Women wear clothes. Men do too, actually, but they weren’t the subject of this investigation into our relationships with the things we wear, started by Canadian writer Sheila Heti and brought to fruition with the help of artist Leanne Shapton and co-editor of The Believer Heidi Julavits. Between them, and with the help of 639 other women, they authored Women in Clothes, the satisfyingly chunky new tome which considers every aspect of the way women think about what they choose to put on their bodies, from tote bags and digital wristwatches to the wardrobes of their mothers and questions such as “do you ever wish you were a man?”
Enraptured and excited at the 500 pages worth of wisdom in our hands, we interviewed the three authors, Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, to find out why they made Women in Clothes, what the most important thing they learned was (it’s not what you expect) and why sadly, “life is not a nude hot spring.”
What made you decide to make the book?
HEIDI: I love clothing because I find it to be so psychologically and sociologically revealing. I used to go to nude hot springs in California in my twenties, and while it was never all that strange to be naked with people in a giant hot tub all day it was incredibly weird to see these people in their clothing at night, making dinner in the communal kitchen. These people were so naked in their clothing! They revealed their secret predilections – what colours they liked, whether they preferred to wear tight or loose shirts, whether they had glasses or wore their hair up or forewent bras. Now I could start imagining more of a story about them and their lives. I could place them in the world. But you can only learn so much about a person by looking at them, and we wanted to learn about the choices women made about what they put on their bodies and why. Because life is not a nude hot spring – we all have to put on clothes if we want to leave the house, even if clothing, as a topic, doesn’t particularly interest us. Clothing is a daily fact most of us can’t avoid.
What was the process like of putting the book together? How did you go about it?
SHEILA: There were so many facets to the process – we handed out cards to women on the street asking them to fill out the survey, I’m sure we asked everyone we knew, we contacted journalists in other countries (journalists always know everybody!) and then we went and commissioned work from some of our favourite artists and writers. We were in touch many times a day for about a year and a half – Google hangouts, emails, phone calls. It was pretty crazy, and it took a while to figure out how to structure the book: did we want chapters, did we want pieces that contrasted with each other to be put next to each other? What sort of flow? If you can believe it, in all of this, we had not one fight.
What’s each of your favourite things in the book?
SHEILA: I have so many favourite pieces. I love the piece where all the women who work in one office photograph their hands and talk about the provenance of each ring on their hand. I love rings – it’s the only jewellery I enjoy. Julia Wallace’s interviews with the Cambodian garment workers about what they wear is probably the piece that sticks most with me, as it was the most foreign to anything I had read before. I do like the little transcriptions of dialogue where a woman compliments another woman on something she’s wearing – those interactions are pretty touching.
LEANNE: My favourite might be the Cambodian sweatshop workers talking about what they wear too. It has changed my outlook on clothes forever. I have favourite parts of things: Mac McClelland talking about the odour of stores. Leslie Vollhass actually harvesting odours in a cloakroom, Miranda Purves on the intense desire for an item, Kate Ryan’s shopping trail for Club Monaco, Lisa Naftolin talking about her bra. Zosia Mamet imitating Gisele.
HEIDI: It’s funny that Leanne should mention Mac McClelland and the smell of stores – I had to go to Target yesterday and the smell upon entering was almost comically unbearable. I couldn’t believe anyone was in that store without a mask! And I couldn’t believe it had never occurred to me before to notice that terrible smell, and to link it back to the people who produced these items, people who inhale this smell every day of their lives.
Overall, the book has made me notice new things, and my favourite parts are the little moments that have retooled how I see and experience the world, and better understand the secret stories that are implied. Sheila’s interview with trans writer Juliet Jacques and the power of names (old ones and the ones you choose for yourself), for example, and the women from Black Girls Talking discussing what they call the “contentious” issue of whether or not to keep their hair natural or to straighten it, and how novelist Kiran Desai’s aunt had to stop wearing saris after 9/11 because her son was worried she would look suspicious and be shot. All of these made me understand better what people encounter each morning when they get dressed and go out to face the world.
How do you each feel about dressing now, compared to when you first set out?
LEANNE: The three of us have all admitted to feeling a lot more compassion and connection to other women, both when we see them on the street and when we are dressing ourselves. The book is a proven judgement-reducer.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from making the book?
SHEILA: I think I’ve learned that one should sometimes just go with an idea and not think too hard about it – let the momentum carry on. I sort of sent out these questions to Heidi, and the next thing I knew we were contracted to write a book about women’s relationship to clothes. I remember at one point freaking out – how did this happen?! Do I want to write a book about this!? But I’m glad I didn’t turn around, that we kept going. I’m really glad this book exists.
LEANNE: I’ve learned to be more forthcoming with my sincere compliments about other women’s clothes.
HEIDI: I have learned how much I thought I knew, and how little I actually do know and can tell, from a person’s appearance. I am so much more curious now, and I feel that women are happy to be asked – what’s the story behind that scarf?
Women in Clothes: Why we Wear what we Wear by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton is published by Particular Books on 22 September.
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