An ever-changing cast of concerns factors into how we dress on a given day—our mood, the weather, how much time we have to get ready, where we’re going, who we expect to see. Longing to know the secrets behind how and why women dress the way they do, writers Sheila Heti, Leanne Shapton, and Heidi Julavits have joined forces on a soon-to-be completed book, Women in Clothes: Why We Wear What We Wear.
The book, due out next year from Penguin, will include offerings from inspiring thinkers and artists like Miranda July and Zadie Smith. And in the spirit of collaboration (and Shine Theory, perhaps?) the three editors are asking for those interested in participating to submit answers to a style survey they’ve created specifically for the purpose of the book. Here, Sheila, Leanne, and Heidi explain a bit more about the project, the virtues of group think, and, of course, clothes:
What inspired you to start working on this project?
Sheila Heti: I went to the bookstore one day looking for a very specific book. I wanted to know what women thought about when they bought clothes, and what they were thinking as they put outfits together. What factors were they considering? I wanted to learn from other women, so I could dress myself better, the same way I read the Paris Review Interviews as a teenager to learn how writers thought, so I could be a better writer. It's not terribly useful to see outfits, I think it's much more useful to see thinking. I was surprised that I couldn't find any book even remotely like this, so it seemed right to make it. It also seemed obvious that I should collaborate with Leanne and Heidi, so I asked them within weeks of that bookstore visit and they said Yes. They had their own reasons for wanting to work on this book.
Heidi Julavits: I am a novelist. It was recently pointed out to me how much attention I devote to dressing my characters. I'd never thought about this before, but this observation revealed to me how I see both characters and people. I read humans, and in particular women, through the clothing they put on their bodies. I understood their outfits as public witnesses to their more secret selves. The impulse wasn't about fashion consciousness or brand awareness—it was about honoring this information as important. Intentionally or not, a woman reveals many things—her ambitions, her anxieties, her life philosophy—through how she dresses herself.
What caused you to want to collaborate on this particular project?
Leanne Shapton: We've all always collaborated on projects together—Heidi and Sheila on The Believer, Sheila and I on a book and a lecture series. It was a natural progression to work on this together. We all have different relationships to this topic, and part of what is so fun about the collaboration is melding our understanding of style. The book gave us an excuse to start talking about this stuff in depth, and once we realized how differently we approached what seemed to be a commonly shared act—getting dressed—we wanted to reach out to other women, and learn from them, too. We also have similar work ethics and respect for deadlines, which helps.
What do you hope or expect to receive from these style surveys?
Leanne Shapton: We've got about 150 completed so far and they keep coming in. We didn't have specific expectations, but we hoped that we'd hear women explaining something private about themselves and their habits. What's been great is when women really go deep and talk about their insecurities and confidences and histories and the real reasons behind their choices. We love when we get answers that aren't meant to impress a readership or make the subject sound chic. For example, instead of anodyne answers like "I love pairing vintage with designer," we're getting stories from women about refugee fathers, lost grubby sweatshirts, and the smell of their mother's hair.
Fill out the survey at womeninclothes.com, and look for the book next year.
Photo: CNP Montrose/Richard Rutledge, Glamour Magazine, Sept 1948