LAST SUMMER I read Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and then spent too much time ogling photos of her online. My love for her grew from reading her smart, funny, absurd, deeply resonant novel, and only after did I realize that I also very much admire and would love to someday emulate the author’s aesthetic. This is the opposite of the way most of my girl crushes, as they’re often called, develop. Usually, I dig someone’s style, and then go on to learn about their work, story, self — or, tragically more often, I don’t, and admire, instead, from afar.
But in Women in Clothes, edited by Heti, along with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, we get the chance to learn more about the women behind all our platonic, at times surface-level crushes. Women in Clothes is a contemplation of style, a consideration of the many ways it shapes our lives. Featured in the book are the thoughts and stories of the women who sit across from us on the subway, stun us in coffee shops, write the books we devour, and direct the movies and TV shows we love.
Among the gemlike contents of the book are: a photo essay by Miranda July, in which six women wear one another’s favorite looks; Emily Gould’s retrospective about a pink purse she bought with a tax refund; photocopied images of hands of the female workers in the Times’s newsroom; submitted images of readers’ multiples — one woman’s 30 pairs of black cotton underwear, another’s 19 striped shirts, Heti’s own bottles of nail polish in a range of hues.
In bringing Women in Clothes to life, Heti, Julavits, and Shapton fill a sore void in fashion literature by providing 639 real women’s thoughts about their bodies and how they cover them. Through a range of surveys and photos, essays and stories, the editors have shaped a very complex and considerate approach to discussing what may seem a superficial topic: what a woman wears. Reading the book has forever changed the way I crush on girls: the women I fixate on have anxieties and philosophical approaches to dressing, just like I do. That woman’s cool sweater has a story, and so does her haircut, the way she carries herself, her wrist tattoo. And in this particular case, I got to feed my crush not just with these stories from the book, but also via email interview. Heti and I discussed the making of the book, her relationship with her wardrobe, and what she hopes Women in Clothes will offer readers.
CLAIRE LUCHETTE: A lot of your own work has involved interviewing and asking questions — as interviews editor at The Believer for some years, in the probing you do in How Should a Person Be?, in your book with Misha Glouberman, The Chairs Are Where the People Go,and now with Women in Clothes, which is based on more than 600 surveys received. What is it about the interview form that interests you?
SHEILA HETI: When I was a teenager and started reading intently, it was not only novels I was interested in reading — I was pretty obsessed with the interviews with writers in The Paris Review collections. Hearing writers speak for themselves was fascinating and had a completely different quality from their written, literary language; meaning is created less by metaphor than through those commonplace accidents of speech as it is spoken; in a person saying one thing and then contradicting themself later. A human is very vulnerable and exposed in speech, especially when that speech is transcribed, and it’s this vulnerability — as opposed to the majesty of creating in solitude and putting something out when it’s perfect — that particularly appeals to me. I wanted Women in Clothes to have as few essays as possible and as much “fast language” — say, in the case of someone filling out a survey at lunchtime — and as much spoken language (in the interviews we collected) as possible. Because so much fashion media is about certainty and declaration, we agreed this book should have a tone that contrasted with that.
In the introduction to Women in Clothes, you, Leanne, and Heidi discuss how your consideration of clothes changed over the course of working on the book. Have your thoughts about clothes ebbed, changed, transformed again since then?
Absolutely. I went through so many phases as I was making this book. At one dark point, my friends Margaux Williamson and Kathryn Borel had to tell me to stop buying so many clothes. I forgive myself for it now, but I shouldn’t have spent so much money. I’m trying to retrospectively consider these garments “research materials.” At the moment, I’m not interested in buying anything. But I definitely went through a really anxiety-filled consumerist stage in the middle of everything, and I now have a lot of sympathy for those who live like that constantly; you just begin to feel like this shirt will change your life, and that you’ll be more adequate with it. But there’s no end to that feeling, except deciding you’re adequate already.
So you learned to view yourself as “adequate already”?
I think a lot of learning that had to do with compiling this book. Often we compare ourselves to some inner ideal, but when you look out at the world and see how other people are living (or dressing!) you realize that everyone is just doing it in their own way, nothing special, led by their quirks of character and flaws and predilections — same as you. There is nothing more, and any idea that there is, is a fiction.
You also say in the introduction that a big takeaway from having created this book is that you no longer feel alone in your anxiety about clothes. But do you still have some of those worries, or is feeling less alone part of resolving them?
I don’t have the same worries. I feel very concretely that I am just one woman among all the women in the world, each of us getting dressed every morning. It’s not lonely, it’s not competitive, it’s not bewildering, it’s not a measure of me — it’s just an expression of who I am.
How do you think the subject of clothes — often the first thing we notice about another person — can lead to a deeper connection between people?
To judge a woman’s outfit against what you’re used to seeing in magazines is very different from understanding that she is making those choices out of her own life, upbringing, wages, values, dreams — the same way you are. When you can get a good feeling for the inner currents that lead women to choose, say, to wear sweaters that hide their breasts, or to only wear dresses that reveal cleavage, this makes for a deeper connection. There is no worth in judging someone else’s wardrobe according to your standards of taste. It doesn’t lead you anywhere except further away from any common feeling.
How did you choose to order the pieces in the book?
Leanne and Heidi came to my place in Toronto and we wrote down all the pieces on index cards. Then I put myself up against the wall in my hallway with my arms stretched out, and Leanne traced my whole body. We sat in front of this line drawing with the cards and kind of arranged the pieces on the body. We wanted balance in the book from start to the finish — to make sure that things that were alike were spread throughout the book. This was our “first draft.” Later, we went to their hotel and went through it all again. We probably rejigged the order half a dozen times before we felt we had the right motifs and tones appearing at the right moments.
And how do you suggest a reader go about reading the book?
It’s possible to read it in order — and I think a person could get pleasure out of the order we chose — but I would guess that most people will just read whatever catches their eye. I don’t think there’s a wrong way to read it.
The book hosts a number of women’s survey responses to intriguing questions, but also essays and photo collections. Did you reach out to women like Gould and Tavi Gevinson and give them prompts, or did you work with them to develop ideas?
With some people there might have been prompts, but for the most part we just approached people whose work we wanted to include and trusted them to find something interesting to say. As much as possible, we tried to steer people away from straight essays. We sent around our survey and our proposal (which Leanne designed) to everyone who we commissioned work from, so they could have some sense of our aesthetic before they began. We didn’t want the book to feel like an anthology. We wanted all the pieces to originate from a singular vision that everyone understood.
I loved Miranda July’s photo project, “Thirty-Six Women,” in which six strangers are photographed wearing one another’s favorite outfits. What do you notice looking at those shots?
I notice the women’s faces — how wearing the clothes of six total strangers makes them feel; sometimes more confident, sometimes more insecure, miserable, proud. I also look to see if a certain outfit makes everyone feel the same way or not.
Who is left out of this book? You do such an incredible job of featuring a range of ages, experiences, and sorts of women, but I wonder how you worked at that.
Tons of people are left out! I wish we could have every woman in the world in this book. I was just in Croatia and there was this old woman in Hum, the smallest town in the world, who I would love to have included. We could have gone on forever.
Most of our best outreach, I think, came from talking to journalists in other countries, and asking them whom they’d want to interview. Or for instance, I contacted Sara Ziff at the Model Alliance, with the thought of interviewing her. (The Model Alliance is a great organization that tries to protect young women from abuses in the fashion industry; to make sure they’re treated like other workers and not exploited.) She told me she would rather interview Reba Sikder, a survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, since she was on her way to Bangladesh. So we went with that — we didn’t force anything.
What segments most moved you? Which are you most proud of?
The interview I just mentioned. I could barely edit it, it was so painful to read.
I’m really pleased that our questions were worded in such a way that the respondents felt like they could open up. Many told us that they had thoughts for the first time, filling out the survey, and that makes me happy. We’ve put the survey on the website, so anyone can fill it out for everyone to read — I hope lots of people do. It’s really special to read the book, but it’s special in a different way, I think, to fill out the survey for yourself.
Tell me a little bit about you as a journal-er. You have a Twitter where you tweet lines from past journals, and in the book, there’s a great piece where you answer your own survey with the same. Do you self-edit while journaling? Do you journal about your work?
I’ve actually suspended the Twitter account because I didn’t like how it was going. I enjoy Twitter as a conversation, and just tweeting sentences from your diary feels too isolated from conversation. I’ve kept a diary for most of my life, but it’s not a regular thing. I can go months without writing. I don’t edit as I go. Only this year did I begin using any of it in my art. I think my diaries are a pretty inadequate record of my life, because when things are happening that I would be interested to read about later, I’m not interested in writing in my diary. It’s mostly only when nothing is happening and I’m stuck in some mental loop that I write in the diary. It would give a pretty distorted picture of my life: as though I do nothing, see no one, only agonize and take little pleasure in life. This is not exactly true.
A lot of my journal is about my work, I suppose. I don’t think of it as “journaling,” though, as it doesn’t really give me new ideas or expand my world. It’s mostly a reflection of a difficult moment of stasis.
What is the best feedback you could get on this book?
One of the phrases that kept going through my mind as I was working on it was that it’s “a gift for women.” That’s how I want people to take it — just as a gift.