A couple of years ago, the writer Sheila Heti was dating a guy who had really distinctive style, and it made her realize that her own style had been, if not neglected, a relatively unexamined area of her life. She went looking for a book that might guide her thinking on fashion—not in the sense of what was on trend, or which silhouettes flattered her body type, but one about how women approach the task of deciding what to wear. She never did find that book. So, under the guise of a story, she sent a survey about personal style to her friends. The alleged article swiftly turned into a real book when the novelist and Believer editor Heidi Julavits suggested they expand upon the original questionnaire and distribute them widely. The friends recruited the artist, author, and publisher Leanne Shapton to help them with the process of documenting how and why women across the world get dressed.
The result, Women in Clothes (Blue Rider Press, September 4),is a 500-page compilation of essays, interviews, art, and photographs that explore the psychology of personal style. Hundreds of women answered the survey of more than 50 questions, which are organized throughout the book by category: “Women Looking at Women,” “Breasts,” “What’s the situation with your hair?” or “Men Looking at Women,” for example. There’s also a Q&A about the ethics of shopping at the GAP; a feature in which a professional smell scientist sniffs through the coats in a NYC coat check closet; a devastating interview with a woman who survived the 2013 garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh; and a photo essay in which several young women share random thoughts while getting their hair braided. There are contributions from celebrities, artists, and fashion insiders like Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Kim Gordon, and Miranda July, as well as the anonymous, the religious, and the non-style-oriented.
When I called Julavits to talk about the process of sifting through hundreds of contributions to present a cross-section of the political, aesthetic, and intimate roles fashion plays in women’s lives, she did not fail to note that she was wearing children’s leg warmers, in a graphic mushroom pattern, which she’d unearthed at a thrift store in Maine.
When you started working on “Women in Clothes,” how were you trying to differentiate what you were doing from the books and magazines that were already out there?
We are all readers of fashion magazines and have nothing against them. I think it was more that we wanted to ask some different questions. We were trying to look at clothing less as a status marker or a fashion marker, and more as a way to tell a story. We were also looking at the idea of clothing as a psychological representation of the person who’s wearing it. When I’ve been thinking about why clothing is weirdly so revealing, I think about being in my 20s, when I used to go to a lot of nude hot springs in Northern California. You would hang out with all these people in these hot springs all day long. You’d meet people naked, and you’d talk to them all day. It was strangely very comfortable; there was nothing awkward about it. What was awkward was to see people in their clothes after you’d been with them naked. Somehow, these people were revealing so much more about themselves by having clothes on. Suddenly you start to categorize them. You’re learning more about their identities, or at least how they want to present themselves to the world, and that tells you so much more about people than just their naked bodies.
The surveys constitute an important portion of this book, and what made them so interesting to me was the wide range of perspectives they represented. What were your outreach efforts like in distributing the survey?
From the beginning we knew we wanted to have a very diverse group. So our initial attempt to spread it far and wide took the form of these beautiful business cards that Leanne designed and had printed up. We were all traveling quite a bit during the formulation stage of the book, and so everywhere we went we would take these cards with us. Or, even if I was on the street in New York, I would give the cards to people. Then we posted the survey on our website, and we also contacted women in other parts of the world, women we knew had a fairly broad reach, to help distribute it for us.
In general the most difficult boundary to transcend, or the place where I felt we had to try the hardest, was in terms of class. We really wanted to get the perspectives of people who didn’t have computers, but if they don’t have a computer, and they’re not online all the time, instantly that means they’re going to be harder for us to reach. So that was part of why we were giving the survey to people who were working abroad, in India, for example, and trying to get them to go to villages, to try to interview people. We had a woman who was going and actually speaking with people who wouldn’t be able to go online.
There are plenty of celebrities and fashion insiders who participated in the book as well. Was there a difference in the way people who were well known—who had a reputation to uphold—responded to the survey, compared to those who are relatively unknown or anonymous?
We had a big discussion in the beginning of the process where we were like, “No famous people, no fashion people—we want this book to be about women in the world.” And then we realized there were people out there who really interested us, and we wanted to hear their responses. Who cares if they’re famous or not? But whether it was a fashion or non-fashion person, every once in awhile we would come across a survey where somebody really did give answers that felt like it was the culture talking and not them talking. I’m surprised that didn’t happen more often. But we underestimated a lot of people, too.
Did you have any experience working in fashion before you started working on this book? How’d your professional background impact your approach to the project?
No one has asked me this, and I haven’t even thought about it! In fact, my first job when I moved to New York was at Ralph Lauren. I got placed there through a temp agency. Then, later, I worked for a few years at Esprit. See, I do have some fashion background, it turns out, and I’d forgotten about it!
But I think by the time I came to this book I was thinking about clothing as a novelist. My love for clothing as a novelist comes from my love for observing people, and I’ve always very, very carefully studied women and how they dress. You look at a person and there’s a code to break there. You’re not going to be right all the time; you’re in fact almost always going to be wrong. [laughs] But I think for me it was my sort of ceaseless attention to what people are wearing and how their appearance suggests an entire narrative. Everybody walking down the street toward you is a story you could write.
I was interested to see a few people or ideas pop up over and over again. For instance, Hillary Clinton was a common reference point. What were some recurring themes that surprised you?
Beyonce was also in there a lot. But I think what ended up surprising all of us the most about the book is how political it was. I don’t think we necessarily set out to make a book that was political. We really set out to explore, like, this is a topic that matters to all of us and we think it matters to a lot of other people, too. We feel like it’s a subject where you can be smart, and you can be vulnerable, and you can be a variety of things simultaneously that sometimes you’re not allowed to be. So while it didn’t surprise us to learn that clothing was political from a feminist standpoint, or from a female identity standpoint, what surprised us was just how implicitly political the act of getting dressed is.
One thing that really mattered to us was to not be prescriptive in any way. We don’t want people to come away from this book thinking, ‘Ah! This is how I have to live my life. This is how I have to dress.’ We wanted to give a very full, complicated, sometimes contradicting portrait of this daily ritual of getting dressed, and the choices that go into it. We all get a lot of pleasure out of clothing and getting dressed and so we would hate to rob people of that. We want the book to inspire people to take more pleasure in this act, and to see it as intellectual, and to see it as political, and to see it as emotional, and to embrace that. And if that means going and buying an “It bag,” then you should do that, you know? We didn’t want to pass judgment.