Women in Clothes (Particular Books)

Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton & 639 others (Particular Books: 2014)

Over six hundred contributors have shared with editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton the content for Women in Clothes. Some names are famous, many others are not. All have responded to what the book’s introduction describes as “an ever-evolving set of questions” about the meaning of clothing and style in their lives.

The genetics of the editorial team is in literature and publishing rather than fashion. Their open ended – even at times unremarkable – questions about clothing and our physical appearances are used to craft a complex picture of doubt, anxiety, certainty and confidences. What is crucial is that the book makes no effort to homogenize or conclude. We hear of a runner sleeping in the t-shirt she earned after completing her first marathon in an attempt to bolster her nerves while training years later; a “declutter coach” whose day job it to tackle our material excesses and observes her clients are often “uneasy if there’s space on a shelf or wardrobe – they feel they have to fill it up”; a respondent from South Vietnam recounts her family’s sweat shop labour when arriving in America; and a photograph of two young sisters on an Australian beach in 1979 is later scrutinised for evidence of the cancer that would take one of their lives soon after the photograph was taken.

Admittedly, this book is not to everyone’s taste. Writing for The Guardian Rebecca Carroll, has reviewed it as, “nothing more than an exercise in narcissism, and a knowing appropriation of that which is pleasing to three middle-class white women, without giving any real emphasis to true individuality”. The review concludes by explaining that, “real style and the very personal clothing choices Women in Clothes dictates is less about descriptions of the mind or knee-sock collections, and more… about individual essence, for which there actually are no words.” Carroll may not be entirely wrong, but the alternative approach this book has taken in its effort to find language for patterns and sentiments that are difficult but not impossible to articulate, is to my mind useful.

Reviewers on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean (where the editors all work) have responded more favourably, with the magazine Harper’s Bazar acknowledging that, “the result is part smart woman’s fashion philosophy, part idiosyncratic field study, and part artwork.” It is the idiosyncrasies that make this book feel more human than much of the writing from fashion theory.

Women in Clothes is an excellent example of the richness that can emerge from an open-ended approach to research. Rather than a set of questions approved at the outset, three full pages of questions noted in the introduction grew over the course of compiling the book: growing, shifting, changing and adapting as the gathered material changed momentum and suggested new considerations. The end result reads like the types of research academics aspire to capture but so rarely achieve: dynamic, engaging, and accepting of the contradictions the material presents.

Selvedge magazine (issue 62, 2014: 87)