“Everyone Is a Woman in Their Own Way”: Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton on ‘Women in Clothes’

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Just as this year’s September issues are being lugged to the recycling bin, along comes the brand-new book Women in Clothes — edited by the all-star team of writers and artists Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton — as a true fashion bible, using the essays and insights of 639 women of all stripes to create a comprehensive and enjoyable look at women’s relationships with fashion. In fact, Women in Clothes is basically the September issue of your dreams, leeched of all the aspirational fashion bullshit, and leaving us with nothing but the smartest, most interesting voices discussing fashion through such lenses as gender, class, ethics, and race.

There are moments of loveliness — “Mothers as Others,” a series of photos of contributors’ mothers looking amazing; conversations with women at a clothing shop; punk icon Kim Gordon; human rights journalist Mac McCelland; and essays by writers like Elif Batuman and Sarah Nicole Prickett. And that’s barely scratching the surface of this dense book, which runs a bit over 500 pages and can be read back-to-front, dipped into, or just savored on a Sunday afternoon. It inspires variety of emotions wrapped up in clothes, from annoyance to ecstasy. The result is absorbing and, most of all, surprising. I had the chance to interview all three editors over email.

Flavorwire: It’s funny reading Women in Clothes in comparison to Worn Stories — if Worn Stories is a bon bon of fashion, yours is the whole store. I was wondering what inspired you to take on so many different aspects of how women interpret fashion and how fashion shapes women.

Heidi Julavits: I think all of us — Leanne and Sheila and I — thrive in situations where the focus is narrow and yet that narrow focus suddenly enables you to be really creative and wide-ranging. It’s a constriction that’s totally freeing. That’s how this book felt. We started with this basic idea: we all must wear clothing, even if we are not actively interested in clothing. Clothing is a daily fact we can’t avoid. That being the case, how do women decide what to put on their bodies? It really excited us to represent this interrogation kaleidoscopically, and to create an experience, as Leanne has said, that’s not unlike rummaging through a woman’s closet.What would your dream fashion magazine be called, and what would women learn from it?

Leanne Shapton: I had a dream fashion magazine. It was called Cheap Date and was about thrift store shopping and dressing however the F*** you wanted and just blew my mind when I discovered it in a downtown Toronto bookstore. It made the fashion world less about exclusion and more about friendship and pranks and how wearing clothes could be fun and irreverent. Its co-founders Bay Garnett and Kira Jolliffe contributed to Women in Clothes. I’m wondering if there’s possibly a sequel on the horizon — women and beauty, maybe?

LS: We do cover beauty in the book, when women talk about fake eyelashes and lip balms, makeup and hair. Flossing, sleep, nail polish. Grooming. And there is as much on the body as there is about clothes.

HJ: There’s a piece by the women of the Black Girls Talking podcast where they talk about the “contentious” issue of whether to straighten their hair or go natural. Former Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl talks about her experience with makeup and wigs and how these things totally changed how she was received in the world (she has a funny story about being hit on by a guy when she was, for the night, “a blonde” with long painted fingernails). There’s also a feature in the book called “Wear Areas,” where about twenty different women annotated a blank body outline drawn by Leanne.

What was the collaborative process like? What tools and technology assisted it?

HJ: The collaborative process was entirely enabled by technology — none of us were in the same country for the most intense months, and so we relied entirely on Skype and Google chat and email and Dropbox. Our whole book was compiled somewhere in the sky over the Atlantic Ocean, that’s how I like to think of it! Also we used social media and email to spread the survey as far and wide as possible, to get the most diverse possible range of respondents. Basically we used new technology to make a piece of old technology — a book — but one that really honors, in the way it’s structured, the “new” way we read and encounter information. There’s no right way to read our book — you can enter at any point, and jump around as you like. But we’ve also structured it so that people who want to read it cover-to-cover will have a satisfactory experience as well. Collectively, your past works have taken really interesting risks with skewing very personal/interior/specific, and sometimes, as a reader, I’ve been initially reluctant, only to fall in love. I feel like the pitch for Women in Clothes — that it’s about women, in clothes — is similar, and I’m curious about the balance between fun and substance, and whether it matters.

Sheila Heti: I have always thought art should be entertaining — by which I mean, it should keep you there — but there are so many ways of keeping a person there. A person can be kept there because they’re angry and frustrated, too. Yet even if you’re angry and frustrated, you should still be deriving some pleasure from that. We’ve all played with form in our books, which made this collaboration very natural. I think we all like deliciousness, but equally depth. Anyway, we didn’t go into the book with preconceived ideas of what would be acceptable, form-wise, and what would be unacceptable, except that we wanted it to feel more like a book than an anthology, if that makes sense.

What surprised you in making this book?

LS: How fun it was to collaborate with Sheila and Heidi over email and Google chat. Also about how many women were excited to talk in depth and in funny and vulnerable ways about the complicated issues they face when dressing. One other surprising thing was how little self-loathing women had about their bodies.

HJ: I was surprised by how truly collaborative the book became — not just between the three of us, but between us and all of our contributors, as well. A woman would send in a survey and one of her answers would make us think — “hey, we should have a piece in the book that deals with smell!” Or whatever. This gets back to the kaleidoscopic approach, the tight focus that also allowed us a lot of freedom. We had the freedom to constantly poke at our approach to the topic of dressing, and we received regular prodding and inspiration from the many women who filled out surveys, and made us continually consider the book in new ways.

Which women surprised you with their contributions?

HJ: The survey respondents surprised me by being so personal and full of conviction and yet so non-judgmental about other women. Nobody regurgitated “rules” that they’d read in a magazine; everyone had firm beliefs about what they felt belonged on their bodies, and which they in no way were attempting to foist on anyone else. Young Kim, a woman who cares very much about clothing, said in her survey, “It’s not important to everyone and there is nothing wrong in it not being important to someone.” I thought that was so elegantly stated, and really captured the spirit of “this is me, now tell me about you.”

What kinds of conversations did you and the contributors have about how pain plays into women’s relationships with clothing — be it money, class, weight, etc.?

SH: I think the most pain came from people who were in unhappy economic situations. This was most apparent in the interviews Julia Wallace did with Cambodian garment workers, one of whom speaks of holding a bra in front of her — a bra she is sewing in a factory, unable to imagine the woman who will one day wear it, thinking how beautiful she would be if she could wear it. But certain American respondents experienced this pain, too. One woman tells of trying on clothes in a department store that she’d never be able to afford, and how great and professional they made her feel, but that ultimately it was this “little fantasy.”

HJ: I think that you can never overestimate the influence of a person’s place in history on what they wear and how they act in those clothes. Cath Le Couteur writes about the queer scene in Sydney in the 1990s, and how a lot of the sexy bluster and in-your-face style aggression that she and her friends practiced was a means to counteract the prevailing notion that gays should not have sex, period, as a means of fighting AIDS. Lots of people were dying of AIDS at the time and so she dressed like an angel to bring cigarettes to her sick friends in the hospital. She tells about having to get up the courage to pass some drunk boys who were harassing her and asking, “what are you? Girl or boy?” And she walks up them and gets into their faces and simply says, “Yes.”

What have you learned about the ethics of clothes in the Western world?

SH: We interviewed the Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland about this — and the conclusion she came to (she is a woman who doesn’t buy herself clothes) is that there’s really no good solution. You can say it’s bad to shop at places like H&M because the (mostly women) who work in the factories that make these are labouring under terrible conditions, yet the minimum wage in America is so low that many people cannot afford clothes except those that are made in these factories.

So it’s hard propose a likely ethics of clothes in America when wages are so low. I would like our book to help a little bit, simply by saying: maybe you don’t need to buy and consume as much. Maybe a new shirt is not the solution. Shop more carefully and make what you have last.

By seeing how women interpret clothes, has your definition, whatever it is, of “how to be a woman” changed or evolved in some way?

SH: Everyone is a woman in their own way — this is what the book showed me, more than anything. I think before I might have felt a bit of “there’s some secret that other women know that I don’t know” when it came to dressing or womanhood in general, but I don’t feel like that now. Everyone just lives — and dresses — in their own way, given the circumstances of their lives.

HJ: I think before this book I was attracted to certain women on the street who might give me a clue about myself and how I might become a different and ideally better version of myself. Now I care more about women who don’t tell me anything about myself. I just want to learn more about them.