When it comes to clothes, I’ve always been pretty girly. But when I was a sports copy editor for a small newspaper, my femme fashion leanings kicked into overdrive. I’d show up for work in lace dresses, high heels, floral chiffon skirts, vintage dresses—standing in stark contrast to the jeans-and-casual-shirt uniform of the rest of the (all white, all male, all older than me) sports staff. I took a sort of gleeful, subversive pleasure in the contrast; it felt like an act of defiance against the accepted norm for a sports journalist, particularly one in small-town Pennsylvania.
Was I overthinking things? Perhaps—but then, our clothes always convey a meaning, whether or not we intend them to. As author and former restaurant critic Ruth Reichl says eloquently in an interview in “Women in Clothes,” “We can disguise ourselves. And we do it every day. We’re these fragile little creatures behind these façades, trying to make our way through the world, and one of the ways we do it is with the clothes we wear, which say: Pay attention to me. Be nice to me. Don’t look at me, I’m tough. I’m vulnerable. Whatever. Most of the time it’s unconscious—but there’s no question that we see ourselves on a stage.”
“Women in Clothes,” edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Sharpton, aims to dissect those facades that women use clothes and fashion to create. Heti and Julavits first conceptualized the book in 2012 as “a women’s fashion book that isn’t stupid like all women’s fashion books.” The resulting product combines contributions from more than 600 people (including Baltimore-based choreographer and dancer Liz Lerman and her daughter Anna Clare Spelman), mostly women, talking about their relationship with clothes—and from that premise comes conversations on everything from the ethical implications of the globalized fashion industry to the fashion opinions of a 5-year-old, from the cultural pressures to be thin to the heavy weight of memory that a single dress can carry. Most of the contributions come in the form of answers to a wide-ranging questionnaire that the editors sent out, but it also includes interviews with art historians, designers, garment-factory workers, and dancers, as well as photo projects, personal essays, poetry, and more.
It’s an ambitious, smart, wide-reaching project, to be sure, but “Women in Clothes” still feels intimate. It’s full of details that provide a fleeting glimpse into the opinions, insecurities, and experiences of women. For instance, in one visual project,‘Mothers as Others,’ contributors were instructed to “send a photograph of your mother from the time before she had children and tell us what you see.” The responses are tender, revealing, and sometimes wistful—Bev Sandell Greenberg submits a smiling, happy picture of her mother and writes, “Never in her life did I witness any inkling of lightheartedness, especially not as we kids were growing up. Seldom do I recall her laughing or smiling. What was missing from her life? How sad that she chose not to confide in us.” Another project scattered throughout the book called ‘Compliment’ transcribes the compliments that a woman gives a stranger about her clothes; each brief moment feels delightfully vivid, as the reader is invited into these unexpected moments of kindness between women.
Despite that warmth, “Women in Clothes” never feels excessively sentimental or idealistic. The editors never lose sight of the problematic aspects of the fashion industry, nor of the ways that our clothing choices can reflect larger issues. In one particularly harrowing contribution, Reba Sikder, an 18-year-old garment worker, recalls being trapped in the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh when it collapsed in 2013. In another conversation, Renate Stauss talks about the body perception of anorexic patients and the relationship between clothes and psychiatry. And Spelman, a documentary photographer currently based in Cambodia, contributed an interview with Cambodian tailor Monika Chhy on Cambodian women's relationship to fashion.
But as with any ambitious survey text, “Women in Clothes’” weakness comes in part from its breadth. Most submissions are no more than five pages long, which sometimes leaves you yearning for more. In ‘1989,’ Cath Le Couteur talks to Heidi Julavits about queer nightlife in Sydney that year and the importance of outfits as a sort of “style activism” in the face of the AIDS epidemic. It’s a beautiful and fascinating glimpse into a community trying to exert itself through fashion and cope in the face of a tragedy—and it is, frustratingly, only two pages long.
And while there only a few contributions that detracted from the book’s quality and thoughtfulness—Lisa Cohen’s ‘Seams, Hems, Pleats, Darts’ reads as a solidly mediocre prose poem that the book would be better off without—it can be overwhelming to try and consume the whole book (about 500 pages) in one go. But the next time that I start feeling the need to aggressively assert myself through my clothing, I’m going to read a few dozen pages of “Women in Clothes” so that I may, as Heti says in the introduction, “feel a little more confidence and a little more [myself].”
Sheila Heti will deliver an Artist Talk at MICA on Monday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit mica.edu. “Women in Clothes” contributor Ingrid Satelmajer will also host a book-related clothing swap at Atomic Books on Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. For more information, visit atomicbooks.com.