Don’t you love it when friends hang out, especially artist friends, and they hit on a point that is unsatisfactory, especially a point about clothing and the mystique of feminine identities, and they decide, because they can, to turn this unsatisfactory point into a thing of beauty?
Isn’t it even better when these friends are friends with lots of other friends who are also artists, and also dissatisfied with this unsatisfactory point and also into things of beauty, and suddenly, six hundred and forty-two exceptional females are inside a book whispering secrets to each other, revealing their bra collections to each other, discussing their odours and body shapes with each other, taking photographs of their hair and sweatshirts together, and one of them is Lena Dunham, who we’ve already seen naked a hundred times so how cool that we get to see her with clothes on this time, and one of them is Molly Ringwald, who we haven’t seen naked but have been wishing we have since our Sixteen Candles days, and who is still not naked but hooray! looks better than ever wearing someone else’s outfits under the directorial eye of Miranda July, and who also (that’s Molly, not Miranda, omg I know, voices are everywhere) talks to Cindy Sherman?
There are many, many moments of quirky subjectivity, visual delicacy and delicious intimacy in the pages of the book I’m talking about, which is called Women in Clothes. Conceived and edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavitz and Leanne Shapton – maybe at first for the benefit of Sheila’s better dressing – this Greek chorus of a tome is actually probably most of all conceived and edited for all of us who don’t mind at all when art&life catch on fire and bend the joys of femaleness through the Worldmind warp.
With or without broken stilettos, this book fulfills its promise to satisfy a part of the feminine experience that rarely gets spoken to intelligently. It might be Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette on mushrooms with a whole under layer of mushroom wisdom that allows it to explain something mysterious without really explaining it. I’ll only say that no matter what kind of lady we are, when it becomes our personal property, this strangely beautiful book will get stains all over it (it even has a page on stains) for being a domestic bible that accompanies its users from guacamole and champagne pre-cocktail stains thru bubble bath and bed stains, and beyond.
I spoke to the writers on the eve of this week’s book launch, here they all are:
Women in Clothes. What was the genesis of this book?
HEIDI: In the book’s introduction we track how Sheila wanted to start paying attention to her clothes and dressing, and couldn’t find a book to help her, and so created questions she sent to friends, among them Leanne and myself, and how we were so excited by the terrain these questions opened up that we decided the questions must somehow become a book. On another, more intuitive and emotional level, however, this book became an opportunity for the three of us to work together and to form relationships with other women we admired or came to admire—first those women were us, then those women were many. The book was an opportunity to connect with over 600 women who shared our curiosity about clothes, yes, but about each other, moreover.
It’s nice that the book is more of a swoon through the symbolic of clothing than a treatise on actual garments, though there are moments of this too, which are great. Was there a specific theme or flavour that you aimed to uncover that made it a special project?
HEIDI: We tried really hard to pose questions or commission projects or pieces that came at the topic from an unusual angle, one that prompted people to be more personal, more intimate, more political, more vulnerable, and to speak less in what I think of as “the language of lack.” Also, I think a lot of thinking women worry that clothes are off-limits to their brains. They feel guilty if they care a lot or they do not care at all or if they do not care enough. We wanted to reroute the circuitry of the conversation, because we thought there was a good conversation to be had if we could free the idea of dressing from the implicit sense of failure and judgment and superficiality.
Clothing is actually very important. It makes subtle comments about a person’s identity, allegiances, politics and character, it’s a very personal and creative statement. Yet it gets a shitty rap as an art form. What do you say to that?
LEANNE: I don’t think it gets that shitty a rap as an art form, I think it’s represented fairly in art and design schools and gets plenty of coverage, equally as much as music. It might be seen as shallow because so much of the literacy and language around it is emotional and non-verbal (the mediated image.) The complicated part of the clothing industry is it’s marriage to/reliance on commerce and business. This is where very simple things– like a love of clothing and devotion to the culture of clothing– can get confused and corrupted in ways. But then anything can.
Did you discover some really surprising or shocking things about women, or their bodies, or their dreams, habits, desires, or other things about them through their dialogues around clothes?
HEIDI: One woman claims she prefers to wear perfume that smells like “leather, incense, old libraries or dubious sexual parts.” I found this less shocking than actually kind of sensible and appealing. I felt this way about most of the responses—they made me feel like other women have similarly entrenched, intimate, weird, irrational, psycho-sexual attractions to clothing, too. It made me feel like I’m not alone!
With all the data you’ve collected, you’ve actually probably conducted a kind of scientific experiment. Do any striking patterns occur to you in the material you’ve gathered?
LEANNE: We are as far from scientists as you can get. But we did try to be rigorous in our own ways. In collection the collections of things, one pattern I noticed was how women understood when their things had reached a point of “excess.” Another thing I noticed was how many women of a certain set and age declared a love of the breton stripe shirt.
Has any philosophical viewpoint emerged for you that wasn’t there before you embarked on this bookscapade?
SHEILA: For me, this book has been an exercise in anti-Platonism. There is not a realm of ideas, where there is the perfect chair, the perfect breakfast, the perfect outfit, the perfect woman, while down on earth are all these imperfect versions, striving towards that one perfect form. I naturally have a very Platonic view of things, unfortunately, which leads me to believing in all kinds of ideals that—one begins to see, after reading more than 600 surveys—can’t possibly express the truth of the variety there is in nature, and culture, and among all of us. There is actually only variations on a theme (the theme of dressing, of perfume, of self-image, etc.), neither perfect nor imperfect, not one of them closer to the “truth”.
Sheila, you’ve told me that before this project you weren’t as conscious about clothes – what do you think of you&clothes now?
SHEILA: I have much more respect for dressing as a realm for self-expression and emotion—so many women have very charged relationships to their clothes. I hadn’t before considered how much of our own personal histories our clothes bear. It’s funny, because today I just found a box of old clothes, things I haven’t seen in seven or eight years. It brought back that era for me, but not in a pleasant way. I didn’t want to keep any of the clothes—I’m giving them all away. It was like pulling dead skin out of a box, kind of repulsive.
Would the book be very different if it were about men and their clothes?
LEANNE: Straight men might not talk to each other about clothes the way women do. Or even talk to themselves the same way. Boys generally are not encouraged to pay attention to clothes the way girls are. I think– again very generally– men see the world in sports terms, where belonging to a team or tribe is important, whereas women see the world more politically, where power is about discernment and connection and strength is something shared and not adversarial. I think a book about men and clothes would be fascinating for this difference. I think Sheila once said women want to be unique among women. I think men want to belong to a winning team. I’m sure we could find 700 men to talk about their clothes, in some ways it would be the same, but be about fathers and friends and anxieties and fear, but it may be different in that women know the value of making themselves vulnerable and using admission and confession to connect in a way that men might not have the same facility with.
I love the way some of what you do is solitary, and some is collaborative. How was it working with more than 600 contributors, a team of editors, and millions of surveys for this project?
HEIDI: It was kind of insane sometimes, I won’t lie. None of us lived in the same city or even the same country for most of the year we were working on the book, so everything was conducted remotely, via the air, and across different time zones. This book could never have happened before the internet, social media, dropbox, all that stuff. I love that this book represents the meeting of the old technology and the new, though even the new technology could sometimes feel charmingly old. My favorite memory is doing one of the edits with Sheila in Canada on google chat with Leanne in New York and me simultaneously on FaceTime in Italy with Leanne in New York, but actually I was “face timing” with Leanne’s apartment’s ceiling. None of us could see one another, we were just a bunch of voices routed in over the wires and strings of the internet. It felt very old-fashioned, somehow, like we were editing the book via telegram or smoke signals.
What do you hope readers will take from this book?
SHEILA: I hope they’ll feel more comfortable in their daily life, more relaxed when dressing and take more pleasure in it, not waste so much money, and I hope they’ll feel more connected to other women—not just the women they encounter in the street, but the women who work in the factories that actually make their clothes.
What’s coming up:
HEIDI: My book, THE FOLDED CLOCK, will be published in April 2015. It is the diary of two years of my life, rearranged so that the dates don’t run chronologically.
SHEILA: My play, ALL OUR HAPPY DAYS ARE STUPID, will run at The Kitchen in New York in February 2015.
LEANNE: I’m working on Heidi’s book cover and doing some new paintings.
Visit Women in Clothes
Visit Sheila Heti
Visit Leanne Shapton
Visit Heidi Julavitz via wiki
Excerpts from Caia Hagel’s chats about clothes with Sasha Grey are included in Women in Clothes, so why not visit Sasha Grey too. Check her out here while her new website is being constructed.
Stay tuned for regular contributions of life imitating art by our Pop Talks columnist Caia Hagel.