There’s a very particular feeling to those micro conversations that happen – on the street, in a lift, in a cafe – when one woman compliments a stranger. It’s an awkward sweetness, as well as the glow of the conspiratorial, the spontaneously generous and the truthful. This is the same feeling that runs throughout Women in Clothes, a compendium of interviews, photographs and various projects, curated and compiled by the writers Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, three friends in their 30s. None of them is a “fashion person”, at least not in any professional sense. Instead, like the 639 others who have contributed to this crowd sourced treasure, they’re just women in clothes, albeit women who have undertaken the task of trying “to make three dimensional all the two dimensional women we take in” with a thoroughness that seems almost anthropological.
They also seem to have had a lot of fun with the project, and a sense of play flickers throughout. They made business cards that said: “I like what you’re wearing!”, which they would hand to women on the street whose style piqued their curiosity, inviting them to fill out a survey about how they got dressed and why. Compliments (presented as a tiny play with a setting and script) are a recurring feature, as is a satisfying photo series of various women’s distinguishing items: “Amy Rose Spiegel’s false eyelashes worn over the course of one week”; “Bay Garnett’s leopard print tops”.
Much of the book is made up of conversations but all of it has this “speaky” tone. It means that the few pieces that are”written”, as in the ones striving to convey some kind of image on the behalf of their author, stick out awkwardly, like an overly self conscious outfit in which the wearer feels uncomfortable.
Some entries are stunningly moving. There’s an interview with garment workers in Cambodia, in which one woman wonders enviously about the wealthy western customer who will wear the bras she stitches. Or an interview with a woman who wears a hijab, proudly explaining her choice: “You cannot control what I wear to please your desires. My interaction with you is not physical.” Particularly illuminating is the interview with writer Juliet Jacques, a trans woman negotiating the double bind of getting attacked for both not looking feminine enough, “because you’re not trying to pass”, and for looking overly feminine, “for reiterating gender stereotypes”.
“Clothes are everything” sounds like some exhortation to spend, as issued through the pages of a glossy magazine. But “women in clothes are everything” constitutes a whole other message: that the humdrum matter of what fabric we put on our bodies and how we choose to present ourselves every day matters deeply.
Like the very best non fiction, plus size womens clothes Women in Clothes leaves you convinced that its subject might, in fact, be a way of understanding everything worth trying to understand. More extraordinarily, it also manages, through the cumulative power of all these individuals’ words, to do what the best and most honest fiction does: it makes you feel less alone.