Book Review: Women in Clothes

Thirteen navy blazers, from Women in Clothes

Thirteen navy blazers, from Women in Clothes

Women in clothes—it’s not surprising that such a big topic would result in a very big book. This volume weighs in at over 500 pages, some of them in very small print. Edited and masterminded by three writers, Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, it’s based on extensive questionnaires they sent out to hundreds of women. The queries, which fill two and a half densely packed pages, range from the specific, “Do you care about lingerie?” to the very general, “Please describe your mind.” Over 600 women give their responses.

This is a post modern book. Instead of a grand narrative, there are many intriguing fragments made up of memoirs, poems, drawings, photographs, lists, pictures, and questionnaire responses. Sometimes more than one genre occupies a page. I read in the old fashioned way, working from front to back. In retrospect, it probably would have been better to approach it like a coffee table book that you leaf through, reading short sections at random.

It has an impressive range, including the ideas of women from many countries, races, sexualities, and ages. The contributors look at clothes from multiple points of view—from the designer’s, the garment worker’s, and the consumer’s. They examine clothes as sources of smell, tactile pleasures, and objects of memory. I was not very interested in the accounts of obsessive clothing consumption. However, I loved the photographs documenting clothing “collections,” the many things of a similar type that we buy without realizing what we are doing. How is it possible, I wondered, that someone could accumulate thirteen navy blazers? But then I was reminded of the five orange jackets and two orange coats in my own closet.

Although older women’s voices were present in the book, I felt they were underrepresented. They are mainly there as objects, not subjects. Some younger women said they admired the style of the older set (and in fact this was a query on the questionnaire), but many expressed fear and loathing about their own aging. “I’m on my way to being a sexless woman in khaki capri pants,” writes Christen Clifford. “And yes, I am being judgmental. Short gray hair, no shape, boxy bright T-shirts, sneakers. A wacky piece of jewelry. My worst nightmare.”(244)

But here’s an upbeat take away from this massive tome by young New Yorker Leora Morinis. “I admire the unapologetic. I admire women who have a sense of humor about the whole thing. I mean, about our lumpy little bodies roaming around the planet, covered in bits of woven cloth.”(455)

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4 Responses to Book Review: Women in Clothes

  1. I’ll admit that I was never able to “get into” this book. Maybe it was because I was reading a digital copy. I do think the pick up and read what looks interesting would be a better approach.

  2. Norah says:

    I think I’m going to avoid this book, based on Christen Clifford’s comment. I feel self-conscious and awkward enough without having to feel bad about my age too. Why is aging in women so hated and feared in this country? You don’t hear comments such as Christen’s from aging men. So what, should we all just quit our jobs and hide inside so that no one has to look at us? What if we need to support ourselves or our families? Not everyone can work from home, or even wants to or has the right skills/personality to. Since this country is cutting benefits to those who need them, I doubt they’re going to give them to women who are perfectly capable of working, but our only problem is we’re over 40. This is just more “war on women” crap, as far as I’m concerned.

  3. Norah says:

    I meant that Christen’s comment is evidence that there’s a “war on women” in the US.

  4. Norah says:

    For instance, I just watched an ad during one of the NFL games featuring a middle-aged football coach talking about the perks of being an NFL
    coach. One of them was more khaki pants than his brother. A very middle-aged thing, no? Yet I doubt anyone thinks he is sexless, nor does he or any other midle-aged, khaki or chino-wearing man, worry about being sexless.

    Why do we as women worry about this? This reminds me of the woman who walked for 10 hours in NY and had all those catcalls and harassment. Why do men feel we have to be decorative for them? Except that Christen and other women in her age group worry about not being as decorative or sexy anymore. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to be attractive, just that it’s so much harder for women, and men
    are able to live their lives without all this crap or worrying about losing their looks.

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