By: Emily Yakashiro
At the end of summer I treated myself to the much-anticipated Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and 639 others as a birthday gift to myself. I remember seeing the buzz about the survey circulate, and was surprised to see that they turned it around so quickly. I thought it was a really neat project, and over the past few months I have made my way, cover to cover, through the book.
I was impressed by the relative diversity of the 630+ contributors. There were women of all backgrounds and folks of all genders who had their say on clothing. Not everyone was feminist, not everyone was young super-stylish–it was a good mix of well, women and clothes.
That being said, the diversity of the contributors and interview subjects was not always handled with the sensitivity I would have hoped for; it was a curious inconsistency.
On one hand, for example, when it came to ethics in the clothing industry, I thought the pieces were very deftly handled. Reba Sikder, a garment worker in her teens, shares her account as a survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. It’s harrowing and heartbreaking, I had to put the book down for a week before I could continue reading through.
On the other hand, editor Sheila Heti’s interview with writer and journalist Juliet Jacques stands out to me for being particularly problematic, especially with regards to some of Heti’s questions to Jacques. I’ll let you read it for yourself to see what I mean.
The book sort of read like a super-thick magazine minus all the ad space. There are conversations, interviews, snippets of this and that, pictures, and a few bigger projects that had the feeling of editorials in the context of the book. It wasn’t entirely just about clothes, there were pieces about beauty/make-up, hair, and jewelry/accessories, so it made for a nice mix.
By far my favourite parts of the book were surveys (see scan above) in which the hundreds of contributors weighed in on everything from dressing for another gender to intriguing clothing-related superstitions or rituals. There were so many gems and interesting tidbits, I felt like I was reading the diary of a woman I didn’t know. I would recommend buying the book for this series alone.
Something that surprised me throughout Women in Clothes was the very heavy presence of the book’s three editors. Heti, Julavits, and Shapton seemed to appear on nearly every other page in some way or another. Since the whole schtick of the book is that it was written by these three and “639 others” as it says on the cover, it didn’t necessarily feel that way. With so many contributors, I would have expected (and found myself wanting) more of them, and less of the editors.
I also found myself disappointed by the photographs in the book. The “Collections” series throughout the book felt sterile and generally a waste of ink for the most part–12 pairs of earplugs? 10 floss sticks? 15 empty packages of gum? Great….I would have much rather seen the contributors in the book wearing or otherwise interacting with these pieces that were evidently so intimately important to them. I wonder what prompted this choice to print these objects without any comment from the owner.
There were other projects that I LOVED. “Thirty-six Women” by Miranda July and the “Mothers as Others” project (see scan above) by various contributors were fantastic, and really got me thinking.
Would I recommend you read this book?
Yes, but I would recommend The Worn Archive first for sure–this book was also printed relatively recently, similarly put together, if a little different in overall concept but once you compare the two you’ll see what I mean.
Rating for those of you who like such things to be quantified:
Coffee table book, for reading snippets of something when you have time here and there. It’s not like a sit-down-and-get-absorbed book, it’s like a bus book. It’s also good for starting conversations by asking your friends the questions in the book.
It’s between the size of a novel and a magazine, so a nice size for such a book.
On my bookshelf:
It sits next to my other fashion books–neither in a place of prominence nor hidden away.