By Rae Padilla Francoeur
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“Women in Clothes” Edited and written by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leeanne Shapton and 639 others. Blue Rider Press/Penguin Group, New York, 2014.
Why do women dress the way they do? What do women think about when they clothe themselves? Better yet, how deep does fashion go?
Authors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton wanted to know the answers to these questions in order to understand the relevance of fashion in their own lives. They wanted to “write a fashion book that isn’t stupid like all women’s fashion books” since they weren’t having much luck getting answers in bookstores and in doing so, they found a deeply reflective pool of provocative thought.
“Women in Clothes” is an entertaining, thought-provoking, at times quite moving exploration of women, clothing, style and identity. Fashion Week may be over in New York City, but fashion fascinates regardless of age, hometown and budget. These three authors help us understand why.
Clothing goes beyond its utilitarian purposes. It turns out women rarely dress carelessly. Style, taste, fashion, items of clothing — these things bring us closer to ourselves and help us express the various roles we assume. Clothes can arm us and disarm others.
The authors, a smart and expressive threesome, came up with a survey of about 50 questions that they put to 639 women. This mega-paperback includes survey excerpts and displays of women’s fashion-related collections of things like lip balm, shirts stolen from a boyfriend, vintage shoes, fur coats and jeans jackets. Women respond honestly and thoughtfully, revealing some striking universal truths. Besides the surveys, the book includes essays, interviews, even poems.
Among the respondents: Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Molly Ringwald, a French actress, a New York Times fashion critic, a writing professor, a British poet, an editor in Croatia, a 63-year-old hospice worker, a web comic from New Zealand, a Swedish textile artist and bus driver, screenwriter in LA, a Malaysian shoe blogger. Despite the range of occupations, interests, ages and countries of origin, common themes emerge.
For instance, women think fashion should not aim to be prescriptive. The most interesting women are distinctive and develop their own style. Author Sheila Heti writes, “I think I know the answer to Freud’s famous question, ‘What does a woman want?’ She wants to be unique among women, a creature unlike any other.” Identity is at the core.
Many women believe that dressing is a form of storytelling. Heidi Julavits, another of the authors, says, “I am always checking out women because I love stories, and women in clothes tell stories … to be stylish was to be posed on the precipice between reality and fiction.” An anti-clutter coach reveals that women hold onto clothes, in part, because of the stories that go with precious items of clothing. And most women hold onto a lot of clothes they can’t fit into.
Author Leeanne Shapton writes that it was a revelation to read “that other women think about this stuff not so differently from me, and share similar anxieties. It makes it a bit more pleasurable knowing that everything you’re feeling you share with other women. It makes the act of getting dressed seem more like a communal thing.”
There’s poetry here. “I like for there to be a loose wall between me and the world,” says Leopoldine Core. “Taste is a wink, not a thud.”
Strength, power, confidence. Many women want clothes that make them feel self-assured. Writer/childbirth educator Ceridwen Morris says, “I like to feel strong in my clothes.” Kristy Heller says, “When women put on an outfit … they can feel this incredible surge of power.”
Or, in another twist on the theme, Sherwin Tjia writes, “I’m scared a lot, so I often wear clothes to protect me.”
We dress for the various roles we must assume, but also to transform ourselves. Sadie Stein writes that her closet contains “… pieces that, for one reason or another, at a certain moment in my life were invested with special powers — had the capacity to transform me every time I put them on.” And Stephanie P writes, “… I felt like a new person … I felt confident and really excited to the point that I nearly felt like I was under the influence of some kind of drug.” “As I donned it, I donned my new persona: confident and assured. It never failed me.”
Clothing broadcasts identity. Women look at what other women wear and make inferences. The artist Cindy Sherman, in an interview with Molly Ringwald, says sometimes she gets it wrong. “I will be getting dressed to go somewhere and then I’ll look in the mirror and I’ll realize I’ve actually become one of my characters.”
Liane Balaban says our clothes should facilitate our lives. She also says that she prefers to “curate rather than shop.”
Perhaps the best shoppers are those possessed of a strong sense of self. Juliet Landau-Pope, the declutter coach, says, “We lose track of who we are sometimes, and that’s reflected in the wardrobe …”
Lena Dunham, of HBO’s “Girls,” concurs with the authors’ premise that clothing expresses our uniqueness: “Style is a feeling that no one else could have put on what you’re wearing that day because it sprung forth from your unique neon mind.”
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.
Book Notes: Do clothes make the woman?
By Rae Padilla Francoeur