Whitney Bauck is an artist and writer whose work engages questions of gender and embodiment. She blogs regularly at Unwrinkling.com, where she endeavors to consider fashion from an intellectually and theologically grounded perspective.
“Books are by their nature private and public — a book is a public thing, but it’s read privately — but writing-as-dialogue is open to the community in another way: not everyone can write but everyone talks.” This statement by journalist Michael Ventura aptly encapsulates the spirit of Women in Clothes.
Conceived and edited by New York-based authors Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits and artist Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes consists of a compilation of interviews, journal entries, photo essays, conversation snippets and more collected from over 600 women. The book uses the voices and experiences of women from a broad array of backgrounds to examine the basic questions that drive Woman as she stands in front of her closet each morning.
Much of the book grew from a survey sent out by the editors, which includes questions about everything from cultural heritage to daily habits. Responders ranged from a hijab-defending Muslim to a transgender women in London, from an Egyptian TV personality to a sparkly-shoe-wearing American five-year-old. The result of this diversity is a pleasant cacophony of stories that combine to create a volume that feels like a truly immersive exploration of what it means to be a woman in clothing—regardless of age, class, race, occupation, religion or geography.
Moreover, Women in Clothes is peppered with unconventional imagery that enhances the overall thrust of the volume without appearing overly illustrative or flashy. While many books dealing with contemporary fashion rely heavily on glossy images that render them almost magazine-like—an approach that may garner instant appeal but also makes the content feel quickly dated—the visual aspect of Women in Clothes appropriately mirrors the current but somehow timeless nature of the interviews. The collections of images included stand as entries in their own right, rather than accompanying specific texts. Both recurring visual motifs and one-off artworks exist in the volume. Examples of the former include photographic records of items people collect in multiple, from denim jackets to vintage three-inch heels, while the latter describes anything from india ink paintings of clothing stains to a line drawing of clothes discarded on the floor while getting dressed for a special event.
Notably, the only photographic depictions of actual women in clothing are vintage ones, in which women discuss either outfits that were important to them as young children, or clothing their mothers are wearing in photos taken before their daughters were born. Though the book could have leaned on the star power of easily recognizable celebrity contributors like Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson or Miranda July, the absence of these famous faces has the effect of leveling the playing field for all contributors. Flying in the face of the world of fashion magazines, blogs and celebrity Instagrams, which generally operate by the unspoken rule that “those who look best have the most authority,” Women in Clothes implicitly declares, “The fact that you are a woman and that you wear clothes is enough to make you an authority. You do not have to be the most on-trend or the closest adherent to what’s considered culturally beautiful to have worthwhile thoughts on, and experiences of, apparel.”
While the opinions of important public figures like celebrities or artists are included in Women in Clothes, the organization of the book gives equal weight to the teenage Israeli soldier talking about her uniform as it does to the designer talking about her boutique. The resulting democracy of opinion makes for a surprisingly well-balanced view of what clothing actually is and does.
This supports the overarching message of this non-linear tome, which is that the act of clothing oneself is a much richer and deeper aspect of human existence than is often recognized—and one common to all of us. By asking questions that have little to do with being on top of what’s “in” or having a vast knowledge of fashion histories, the editors access the truly universal aspects of having a relationship with one’s attire. Keeping in mind that everyone wears clothing and thus has some opinions about it, the editors formatted interviews and surveys in such a way that those who feel outside the traditional boundaries of the fashion industry and history are not estranged. Yet the freshness and depth with which the editors engage questions of dress result in a book that will, I suspect, be as refreshing and worthwhile to the seasoned fashion critic or historian as it is readable to the fashion virgin.
One of the biggest possible objections to the book is its gender exclusivity. While there is nothing wrong per se with making a volume specifically geared towards women, it does seem a pity that most men will likely miss out on the riches enclosed between these two covers based on the title alone. After all, one of the implicit tenets of the book is that clothing is important for everyone, regardless of who they are, and the nuggets of truth contained in Women in Clothes often have more to do with being a human than they do with being a woman specifically.
Nonetheless, Women in Clothes provides a refreshing lens through which to view the activity of dressing. It successfully offers a golden mean for those looking to walk the line between the extremes of over-examination of clothing by the fashion establishment, or complete dismissal by those who see fashion as a superficial waste of energy. Neither a fashion academic’s resource nor a newbie’s introduction to clothing theory, Women in Clothes attains exactly the status it attempts: that of a thoughtful, democratic look at the purpose, function and meaning of clothing at it is embedded in and contextualized by real life today. By relying on diverse voices and diverse avenues for considering attire, Women in Clothes facilitates deep thinking about the real significance of what we put on our bodies.
Have you read Women in Clothes? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
All images courtesy of Whitney Bauck.