Book Review: Women in Clothes

When people talk about clothes, much attention is paid to the “what.” With celebrities in particular, the items a person wears and who makes them attract considerable media coverage. These shallow questions paint a person’s interest in clothes as being superficial. Yet this narrow view of fashion ignores a much richer, more interesting question: the “why.” The rationale behind the clothes, how they make a person feel, and the sense of identity she gets from them is both more personal and engaging than merely their make and model.


Image courtesy of Women in Clothes

Women in Clothes began as a conversation among friends exploring their own personal “whys.” Eager to learn more, Canadian writers Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton sent surveys to their friends, friends of friends, and women they admired. In total, the responses of 639 women appear in the book. The resulting collection of words and images goes far beyond “Who Wore it Best?” columns to illustrate the psychological impetus behind style.


Image courtesy of Unwrinkling

For some, clothes serve as a way of remembering. Think of a time when you’ve hesitated cleaning out your closet, rationalizing decisions to keep ill-fitting items because of the memories they hold. Many women received lessons in fashion from their mothers, as illustrated in the series “Mothers as Others.” For this exercise, contributors were asked to share photographs of their mothers from before they had children and comment on them. While a woman’s style may be influenced by people from her past, how she interprets and presents it remains entirely her own.


Image courtesy of It’s Nice That

Across the boards, women mention the transformative power clothing holds. Trans women discuss the difficulties of passing in a judgmental society and how clothing serves as a comforting suit of armor. Black women converse about the concept of relaxing “good hair,” the personal choice to go natural, and the pressure women feel from both camps. Factory workers in Cambodia explain the cultural caché associated with brightly colored knockoff items purchased at the local market. Regardless of income, the impulse to express oneself through personal style remains strong. While fashion magazines tend to assume women dress for others, Women in Clothes asserts that women gain power and confidence by dressing for themselves.

Want to participate? Visit their website and fill out the survey for yourself.

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