Usually, the subject of women’s relationship with clothes and body image presents women as objects: “sluts” who dress revealingly or dowdy women who don’t take an interest in their appearance; judgments over gender performance; the role weight and build play in how other women view themselves. Instead of taking these and other perspectives as gospel, rising literary stars Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leann Shapton ask women about their perspectives on these issues. The result of their research is Women in Clothes, a formidable but accessible tome that looks at the subject from all angles.
Inspired by a Skype conversation about personal style, the writers distributed an exhaustive survey to a variety of women. Their responses serve as the book’s backbone — in addition to the seven included in full, the authors excerpt answers from various surveys in three- or four-page chapters devoted to one specific question. Additionally, conversations among the authors appear as sidebars to some of the essays and chapters. This conversational style gives the book its accessible feel and point out that this book is just the start of the conversation.
First person essays take up the bulk of the book. For those of you looking for low-hanging fruit, please note that half the cast of Girls is represented in the book’s pages. Additionally, Umm Adam’s essay “I Do Care About Your Party” knocks down several straw man arguments and makes some poor-faith assumptions about why women take an interest in their appearance, and an interview with a scent scholar journeys a little too far into the land of TMI for my appreciation. The way the rest of the writers interrogate issues like gender performance (the moving and alluring “Mother, Daughter, Moustache”), aging (“An Older Woman Going Through Her Closet”), consumerism, utility (“A French Girl Hoeing”), and artistic expression (a conversation between Molly Ringwald and Cindy Sherman) — among other topics — is fascinating and compulsively readable.
Given my interest in how clothes are made, I was especially glad to see several essays about and interviews with people in the garment trade. While an interview with Bangladeshi seamstress Reba Sikder depicts with horror the collapse of a sweatshop, the darkly humorous “Maybe a Lot of People Don’t Do This” — in which a Vietnamese family made menswear in their Brooklyn apartment for pennies on the dollar — is shocking and illuminating in its depiction of textile production in America.
The title of the book might make the subject matter look simple, and the thickness might give it an intimidating quality, but Women in Clothes is a thought-provoking read.
Now re-reading: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which makes for an interesting — if occasionally problematic — companion to Citizen Denim.
So we know that fast fashion is bad for the environment, but did you know it has a negative effect on the courts as well?
Speaking of fast fashion, ever wonder where your clothes go after you drop them off at Goodwill? Glad you asked.
After a fascinating and enjoyable episode about cosplay, The Dork Forest podcast looked at the evolution of Sex Nerd Sandra’s style and her geekery over fashion, makeup, and hair care.