50+ question survey the editors sent to hundreds of women from all walks of life and around the world. The conversation continues at the book’s website, where visitors can fill out an updated version of the survey, now 83 questions strong. Full survey responses are also catalogued online, which can be viewed by question or by author.

Take a look at some of the questions posed in the survey and it’s no surprise that the responses dig as deeply as they do, with intimacy, humour, frankness and relatability.

“What are you trying to achieve when you dress?”

“Tell us about something in your closet that you keep but never wear. What is it, why don’t you wear it and why do you keep it?”

“What are some other things you admire about how other women present themselves?”

Questions like these get at the root of why our clothing is so important — what we wear, or even choose not to wear, is a vehicle for non-verbal communication — and packed with meaning, with stories, memories, ambitions and identities.

Among the stories and reflections in Women in Clothes are transgender writer Juliet Jacques discussing her experiences transitioning from male to female and the role clothing played in her establishing her identity as a woman, and Ly Ky Tran’s memories of immigrating to America at age three with her family, where every member of the family laboured day and night in their New York City apartment to sew cummerbunds at a rate of $1 for every 24 pieces delivered.

You’ll hear about how an expensive pink Marc Jacobs purse didn’t quite become the symbol of adulthood author Emily Gould wanted it to be. You’ll hear Kim Gordon talk candidly about performing with Sonic Youth in “normal” dresses instead of cultivating a rock star look. A stay-at-home mom tells us that her “mom coat” makes her feel like a human minivan, “piloting around a receptacle for your kids’ stuff.”

Other voices represent demographics that are mostly overlooked in conventional fashion writing, such as older women, women from non-western cultures and women who are not compelled to present themselves as fashionable. Some features recur throughout the book, such as complimentary exchanges between strangers, and photo grids of “sets” of similar items in the same closet, like Emily Shur’s collection of prescription eyeglasses.

One especially affecting series shows photos of contributors’ mothers before they had kids, with the authors describing the woman they see. Ellie Csepregi says the striking photo of her mother “feels like she’s performing her own personality, like she put on a leather jacket and lit up a cigarette to become herself. It doesn’t take itself seriously but it also takes itself very seriously. It’s hard to read, but that’s exactly my mom.”

What’s so refreshing about this book is the way that the subject of getting dressed is approached as a topic worthy of attention for its importance to our identities and connections to others as opposed to imperatives for shopping or laying down guidelines for looking a certain way. Reading the interviews and survey responses felt like chatting with a group of super smart, intuitive friends, and learning how they feel about what they wear was both enlightening and reaffirming, and made me examine my own sartorial choices and motivations.

For women (and men) who take joy in dressing themselves or in discovering the style of friends and strangers, this book offers a wealth of insights into a human experience we all share every day. Ultimately, this is a book about getting dressed that goes beyond the clothes in order to, as the title suggests, be all about the women inside. ■

Women in Clothes will be launched with a panel discussion feat. all three editors (Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton) and an on-site clothing swap co-facilitated by Empire Exchange at the Rialto Theatre (5711 Parc) on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m., $10/free with the purchase of the book