“Maybe you and i [sic] should write a women’s fashion book that isn’t stupid like all women’s fashion books,” Heidi Julavits writes to Sheila Heti in an email. The exchange would form the basis of their large-scale fashion project, Women in Clothes, a 2014 book edited by Julavits, Heti, and illustrator Leanne Shapton, that aims to be that smart, relevant resource.
Whatever your take on fashion, there’s no denying that it’s political. The editors understood just that when they began their project, after realizing there were no comparable books. Sheila to Heidi: “I was trying to find a smart women’s fashion philosophy (philosophy of style) book this weekend, and not one!” Sure there are books on fashion, plenty of how-to guides and biographies on designers, but what about real women? What do women really think of the clothes they wear? What are we trying to express, or to hide?
The book begins with a transcription of a Skype interview between the editors, discussing their ideas for the book (and their outfits), and backtracking to reveal emails that refined their initial plans. They then sent surveys to 600 people, asking them an ever-changing roster of questions, from “How does how you dress play into your ambitions for yourself?” to “Describe your mind.” The responses are mixed in with interviews from notable dressers, photos of clothing collections, short essays, and much more. The result is a brilliant examination of the status of clothes in our lives today, amid the pressures from fast fashion, women’s magazines, and society at large. (Full disclosure: I took the survey and one of my responses is included in the book.)
While one might hope there was more overtly critical commentary on the fashion industry, the more politically-minded pieces are some of the best in the collection. An interview with a garment worker who survived the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh is particularly poignant, and will certainly make you rethink purchasing clothes made in that country. A conversation with writer Juliet Jacques sheds light on the style complexities that trans people face when in the process of transitioning.
If you’re ambivalent about the prospect of a book about women and fashion, I’m right there with you. I spent much of my adult life throwing shade at the fashion industry every chance I got. I loathed the idea of keeping up with clothing trends and the unreal expectations that the fashion media would subject women to. Not to mention the maddening consumerism inherent in the whole thing.
When fashion and feminism started emerging as a common topic of conversation on the internet, I was enraged. Fashion doesn’t have anything to do with feminism, I inwardly seethed, in my ignorance. Sites like Style Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s first blog, angered me with the attention they received. I thought it would send a message that to align yourself with feminism you just needed to dress a certain way. That feminism would come to mean nothing more to young women than wearing weird outfits and exclaiming that it was an expression of their inner beliefs. I was completely denying these young women their own agency, and their obvious intelligence. Look at what Rookie, Gevinson’s web magazine, has become to see just how savvy its readers are at negotiating fashion, politics, and life.
Of course, that’s what style is, an expression of ourselves, whether we knowingly adhere to it or not. Even I, in my band t-shirts and mini-dresses, was sending a message to the world. Sometimes that message was: don’t talk to me, this look has nothing to do with you. But it was subconsciously mixed with more complex ideas about belonging to a music subculture, or claiming my right to wear what I wanted in a sex-positive, third-wave feminism kind of way. Twelve-year-old Gevinson, as with probably most areas of my life, was way ahead of me.
It wasn’t until recently, and largely after reading this book, that I started thinking about all these things and how they’re connected. And coming to terms with the fact that I do care about what I wear and what I look like, and how others interpret my appearance. I also owe a lot to this book because it was responsible (along with Twitter) for the formation of a feminist-book club I started with some rad like-minded women in Chicago, who have become friends and allies.
A lot of our initial conversations about the book in our club focused on where we developed ideas about dressing: from magazines, friends, our socioeconomic backgrounds, and our mothers. There is a recurring feature in Women in Clothes where participants submitted photos of their mothers before they had children, describing what they see. Again and again people see their moms as happy, carefree, like they had never known them. And they comment on how they had so many more opportunities and options growing up just a generation later.
Whether you take time to think about your wardrobe or not, Women in Clothes reveals that there is a whole lot of identity and often anxiety wrapped up in what we wear everyday. Whether you think you are immune to the media and advertising that wants to make us feel completely inadequate, the surveys show that many of us worry about our dress. We think we’re doing it wrong, or we don’t know the basics, or how to dress for our bodies. Women in Clothes serves as a nice reminder that it’s okay to be aware of our style choices, and actually it’s probably a good thing to think more consciously about them. At the same time, it says not to worry so much about making the right sartorial decision. Sometimes we just wear what we wear because we want to. Because something makes us feel comfortable, or confident. I haven’t read any other fashion book that can teach you that.