CANADIAN WRITER SHEILA HETI’S second novel posed the question How Should a Person Be? In her latest work, a collaboration with Believer editor Heidi Julavits and artist and author Leanne Shapton, she and her co-editors distributed surveys to hundreds of women with a series of queries that boiled down to another existential exploration: How should a person dress?
The resulting collection, Women in Clothes, is a rangy, free-floating examination of the logic that a group of women use to style themselves. Lena Dunham writes about her nail color (“black and white and chipping mightily”), Molly Ringwald shows off her favorite outfit, essayist Roxane Gay giver her opinion on rompers (“not ever going to be on my body”), and Zosia Mamet recreates poses from fashion magazines. The book includes considerations of hijabs, nudism, chapstick, and lingerie, as well as illustrations and photo series showing off collections of everything from floss sticks to bras to hair elastics. Looking at the quotidian items of women’s lives is a way of figuring out the expectations women have of their self-image, what they hope clothing can express about themselves.
“Our relationship with clothes is not just about our relationship with clothes, but with our feelings, our thoughts, our bodies,” Heti explained. “This is an endless kind of book—if we had kept working on it, there are so many more areas we could have explored.”
Asking about clothing is a way of eliciting stories. And stories are one of the great, bottomless resources of the human race. It turns out that the more you ask about the way someone’s style functions—the rules they use to dress themselves, purchase new clothing, and what qualities they look for in an overall outfit—the more questions emerge. The group ended up tacking on more questions to the survey as they continued the project, eliminating ones that didn’t elicit interesting answers, delving more into the emotional state that women hoped to reproduce with certain items from their closets.
“We were just boundlessly curious,” Julavits said. “I think we all started paying attention to our own lives more closely, too. What stories would we want to tell? I was fascinated by how many women answered the survey while nude. I am never naked in front of my computer, I’ve never even considered it—I don’t know why. I have since thought maybe I should try it out.”
The book is also an answer to the style guides found in women’s fashion magazines, and the coffee table books exhorting the fashionable wardrobes of past celebrities. The overall message of Women in Clothes is that everyone’s system is equally quixotic. There is no right way to choose a dress or a pair of shoes, no more than there is a right way to live or sleep or see things.
“Why shouldn’t a short person look short?” Heti asked. “That’s beautiful and who they are. Any real style they had would have to do with their shortness. Those magazine articles that try to ‘balance’ your body—to hide your big thighs or make your chest look smaller or mask short legs—all of that has nothing to do with style. If anything, it’s the opposite of style.”
The element of style that the book addresses is something closer to personality, rather than just wardrobe items. It isn’t about the newest trends coming off the runway—as Shapton put it, “style is a planet and fashion is a moon.” Rather, it’s a window into the way that people think about themselves and present themselves to others.
“This book, for all of our work, only skims the surface of the larger topic of women in clothes,” Shapton said. “We would like to have spoken in depth to nudists, nuns, girl gangs, prisoners, taxi drivers, morticians, midwives… anyone from any walk of life not included in the book is someone whose perspective remains a mystery.”