Book Review: Women in Clothes

Posted on September 10, 2016 under Books

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I first heard about Women in Clothes, a compilation text with a whopping 642 contributors, when it released in the fall of 2014. I was immediately interested in it; as I’ve established on my blog, I’m very interested in exploring the importance of everyday things in people’s lives, especially if they’re considered banal. But the price tag put me off it, as did the fact that I was living in Scotland at the time and didn’t want a 500-page book to transport back to Canada in the spring.

This past fall, I mentioned to my mom that I was interested in the book. I was truly surprised to find it under the Christmas tree! For years I’ve just told my parents what I want for Christmas and am not surprised, but my mom usually manages to sneak something in. I was delighted by this surprise, and, of course, promptly let the book sit on my shelf for nine months. (It’s big, I was in school, you know the drill.)

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I finally got around to reading it and I finally have some thoughts to share! Firstly, it’s undeniably a beautiful book. I love the cover design, the thick paper, the typography, and the visual components. It’s truly an aesthetically-pleasing book, which makes sense given its subject matter.

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I was expecting the book to essentially to be a whole lot of surveys, one after the other. And while the survey questions the authors concocted made up the meat of the book, its form is actually much more haphazard than that. For example, opening it up randomly to page 120, I find a visual component, followed by a personal essay (“What I Wore To Fall in Love”), a mini compilation of quick responses to a single survey question, another visual component, an interview between a woman and her adult son… and so on. The book also contains poems, one-off visual projects (such as a series of photographs of six women wearing each other’s signature outfits), and charts. This structure really worked for me, as it kept the book fresh, always interesting, and very readable. I’d expected to read a few pages of this in between other books, finishing it over the course of a month or so, but I read it all in two days.

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I liked that there were women of different cultural backgrounds and ages surveyed. There were immigrant (or first generation American/Canadian) stories and even a few features on garment factory workers. There were a few trans women featured, a fashion designer, a woman who wears the same dress every day. The book is fairly geocentric; the authors are from New York and Toronto, and obviously they recruited from within their circles, so the Northeastern US and Montreal/Toronto demographics are arguably over-represented. There were a few women interviewed who live in other countries (Poland, Egypt), but most were North American. Many of the survey respondents were also writers or other creative-types. I understand this, on the one hand – it’s easy to believe that creatives are more likely to care about self-presentation, and the writers had very lucid and lovely words about their clothes and styles. But I can’t help but think that it would have been more fascinating to have a bit more representation from the everyday woman to complement the very unusual women who were featured. (And, yes, it did seem like the women skewed upper middle class at least; designer brands were name-dropped quite frequently.)

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I will say that although there were a fair amount of cultural backgrounds represented, the book did skew quite white overall. Sometimes it was a bit tone-deaf. A Guardian review points out that “there is an entire section about what women say when they get their hair braided, featuring nine photographs of white women in various stages of hair-braided repose. This might have been a good place to include a woman from a different race – say, a black woman, for whom a relationship with braided hair is deeply intrinsic, and actually interesting.”

(Also, not related to race, but Lena Dunham saying that she likes to dress as a “new lesbian” made me roll my eyes, but everything Lena Dunham does has that effect on me, so.)

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Although I’d say that the book had a fairly Western liberal feminist perspective overall, I appreciate the inclusion of “outsider” voices. One of my favourite pieces was “I Do Care About Your Party” by Umm Adam, a Muslim woman who argues that “We don’t need to do anything to our body to make it look beautiful.” I don’t fully agree with her entire essay, but it’s a thought-provoking piece, especially her conclusion that “I feel a sense of freedom that I do not have that burden on me, of making myself attractive to others all the time.”

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This is not necessarily a book for someone looking to develop a sense of style, although you may find inspiration in how others approach getting dressed. More than anything, it’s an almost sociological text (though definitely not at an academic level, obviously). And I just really appreciate intelligent, thoughtful approaches to “women’s interest”-type things, that treat them as worthy of investigation and conversation. Women’s appearances are such a fraught area, and I like that there are texts coming out that approach this topic compassionately and intelligently. As I said, I do think that this is a pretty liberal feminist perspective (in that most of the women spoke of clothes in terms of empowerment and personal identity, and there was very little time spent on the disempowerment of women through emphasizing and policing appearance), but I really like how eloquently a “frivolous” topic was presented. It made me think about my own (practically nonexistent) style and how I’d answer some of the survey questions, which I liked.

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Some of the pieces are better than others. Some of this is just personal preference: not everything will speak to everyone, and that’s why it’s cool that so many women were featured. Some of the pieces seemed only marginally related to fashion (“What I Wore To Fall In Love”, mentioned earlier, is, not shockingly, more of a romantic story than one about clothes.)

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Some of my favourite features:

  • Mothers as Others, in which women present photos of their mothers from before they had children and talk about their lives and styles.
  • Maybe A Lot Of People Don’t Do This, an essay by Ly Ky Tran, whose Vietnamese immigrant family created clothing out of their NYC apartment for low wages.
  • A Map Of My Floor, in which the authors map out clothing items they’ve tried on and discarded for a specific event.
  • The Surfer Is Nothing Without The Wave, an interview with an art historian which is one of the most cerebral pieces in the book. It veers on pretentious, but I can’t help but love the phrase “May I quote Gilles Deleuze, pretentiously?” and wish that my peers in my film classes had asked that before quoting Deleuze, pretentiously and usually irrelevantly.
  • The Pink Purse, an essay by Emily Gould. She recounts saving up to buy a pink Marc Jacobs purse, which she donated six years later because it was impractical and hadn’t held up well. It’s a story of excitement followed by buyer’s remorse which I think anyone can relate to – though luckily the objects of my remorse have never been quite so expensive.
  • Clothes on the Ground, a series of fascinating profiles of garment workers in Cambodia, their working conditions, and the clothing they buy and wear.
  • This Person Is A Robot, in which one of the authors goes with a scent scientist to a coat check in New York and smell people’s coats. It’s funny and silly and a good representation of the weird one-off features that I like in this book.
  • What I Spent, a six-month diary of what a magazine employee spent on clothes (including many returns and regrets). It’s actually quite interesting and well-written.
  • Put On A Tux And Go, a feature on dance costumes and how they’re chosen.
  • A French Girl Hoeing, an interview with a farmer who’s interested in fashion. Unexpected and totally fascinating!

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I think this is one of those books that either appeals or doesn’t appeal to each individual. I’ve read some negative reviews of it and I understand why people wouldn’t like it. Some of the pieces are not that interesting or compelling and some approach or fully descend into pretentious navel-gazing territory. But the overall mission and impact of the book is one that certainly appeals to me.

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