I recently, on the recommendation of Roobeedoo, read a most interesting book called Women in Clothes. It was published in 2014 by Particular Books and is by “Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton & 639 others”. It began as a survey of women’s feelings about their clothing, and contains interviews, quotes from the surveys, photographic projects, and more. What it does not contain are photographs of the women interviewed. There are photographs of clothes on mannequins and hangers. The only photographs of women in clothes are those of mothers of some interviewees, before they became mothers, accompanied by commentaries from their daughters.
As someone who sews and knits, and as a woman, I have long been aware that clothes are far from neutral. This book brought out how very far from neutral clothes are. They convey messages, to ourselves and to the world; they involve us in the economics of the production of clothes, how people in other countries are treated, the impact of our choices on the environment, and so forth. Clothes are about race, class, age, aspiration, imagination. We can find comfort in clothes; we can use clothes as a fantastic way of expressing ourselves; we can be misunderstood. We can judge and misunderstand others.
Women in Clothes doesn’t limit itself to reflecting on clothes. Many women – in answer to questions such as “When do you feel most attractive?” discussed their body. (I found it intriguing that at least five women answered this question with “When I’m ovulating”.) I think the book could also have been entitled Women in Bodies.
Like Roobeedoo, I feel there is no way to do a “review” of this book. As Roobeedoo says, this is because “what this book does more than anything else is celebrate difference”. So I thought that I would share some exerpts with you from the book, without commentary, and in order of their appearance in the book. You may consider some of the viewpoints contentious, but if that is the case, you will be in good company. As you will see, clothing, bodies and even scent are never “just” that…
Amanda M. At school, a Muslim girl spoke about why she chose the burka. She said, “You American girls have it rough. You constantly have to be thinking about what looks good on you, how to look hot, how to hide flaws. You’re slaves to fashion. I’m never self-conscious about how sexy I look.” When I see women in full coverings now, I wonder, “Are they freer than I am?” (p. 19)
Claudia Eve Beauchesne It’s difficult to express personal style through clothing or the way you decorate a space, when you live out of a suitcase and occupy spaces for short periods of time, spaces that have been decorated by other people. I suppose a personal style can emerge from transience, but my transience hasn’t been consistent enough for me to build a style around it. I see expressing personal style in everyday life as a luxury. It implies you occupy a space consistently enough to “make it your own” and have a readily available selection of clothes or objects to choose from and add to and subtract from. It also implies you’re willing to spend time thinking about how to express yourself through the selection and arrangement of clothing, furniture, and so on. (p. 73)
Sheilah Ray Coleman From a young age, I was aware of the luxuries in other households – girls whose mothers took them shopping for clothes, who vacationed at Disney or in the Bahamas. Our parents viewed these other families’ values as moral failings (they were labor activists and professors). On the positive side, our household was incredibly rich with people stopping by all the time – writers, artists, and musicians – and with talk of politics and books and ideas. I remember as a little girl telling my dad I thought a friend’s mom was beautiful. I told him how I loved that sometimes she wore an amazing pair of green leather trousers. He rolled his eyes and said green leather pants did not equal beauty; they only made her nouveau riche. (p. 74)
Malwina Gudowska I grew up in a Polish household. As a child, my mother wanted me to be a professional launderer. I now work in the UK in the fashion industry, which pays horribly – an irony that is not lost on anyone I work with, since none of us can afford the clothing we write about. (p. 74)
Amanda Miller I come from a line of low-maintenance ladies. Solid United church stock. Short hair, flat shoes, trousers or A-line skirts, minimal makeup, no fragrance. The women in the family still carry the baggage of a community that believed that fancy things were for lazy, spoiled women with the wrong values in their hearts. (p. 74)
Karima Cammell So many psychological problems fell away when I started tailoring my clothes to my body instead of the other way around. (p. 98)
Liane Balaban Dressing is about helping yourself do the work you were put on this earth to do. Everyone has their own relationship to beauty, but I would say: Don’t be obvious. Try not to buy things that are mass-produced. Flea markets, church bazaars, or local boutiques are good. Curate rather than shop. Your wardrobe should be a collection of beloved pieces you wear for decades. (p. 98)
Ana Zir My world is hospice patients and their families. … I hope they remember me not just for what I do, but because I left a positive impression by the way I dressed. People do notice. Even very sick ones. (p. 134)
Rebecca Ackermann It’s so strange to me that dressing down can signal power for men but never for women. (p. 134)
Melissa Henderson I grew up around educated black people who ingrained in me that style and dressing well were key factors to success and combating stereotypes. I never go out of the house with my hair not done. (p. 134)
Elissa Schappell We focus so much in politics on what women look like – look at the Hillary Clinton headband debacle, or the focus on Michelle Obama’s wearing sleeveless dresses that show off her ripped arms… Does anyone ever say… that Justice Roberts would look less dumpy if he ditched the made-in-China blue suit and showed off his toned ass? (p. 134)
Umm Adam I feel bad for women who spend hours dressing every day, and days or months planning what they will wear for a party and how they can look more attractive… When I see what the women on billboards, commercials, and game shows are wearing, it really aches my heart. I mean no offense to anyone, but it hurts me to see the bodies of these innocent women being used to sell products. And they are made to believe that this is freedom. This is slavery. (139)
Leap, a garment worker in Cambodia: The bras I make are very beautiful with a variety of quality fabric and I sew them very well. The fabric is good, it’s so soft, and it will make the person who wears it feel cool and comfortable. I used to think that if I could have one quality and beautiful bra like I make, I would be really happy and I would be very beautiful. But it’s impossible. These bras are for export, and the price of one of the bras I make is almost equal to my salary. While working, I hold the bra up in front of my face, then I ask myself who is the woman who will wear the bra I am sewing. I also wonder how the women in those countries are so rich and lucky to wear these expensive bras while the person who makes that bra just wears a very cheap one bought from the pile of clothes on the ground under the umbrella. So I feel jealous. (p. 230)
Leslie Vosshall, a smell scientist, sniffing coats in a coatcheck in New York:
Man’s Barbour Oilskin
Oh, this is terrible. This is a deeply conventional man, this is exactly what I was complaining about. The terrible, conventional men’s aftershave called Axe. It’s the biggest blockbuster. The old generation, people in their sixties and seventies, buy Old Spice, but Axe is marketed to teenage boys. Then they grow up and keep wearing it.
Woman’s Tan Wool J.Crew Coat
This smells like really powdery violets. This is someone who is refined and subtle. It’s a very nice scent. I think she’s with the wrong guy. Yeah, I feel for her. It’s gonna end in… They’ll probably make it until the kids are out of the home, and then she’ll realize that there’s really no reason to stay married to him. (p. 258)
Mansoura Ez Eldin One must choose when to rebel with clothing. Three years ago, I participated in the anti-government demonstration known as “Friday of Rage,” which turned out to be the most important and violent day of the January revolution in Egypt. … At the last stop, my friends urged me to use the scarf wrapped around my neck to cover my hair. I refused. … it had been years since I had worn a headscarf, and I refused to put any covering on my head, even for a minute, as compensation for the many years I had unconsciously covered my head as an innocent girl. We exited the metro and instantly ran into Central Security Force officers hiding behind their shields. I quickly put the scarf on my head to avoid any trouble. (p. 175)
Emily Stokes I have a theory that most of the clothes I pick out in stores have ur-versions from my childhood. The ur-version of this skirt, I realize when I get home, is a blue Liberty-print skirt that my sister called her magic skirt. She would pick out shells from the pleats during magic shows she would put on for me while I was in the bath. [Price of skirt purchased:] $78. (p. 290)
Karima Cammell In my family, I was known for my “sausage fingers”. There was a family friend I really respected, a father of one of my friends. One day in the summer when I was reading on the couch, just being an awkward teen and feeling really ugly, he walked through the room and said, “You have the hands of the Madonna.” I realized that we tell ourselves stories about how we think we are. It’s better if it’s a nice story. (p. 329)
Dorla McIntosh [commentary on photo of her mother] It’s ‘60s-70s in the Caribbean. She’s about six feet tall. You can’t see her feet but she has size 13 triple E feet. She’s carrying a Bible and a songbook, which means she’s going to church, and she probably made the dress herself, with the long collar. She was a seamstress. And she’s not really looking at the camera, which is exactly right for her. I think she was probably very shy and still is. She was always proud that I could read. The only time she wouldn’t let me read was when I was cooking. She made me wear socks and shoes in the Caribbean in the frickin’ heat. Later I understood, it was because she had such big feet she couldn’t buy shoes, and so she had to stop going to school. She didn’t tell me this until much later. It made me really sad. For her it was pride that her daughter was going to school and she could provide socks and shoes. The thing I remember the most are those long legs. I just remember being around her legs all the time.
Shani Boianjiu Here are my ten fashion Dos and Don’ts for the teenage Israeli female soldier. 1. Don’t wear lipstick. It’s not allowed. It will get stolen. You’re no Angelina Jolie. Your guy is no Brad Pitt. He is a dude whose interests are balancing plastic spoons on his nose and clapping. …. 5. Do wear a linked dozen 7.62 bullets as a necklace. (p. 355)
Renate Stauss Haptology is the science of touch. A haptology professor in Leipzig did tests where you feel an object without looking at it, then draw what you feel. The drawings done by anorectics were really off. In the same way they had an inaccurate perception of, say, the size of their own thighs, they could not accurately feel or draw the shape of an object. … He wondered whether you could remap their body image to make it more realistic. He came up with a neoprene wetsuit. His patient would wear this for one hour a day, then three hours a day – so there’s the constant stimulating touch of the wetsuit…. The results were incredible in terms of weight gain. (p. 406)
Nancy Forde I’ve never felt as beautiful as I did in the days after giving birth to my daughter. In the days that followed, I felt transformed. … When I became a mother, I didn’t become someone else. I simply experienced a version of myself that had been hidden from me until my daughter burst into the world. (p. 421)
Heidi Julavits The older I get, the less interested I am in how my clothing looks, and the more interested I am in how clothing feels on my body. … I mean literally the feel registered by my body when I put clothing on it. … When I got to the beach, I lay front-first on the hot rocks. … I thought, Why doesn’t anyone make dresses that feel like smooth, hot rocks against your skin? This struck me as such a colossal oversight. People design clothing that makes you imagine you might be the sort of person to lie on a beach of hot rocks – a frequenter to St. Tropez – but they don’t design clothing that makes you feel like you’re lying on a beach… (p. 424)
Farah Bashir I have … multiple sleeveless tops, as I love my shoulders, but for the last year I have hardly had the “societal permission” to wear those. I have to depend on occasions when I go out with my husband to enjoy wearing those tops. (p. 427)
Rebecca Scherm My husband sees his body as himself, and as a tool to do what he wants to do. I see my body as a case for my self, which lives inside my body. I think of my body as my adversary, something that often keeps me from doing what I want to do. (p. 438)
Beth Follett … I [used to work] as a therapist, most often with women survivors of sexual and other forms of physical abuse. During my practice I saw hundreds of women who carried deep shame in their bodies, broadcasting that shame and confusion in their gestures, habits, and ever-changing manner of dress. I believe all women carry shame to some degree, and it has been my practice to explore where and how mine resides in or moves through my living body. I would rather not hide the facts of my living self through tricks. (p. 439)
Advice and Tips section: “Try not to eat cake every day.” – Friederike Girst (p. 455)
“If it’s over a hundred bucks, wait twenty-four hours. Money is freedom. Don’t give away your freedom for assimilation.” – Amy Turner (p. 456)
Rachel Andes Sometimes I wish I could walk down the street like a man and not be scared of other men. Which is not really wanting to be like a man. I just don’t like men staring at me on the street or making comments. I would probably dress sexier if men didn’t exist. (p. 464)