Review: Women in Clothes


Women in Clothes
edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton


2014 • 528 pages • Blue Rider Press

I’ve started wearing blue lipstick recently. I’ve also started wearing purple lipstick—true, dark, royal purple, not berry or mauve—but they both get the kind of attention I want. With the warm tones in my face neutralized by how dark and cold they are, I look… different. Women are usually pleasantly baffled by it; men are repelled. Cute shop girls ask me where I get it. I leave fantastical, cosmic lip marks on coffee cups and apples. I actually had a teenage girl timidly touch me on the shoulder at a museum exhibit to compliment me on it, staring at my mouth like she’d simply never conceived of the idea before and found something inspiring about it.

What those lipsticks give me is something incredibly rare: power over the way other people see me. As a femme queer, I have so been long resigned to being visually misread that I’ve reached the point of just not caring and doing whatever I want, since people usually just begin and end with my hair anyway. Stumbling across something that disrupts what I had previously believed to be something completely static feels like finding a magic wand.

The decisions we make about what we wear, no matter how conscious or conscious, speak to how we interact with both the outside world and our inner world. Women in Clothes, a massive project undertaken by editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, explores those decisions by asking over six hundred women (and a few male transvestites) what their clothes mean to them. Largely, they used a survey (which you can look at here), but there are also interviews, diagrams drawn by women about their bodies, maps of the discarded clothes left on the floor, and collections of similar clothing owned by one person, just to name a few.

Taken in concert, it’s breathtaking. So often, women’s voices, if included at all, are given to us piecemeal—consider the isolation of Jane Austen in the Western literary canon when she should be rubbing shoulders with her own beloved Fanny Burney. Seeing more than one included is a delight; seeing hundreds? It feels like a magnificent roar. There can be no consensus on what clothes mean to women because women are not a monolith—and, of course, the powers and joys of style are not exclusive to one gender. The power of Women in Clothes is inherent to how heterogeneous and varied it is. As those surveyed bare their souls (consciously or not) about their self-expression, you are bound to find something that speaks to you so powerfully it hits you in the gut.

I almost feel like I can’t scratch the surface in an accessible, representative way here because Women in Clothes is simply so massive. Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. It made me reevaluate a lot of things about myself, and not just stylistically. There’s a section where women were asked to provide photographs of their mothers before they had children and comment on them, which reveals both their relationship to their mothers, to themselves, and to their mother’s style (which can be a way of keeping her alive if she’s passed). I remember very specifically looking up into my reflection in the subway window from the book and thinking of a photo of my mother as a teenager or young woman, long before my brother was born, where she has masses and masses of beautiful, wavy hair. Could that photo, glimpsed once or twice as a preteen, have influenced my later and current obsession with having long, witchlike, pre-Raphaelite hair? It’s strange to find a possibly subconscious influence where I never thought of any relationship existing between the way my mother styles her hair and the way I style mine that might speak to how we relate to each other.

Women in Clothes is all about exposing, analyzing, and articulating all that strange connective tissue that rarely makes it to the surface in a world that . The power we invest in clothes as cultures and as a species; the armor-like purposes of clothing; the boundaries we try to set with our clothing and our styling. So I’ll leave you with a quote from Renate Strauss, one of the interviewees:

Clothing is context-dependent, it’s culture-dependent, it’s class-dependent. Dress is not a language you learn to speak and then everybody understands you. Because of this, clothing is more of a code—like music—that alludes to things; again, it is context-dependent, it has underscoring. (405)

(Oh, at one point, Sheila Heti makes the faux pas of asking Juliet Jacques about her birth name, which she should really know better about. Yeesh. Just a heads up.)

I rented this book from the public library.

7 thoughts on “Review: Women in Clothes

  1. Maggie Stiefvater was saying the other day on her blog that she wants to look on the outside the way she feels on the inside. I wish that for myself too — clothes-wise, I think I do a reasonable job of approximating what I am like, or at least there are certain clothes I own that make me look like what I feel like. But with hair and makeup, I never feel anywhere close. Well done you for finding a way to look what you feel like.

    The closest I have ever felt to truly controlling what other people saw when they looked at me was by wearing my friend’s boa constrictor. People look at me and see mild and sweet usually (I can tell because they apologize for swearing in front of me). It was fucking magical to have people see me and think “maybe better not mess with this one”. (Which in fact is true. The snake never bites, but I do.)

  2. Yes to everything you felt about the book! I know we talked about it during our meet up, but I just loved it for all of the same reasons. 😀

    I naturally read as very cute & nonthreatening, so perhaps I’ll have to make my own purple lipstick experiments for the days when I just want to look more cynical. I do enjoy having the freedom to dress however I want; I don’t blend in at all where I live, and I like that. Because I don’t have a typical yuppie lifestyle or beliefs or interests, and it’s nice to be able to show that by dressing differently. However, I feel most myself in full knee length skirts, and quirky brooches, which is too traditionally feminine to read as powerful. But I refuse to give up the swishiness of poofy skirts just because our society devalues anything associated with femininity!

    • EXACTLY. Why I really love the blue/purple lipstick situation is that it’s both screamingly femme (overt cosmetics!) and screamingly unpandering to a traditional male gaze (I walked by a pair of frat boys once whilst wearing blue lipstick, and they both went “WTF!” very loudly as I walked past. CORRECT REACTION). What is traditionally feminine can be and is powerful.

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