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.

Books read, January-March 2016

Posted on March 31, 2016 under Books

Note: I’ve used affiliate links in this post.

I thought I’d start doing quarterly posts about the books I’ve read in my attempt to reach my goal of 25 for the year. Although this semester has been incredibly busy for me, so far I do remain on track, having finished 8 books so far this year. I’m hoping to pick up my pace over the summer – I’m really doing all I can at the moment; I keep telling people who ask me if I’ve seen the latest episode of a television show or a newly-released movie that I don’t have time for fun at the moment. I’m coming down the home stretch, though: in less than 3 weeks, I will be finished my degree.

Onto the books! These will be presented in order of when I finished them. This does not include any short stories, though I have probably read about ten this year so far.

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

This is more of a survey course with 250 students and two TAs type book than an in depth seminar of 20 students book, but it is fantastic for what it is: well-researched, beautifully-presented, and absolutely brimming with Lisa Eldridge’s passion for makeup. I reviewed it in full in January.

Marx for Beginners by Rius

This is a graphic novel all about Marxism! I had to read it for my Marxist Cultural Theory class. Having already been through for years of high school and three and a half years of a liberal arts degree, I don’t know that I would categorize myself as a “beginner” when it comes to Marxism – though the book was highly readable and easily understood, so it would probably be an appropriate primer for a true beginner.

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

Honestly, when faced with the task of reading an 1835 French realist novel, I was not very enthused. And while it isn’t one that I’m likely to revisit, it was much more enjoyable than I expected. The plot wasn’t quite enough to balance out the often tediously lengthy description, but this was much less of a struggle to get through than I anticipated. Which doesn’t really sound like high praise, now that I think about it…

Whylah Falls by George Elliot Clarke

Really gorgeous narrative poetry about a Black family living in mid-20th century Atlantic Canada. I’m not normally a poetry person, but perhaps narrative poetry is the way to my heart. The story was as compelling – and heartbreaking – as the poetry itself.

Diamond Grill by Fred Wah

Another one that I really enjoyed! This is a literary/poetic autobiography, focusing on Fred Wah, Jr.’s father’s Chinese restaurant in Western Canada as well as his own hybrid Chinese-Scottish-Swedish identity. Peppered with recipes and mouth-watering descriptions of food – two of my classmates actually cooked from a recipe in the book, and it was pretty good! I loved the use of language and overall found this book very moving and evocative.

What We All Long For by Dionne Brand

While this book was made up of interweaving narratives, a device which I usually enjoy, and while it was set it in my home city of Toronto, it fell very flat for me. The characters really lacked meaningful interiority, which was a shame, because their situations rendered differently could have been hugely emotionally affecting. Emotional connection with characters is almost always the number one factor in my enjoyment of a book! Really too bad, because the descriptive passages were great and the plot could have been awesome.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music, From Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley

This is a 550-page history of the past 70 years of pop music, which is certainly an ambitious task. Overall, I do think that the task was in good hands. Although the text suffered sometimes from over-editorializing (which at various points lead to sexist condescension), it was lucidly- and engagingly-written, packing in a massive amount of information without being dry or confusing. This isn’t a page-turner: it took me nearly 3 months to get through, and I normally finish books inside of half a week, even if they’re quite long.

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

Foe is a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic castaway tale Robinson Crusoe. This time, Cruso (as he is called in this novel) is joined on his island by Susan Barton, a British woman who has just spent two years searching for her lost daughter in Brazil. In Coetzee’s adaptation, Cruso’s “manservant” (aka slave) Friday is not indigenous to the Americas; rather, he is an African slave whose tongue has been cut out, supposedly by slavers – though Susan does question several times whether it was Cruso who cut his tongue out. It’s an interesting postcolonial (and to a lesser degree feminist-aligned) adaptation of the original novel, and while the writing is great, it fell short for me. Above all, it’s an exploration of authorship and whose story gets to be told, and it seems that Friday is the loser here. The novel can be read as an allegory for Apartheid (it was written in 1986 by a white South African), but it just didn’t push far enough for me. I do believe that Susan’s insistence on speaking for Friday and justifying why she kept him as a “servant” was meant to be rather damning of her character, but there is no narrative closure for Friday and he ends up being denied a voice. (I mean, literally, he has no tongue.)

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

(Can you tell from this list that I’m taking a class on Canadian lit? Probably only if you’re Canadian or particularly into CanLit.)

I must be a bad Canadian, because it’s taken me this long to read any of Mordecai Richler’s adult novels. (And I’m not entirely sure that I even read any Jacob Two-Two as a kid.) Being assigned a nearly 600-page novel in the last three weeks of my degree did not agree with me, but I actually ended up really enjoying the book. It’s part adventure story, part genealogy of the dysfunctional and sprawling Gursky family, and part rather apt picture of the Montreal of the 20th century. It’s told non-chronologically, spans many decades, and is made up of multiple narratives, which is right up my alley. And it makes heavy (fictionalized) use of the Franklin Expedition, which was an object of my obsession when I was about 11 or 12. I also loved the writing style – it’s very Montreal. All in all, a very rewarding read.

I was, like a nerd, going to include a list of some of the academic texts I’ve enjoyed over the past semester, but this post is already long enough, so I’ll leave you hanging.

I’m happy with the amount I’ve read this year so far: at this rate, I’m on pace to read 32 this year, which is 7 ahead of my goal of 25. (I have no doubt I’ll slow down in the fall, but a girl can dream.) As for my goal to read more by marginalized people: I’m not sure if I’m quite hitting my target of 75%, but this is a pretty diverse list. More women and more LGBTQ+ people in the next few months, though! My one true disappointment is that only two of these books were read simply for the fun of it: everything else was for school. Obviously, over the summer I will not have school dictating what to read, so I will be able to dive into the small stack that has been accumulating on top of my bookshelf. Meet you back here in 3 months and hopefully I’ll have another 8 books to share with you!

Book Review: Face Paint: The Story of Makeup by Lisa Eldridge

Posted on January 13, 2016 under Books

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I read a lot of beauty blogs and watch a lot of beauty videos on YouTube, which I’m sure is relatable to almost everyone reading this. When it comes to beauty content, I’ll consume almost anything. (And yes, that totally includes hatewatching. Don’t pretend you’re too good for it! Unless you genuinely are, in which case I salute you. I’m weak.) By far my favourite type of beauty content is the stuff that’s intelligent, that goes beyond the surface and that connects beauty to wider cultural or historical phenomena.

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I’ll be straight with you: if Lisa Eldridge‘s much-anticipated Face Paint: The Story of Makeup had been a makeup guidebook à la Kevyn Aucoin or Bobbi Brown, I never would have purchased it. As much as I love Lisa’s YouTube channel (who doesn’t?), book has never been a makeup tutorial format that’s interested me. In the age of free YouTube tutorials that are constantly up-to-date and cutting edge, not to mention moving images that better demonstrate technique, I’m not going to take the time to peruse a book about how to apply makeup.

But Face Paint isn’t about how to apply makeup, though god knows Lisa Eldridge is good at that. Instead, it’s a painstakingly-researched history of makeup, told thematically rather than chronologically. So, armed with an Indigo gift card from Christmas and the goal to read more nonfiction in 2016, Face Paint was the first book I bought this year, as well as the first I finished.

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Most of the information in Face Paint can probably be found fairly easily on the internet. What you’re paying for here is all of that information synthesized, organized in a certain manner, and presented alongside impeccably-selected photographs, vintage ads, and other images.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first, The Ancient Palette, deals with the history of red, white, and black makeup, from prehistoric times right up until the 20th century. The second, The Business of Beauty, describes how the modern day beauty industry developed, looking at the influence of film and theatre, the history of cosmetics marketing, and makeup figureheads such as Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, and Charles Revson.

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There are many themes running throughout the book (which is why Lisa chose not to organize it chronologically); my favourite is the mistrust men have of makeup:

Early Christian writers had created a powerful association between makeup and deception that was hard to shake, with Saint Cyprian declaring that the act of painting the face and “staining” the cheeks was “to drive out all truth, both of face and head, by the assault of their own corruption.” (30)

Some things never change!

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As a cosmetics SA, I’m a big proponent of understanding skincare ingredients in order to make more informed, empowered decisions that aren’t simply based on absurd marketing claims. I know very little about the science behind makeup, however, so the focus of the last section of the book (The Bleeding Edge) on what exactly makes products work was fascinating. I wish there’d been more information offered – although I suppose independent research is always a possibility! This chapter is interesting, useful, and accessible for those of us with very little science background. (The last time I learned about chemistry in a formal setting was 2010, and I wasn’t exactly good at it…)

From a feminist perspective (because this is me we’re talking about), I really enjoyed Lisa’s focus on the contributions of women, and the fact that she emphasized that many of the early texts on cosmetics were written by men and did not include a female perspective. I was also glad to see that there were some amazing women of colour featured in her Makeup Muses sections at the end of each chapter, from Meena Kumari to Anna May Wong. (Though there’s always room for more!) I also loved that, while each woman profiled in the Makeup Muses sections obviously contributed to beauty trends, Lisa also focused on her accomplishments outside of makeup or being pretty. I liked that she wasn’t afraid to point out that many of the shocking and offensive advertising techniques from years past are still present today, although deployed in a slightly more subtle manner. I do wish that in her chapter on White she had talked a little bit more about the racial implications of paleness as an entrenched beauty standard, as I felt she skirted around the issue a bit. It’s also worth noting that the book is very much the story of Western makeup, especially in the second part. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as obviously she had to narrow the focus, but I think it’s important to mention that North American and European beauty brands, styles, and standards aren’t universal!

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As someone in the last semester of a Cultural Studies degree, I am very interested in how cultural objects affect everyday life and vice versa. Makeup obviously is a part of everyday life (not for everyone, obviously, but for many), and I felt like Face Paint was a very thorough and cogent exploration of the dialogue between makeup and culture. On page 226, Lisa argues that “Whether we want to look like our favorite screen idol, celebrity, model, or singer, we are communicating something about ourselves to the outside world, displaying that we belong to a group.” I think this is a fairly true statement, though it’s not the whole truth. And, of course, when examining the role of makeup in the everyday lives of women, I think we must examine how makeup works to uphold the patriarchy – an uncomfortable, difficult, and perhaps impossible act of reconciliation for feminist beauty-lovers.

Despite my (obvious) love of makeup and involvement in the industry in the capacity of an SA, I actually didn’t know much about the history of makeup at all. I learned so much from Face Paint, all in Lisa’s characteristic sensible, accessible, yet still interesting style. I do feel that the book may be a tad basic for those who already have a reasonable working knowledge of the history of makeup, but for me, the information, presentation, and stunning accompanying imagery all combine to make Face Paint well worth $35.95 CAD. I’d have been glad to pay full price for it even without the gift card.

A look at some of the stunning packaging (mostly, if not fully, from Lisa’s personal collection) and advertisements featured throughout the book:

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Some of the vintage makeup ads are so intoxicatingly beautiful! I’d put most of them up on my wall in a heartbeat.

And a look at my favourite images from the entire book:

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Stunning whimsical lashes by Shu Uemura. Lashes really don’t do it for me unless they’re at least a little bit absurd.

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More amazing lashes! I’d love to have a high resolution version of this image to frame or put on my wall or something. I think it’s beautiful.

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Special Cleopatra-themed lipstick packaging from Revlon in anticipation of the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film. Can you imagine such packaging at a drugstore pricepoint today?!

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I think both of these images are compelling and gorgeous, but I just cannot get over the Harper’s Bazaar cover on the right. That’s another one that I would kill to have a poster of.

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I love images of women putting on makeup – the privacy of such a personal act has been stripped away and rendered an act worthy of artistic representation.

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Speaking of which… I first saw this image at the V&A Horst exhibition in the fall of 2014 and promptly became obsessed with it. I’ve been on the lookout for a high quality, reasonably-priced print of it ever since. Imagine my elation when I saw it included in the book!

For another (insightful, thorough) review of Face Paint, I highly recommend Liz’s post from last month.

Where to buy Face Paint if you so desire:

Amazon | Kindle | Chapters/Indigo | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | Nook