They say that clothes maketh the man. But women and their interest in fashion is often dismissed as a frivolous pursuit, a merry preoccupation that is accompanied with giggles, rolling of eyes, and casual dismissals. Yet sociologists, psychologists and zoologists would all concur that the way we choose to present ourselves to the world is hugely important, revelatory about both the inner self and our perceptions of the outer world.
In Women In Clothes, a hefty scrapbook like anthology, essays, lists, images and interviews are all gathered together in order to explore fashion in its relation to the women who wear it. The compendium was curated and compiled by three friends in their thirties – writers Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton. None of them work in fashion, but they are all experts by virtue of wearing the very clothes that the book talks about. Fashion and cosmetics are not only decoration on a ‘blank page’ (Maya Fuhr) but a demonstration and investigation of oneself. The book sees clothes as functional, magical, and pieces of communication in a world where women are individually and collectively navigating their personalities and roles.
Style is something hard to pin down, and this certainly is not a ‘how to dress well’ manual. In total 642 women have added their thoughts, each with a unique perspective. Surveys make up a large majority of the content, and the questions asked are probing. Do you notice women on the street? Who is the ‘other’ person you create when you go out? What is ‘you’ and ‘not you?’ They touch on some particularly relevant political topics. The woman who wears a hijab explains her choice in a proud manner: “You cannot control what I wear to please your desires. My interaction with you is not physical.” Garment workers in Cambodia wonder about the wealthy Western women who will wear the garments they stich for pennies.
The structure is inventive. Sketched maps of women’s bedroom floors are an illuminating invitation into a private space. The ‘Mothers As Others’ montages, images of mother’s as submitted by their daughters and the comments on how they see their style as women is heartwarming. Pamela Baguley’s ‘An Older Woman Going Through Her Closet’ is not just an expose of her wardrobe, but relationships and sexuality associated with those items. Fifteen women in an office photocopy their hands and talk about them, the rings, lines and scars all telling their own small stories. The banality of safety pins and striped shirts is elevated when their role in everyday living every day is considered. Women talk about their bodies, the thing underneath their clothes, and how they feel, with a mix of positivity and acceptance.
It is surprising how many areas fashion infiltrates. The merger between the inner and outer person is far more fluid than we may imagine. Clothing is a visual language. When writing your name, choosing an outfit to wear to a funeral, putting on knickers and brushing your hair, a number of choices and thoughts are being made about how your presentation to the world may be perceived. This subtle and sympathetic examination into what this means for women is both exhilaratingly expansive and domestic in scope. Identities are communicated and forged through what we wear, which is not something to be dismissed as mere fashion triviality.
The final entry is a letter from Lisa Robertson. She describes getting dressed as process of ‘inventing concepts.’ Women In Clothes is less about the fabric, layers, sizes and shops, but that process, and what it means to females today. It’s about being a person, and telling the world who that person is. Inventing one’s self as it were.