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'Women in Clothes' Proves Fashion Isn't Frivolous

Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton talk about their new book.

The book's editors, from left: Sheila Heti, Leanne Shapton, and Heidi Julavits. Photo by Gus Powell
The book's editors, from left: Sheila Heti, Leanne Shapton, and Heidi Julavits. Photo by Gus Powell

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For Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton—the editors of Women in Clothes, which hit bookshelves yesterday—the expression of clothing lies not in what people wear but why they wear it.

The three friends set out on an ambitious journey when they put together a book proposal last year: They wanted to facilitate an organized conversation among more than 600 women in an effort to understand clothing from a cultural, emotional, and practical perspective. The results, they found, were tremendous. The text book-sized volume features personal essays, interviews, illustrations, and photographs by way of an incredible array of participants, from celebrities to stay-at-home moms to sweatshop workers to soldiers, all of whom were eager to talk about how and why they dress.

"A common denominator we found was all the women taking pleasure in talking about this subject," Julavits, a writer and co-editor of The Believer, told Racked. "I think they were relieved to talk about it and actually be taken seriously. There's a lot of shame and suppressing when talking about this stuff amongst a large segment of the population. It's a bit taboo to admit that you have a lot of thoughts about clothes."

The idea for the book came to Heti, whose 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? garnered serious critical acclaim, when she was looking for a book that could teach her how to pay attention to clothing and make sense of fashion. After finding nothing useful while browsing in bookstores, she came up with a survey of some 50 questions that Julavits and Shapton helped her distribute.

Some of the questions touched on background and family influences; some were as simple as "What are your favorite pieces of clothing?" and "What is your morning routine?" Others delved deeper into the psychology of dressing, asking women what makes them feel sexy and confident, and why they notice certain outfits on the streets.

Images courtesy of Blue Rider Press

As more and more people offered contributions, Julavits said they realized just how extensive the subject actually is: Clothing as an existential topic is an impossible thing to tackle in just one book. "Honestly, we stopped writing it like two weeks ago," she laughed. "We could have gone on forever. We could have interviewed every woman in the world."

Like food, fashion choices are often a cultural indicator. Shapton, an artist and graphic novelist, referred to clothing as a "language," explaining it can unify people with common understanding. While it might seem frivolous to some—Julavits said somewhere around five percent of the women they contacted didn't want to participate for fear of delegitimizing their own professional accomplishments—Women in Clothes dives into serious territory. The book is surely whimsical, but also touches on feminist issues and social responsibility.

"The book is implicitly political," Julavits said. "We are all feminist, dealing with the construction of the female identity by what you put on your body. There was no way to not have certainly been touching on some major feminist themes. But we were surprised how political some of the angles became: There are child labor issues, situations abroad, lives in danger. We didn't intend for the book to go in that direction, but it did."

The editors noted that something as seemingly light as one's favorite piece of clothing often elicited heavier emotion. Even women who insisted "clothes were just clothes" admitted their wardrobes represented some form of self-expression. Many noted that their favorite items were gifts or evoked particular memories.

"The things people love are because someone special gave it to them or because they came across it in an unlikely way. No one mentioned an item because it cost the most money," Heti said. "There's usually a human connection or association. One woman talks about how her dad tried to give her something he liked and bought her a sweater she described as an 'Elmo sweater.' That was heartbreaking for her because that sweater signified his attempt."

For Shapton, women's binary approach to clothing was the ultimate takeaway.

"We tried really hard to go diverse, from high to low," Shapton said. "I like to go to shops to see what's happening in culture. But on the other hand, I loved hearing sweatshop workers talking about their experience and the jealousy one woman felt about her bra as she makes bras for a Western market. Both are valid, interesting, and inform how to look at clothes."