Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: Women In Clothes

Women in Clothes
Blue Rider Press / Penguin Group (USA)
Published September 4, 2014

Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton

These three women, youngish at 37, 46 and 41 respectively, all established writers beyond the fashion industry, all with their own serious professional chops, got together and devised over 100 questions, organized them into a questionnaire, and compiled the responses of 639 of the women who answered them. Then they made a huge book of it all, plus additional conversations, photography and illustrations.

Beyond those specifics, it's not an easy book to describe. A few famous names that I recognized offered their opinions, and quite a number of highly accomplished women that I'd never heard of but probably should have recognized. But for the most part, the women who responded were from almost everywhere, from very rich to the very poor. A few very young girls spoke, a few very old women, but mostly from twenty, thirty and forty-somethings. What they all had in common was that they all had worn clothing for their whole lives and were happy to talk about the impact all these clothes had on those lives. " Women in Clothes" makes a wonderfully rich compendium of little story-snippets, each reflecting the sometimes life-altering impact what we choose to put on our backs can have.

In her review that appeared in the September 25th edition of The New Yorker, Judith Therman described the book as "a communal dressing room in book form." That was a pretty apt and concise description. (In fact, I recommend her review as a very good read all in itself... you can find it HERE .) Expanding on her analogy, I'd ask you imagine the biggest football stadium you can think of, and imagine the field packed with hundreds of dressing room cubicles; nice ones, crummy ones, all sizes. Then imagine them all crowded with hundreds of women; all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, all ages and all trying on clothes. Talking about clothes, looking at clothes, critiquing the garments of their own and others. Imagine you can hear snippets of conversation, but never the whole of one, then imagine someone organized it all for you and made it readable. That's what the book was like for me.

Below are just a few of the questions that grabbed me. Since I am a chronic button-hole gazer, you can see why these subjects were right up my alley. You can see the whole list at the book website HERE , and answer them all for yourself. It seems that the editors are posting these responses as sort of a DIY online addenda to the book. I was completely charmed with this idea that allows the reader to join in after the fact.

What are some rules about dressing you follow, but you wouldn't necessarily recommend to others?

What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had on the subject of fashion or style?

Was there a point in your life when your style changed dramatically? What happened?

Please describe your body.

Please describe your mind.

Please describe your emotions.

With whom do you talk about clothes?

How do institutions affect the way you dress?

Did anyone every say anything to you hat made you see yourself differently, on a physical and especially sartorial level?

Weighing in at 518 pages, this is a fabulous book to download onto your tablet. It's ideal for toting around this way, and the editors have broken it down into bite sized segments that make it easy to enjoy in spare moments or when you can settle in for a deep read. Between these segments, the editors have interspersed photographic "Collections" of items belonging to their respondents. Many of them are what one would expect; one woman's collection of cashmere sweaters, another's fedoras, or another's collection of vintage three-inch heels. It was less clear to me the value of presenting collections of one woman's earplugs, a collection of identical dental-floss sticks, a collection of a week's worth of one woman's cigarette butts, and another of someone's collection of individual bobby-pins. Quirky. Certainly they added an element of artsy-fartsy charm, but I can get behind even that when judiciously presented.

Another section belonged to photographic "Projects". One of the most memorable was "Poses from Fashion Media" featuring actress Zosia Mamet clad in a plain black leotard against a white background, aping the essential silliness of each famous magazine pose. You'll instantly remember looking at heavily editorial fashion pages and ads, wondering what the magazine pros were thinking by using such improbable and unlikely arrangements of a woman's body to show how clothes could look. Cute commentary, but since there were 50 of them, and I'd gotten the point very quickly ... certainly by about the third one, and was ready to move on after the 15th one ... I felt more editing might have yielded a less-is-more effect. Overall, though, the sometimes silly but more often poignant visuals in the book jived beautifully with the very basic and very personal conversation about how we feel about what we wear and carry and conceal. One certainly gets the impression that nothing important was edited out and lost for lack of space.

When time permits, and I'll make time soon, I'm going back to the site the editors have provided and join the other women who have submitted their survey responses. I'd like to hear from any of you that decide to do likewise ... let me know and I'll be delighted to read what you have to say. In fact, a visit to the site and a look at the questions will tell you whether or not you'll enjoy the book itself. If you're reading this, and you bother to blog yourself, I'll bet you will.


WIW in to the Big City on the hot, humid Sunday afternoon.  My attempt to suggest fall-ishness with with oxblood and get one more wearing out of my favorite summery crop top.  

Got a lovely compliment from a 20 something, hipsterish guy out with his girlfriend.  "Love your outfit," he said with a charming smile for us as we entered the restaurant.  Nice.  Very nice.

Checking in late but repentant at the always forgiving Patti at her Visible Monday link-up.  Come see what everyone is wearing!


  1. Well the hipsterish guy ws right! You look great and it's a great outfit. Thanks for the informative book review, Jan. It sounds like a uniquely interesting book. I do get a laugh out of the hilarious fashion editorial poses some models are required to perform. My first thought is always, oh okay the clothes are so dull you had to grab my attention by making the model pose like a praying mantis. I am tempted to check out the website but am a bit behind in my blog reading so I don't know if I will get there or not. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and well crafted blog.

  2. HappinessatmidlifeOctober 7, 2014 at 9:47 PM

    I think before blogging (and even know) it's just clothes for me. I love your passion of fashion affects women and the influences it has over the years. I agree that the hipster is right - that is a a great outfit! I hear you on the heat - it's in the low 90s today. I am hoping fall will make an appearance soon.


  3. Isn't that the best thing when someone youngish compliments you on what you're wearing? I always feel more, hmm, relevant?, when they come from that age group. I guess being appreciated by anyone is pretty darned wonderful. And this outfit in oxbl-bl-blood (Hallowe'en in coming) is stunning. The colours play off your hair delightfully.

  4. Oh, yeah, your outfit made me forget about your great book review... Thanks for your insights. This is definitely worth a read. Shelley of Forest City Fashionista is quoted in the book too - another reason to get it.

  5. I hadn't heard of this book, but it's right up my alley, so I will be checking it out right away! Thanks for the great review. This outfit is so beautiful on you - really stunning!

  6. I never heared about the book, but sounds interesting. what a lovely compliment, you really do look amazing!

  7. Wonderful outfit Jan, such a stunning colour combination on you, no wonder you received compliments. Thanks for the info about the book, sounds fascinating, one to definately explore, maybe tomorrow , more time then.

  8. A compliment is always nice whether delivered by a hipster or by an old lady wheeling a shopping trolley and you look fab, love how your skirt tones with your hair!
    Not sure how I'd get on with that book, it sounds rather over analytical for a woman like me who evidently doesn't take clothes seriously enough.xxx

  9. Oh yes, that is a lovely outfit, Hipster Guy was quite correct (and I'm glad he told you so!)
    Shelley blogged about this project and book too, it does sound interesting (although yes, perhaps a more thorough edit might have been useful too...) There are always interesting conversations to be had about why we dress as we do, and how we feel about our clothing. We all wear it, so we must have some thoughts on the subject, even those people who say they aren't much bothered.
    Always a joy to hear your ideas and opinions, Jan! xxxx

  10. I'm always on the lookout for a fun and engaging read, I'll definitely look into this one. Does it also provide some humor? I also enjoy reading how others respond to questionnaires.
    As for your attempt to suggest fallishness, I believe you hit it right on! Oxblood paired softly with your summery crop top was perfection!

  11. Just when you think the hipsters have outhipstered themselves they do something completely logical like compliment you! You do look nice. Thanks for the book review. I actually just bought this book based on the New Yorker review bit I haven't cracked it open yet. Can't wait. East Blogistan. Tee hee.

  12. I'll bet that young hipster's girlfriend was wearing trousers. Men of all ages love to look at a shapely pair of legs. Show 'em of you've got 'em. Also, I think, without realizing it, he may have been flirting a bit. Sadly, the whole "flirting" thing has slipped off the mating ritual radar screen these days. I still love a bit of a flirt, even at my age. You look really terrific in that outfit. It's the perfect way to transition a summer top into fall. BTW, oxblood was a really hot color for fall a few years ago, but it will always be one of my fall favorites.
    Cheers, M-T

  13. cherie james (stylenudge.com)October 10, 2014 at 8:24 AM

    Jan, I'm really loving the oxblood on you and the color is so current! Also going to look into this book- looks like it's right up my alley.

  14. Love this colour combination, so beautiful! And the outfit is so elegant, no wonder you were complimented. As to the book, wow, 518 pages? That's impressive! Thank you for the review!

  15. Oxblood is a perfect colour for fall and winter. It is a bit hard to see whether your top is cropped or tucked in. I am curious to know what would happen if you elongate the top bit by adding a light coloured belt, thus defining your waist even more. Just an idea, don't know whether it is actually a good idea haha.
    The book you describe sounds like fun. I will go and have a look.

  16. Interesting word "oxblood". Not good if you're squeamish! But you don't exude any bloodishness at all. The book sounds like a lovely idea but could quickly become overwhelming to someone like me:-) I would have to read every one. Not good at skimming! Xo JJ

  17. Love this look and how cool that you got such a nice compliment! The books sounds very interesting and I'll have to check it out!


    Dawn Lucy


  18. Oh, thanks, Mel. We don't see hipsters of any age around these parts. I should have made that clear ... it was sort of like seeing an exotic bird with bright plumange. And then it spoke! I NEVER see a guy in a cool and drapey old-man cardigan, rolled up, high-waisted deep rose pants and good looking tan oxfords without socks. Sweet boy too; he spoke so cordially and with such bonhomie that it was quite charming. Dan thought so too. All is context.
    So glad you think my outfit worked! That's a nice treat, too!

  19. I didn't know that! I popped over ... she was actually IN it, and at the signing! When I get enough time to give her a proper thumbs up, I will do so. How cool is that!
    Hope you enjoy it!

  20. Thank you, Lana! It was fun to read. My husband (the sociology wonk) is reading it now, and he's getting a sort of a voyeristic kick out of it! So happy you stopped by!

  21. Thank you, Romy! Hope you get a chance to at least look through it some time.... pretty interesting stuff. So kind of you to like my outfit. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  22. It was nice, partly because we don't have hipster-types around here. The appellation sort of manifests itself here as a guy who pays attention to what he's wearing with any attention at all devoted to how he actually appears or feels in what he wears. And he was such a cordial kid ... that's unusual too. Sweetly said, Dan and I both thought.
    You might get a kick out of it ... if it falls under your hand, take a look. It's just me that's overly analytic ... the book is probably better than that!
    So glad to hear from you, always.

  23. I just saw that a bit ago! I grabbed a quick glance, and I'll pop over to give her a big congrats on her mention in and participation! How cool is that. I'd wondered if there was anyone I even knew a little that was included. Now it do!
    I liked "The Thoughtful Dresser" better, though. It's more lyrical, more sturdily narrative, and more from a generational perspective that I can grab on to more readily.
    Hipster Guy had kind of a sweetness about him that Dan and I both noticed. Nice of him to say, absolutely.
    Thanks for reading, Curtise, and for all.

  24. Yes, this would be right up your alley, Trina. I'd bet money that you already have a copy in your possession and are half-way though it. Hope you enjoy it.
    Thanks for liking my attempt at transition ... it's still weirdly warm, but we had a cool morning with some rain today ... felt a little more like fall!

  25. Hey, Jilly! Hope you get to read it ... and if you read it, that you enjoy it. Thoughtful stuff all the way through. Thank you for your always sweet comments. If you like it, then I did something right!

  26. Hey, Connie! So glad you're back into play, Ms. Snow! Thank you for your very nice comments, and I'll be interested to hear what you think of the book. Let me know, please.

  27. She was, actually, and was cute as a button. And men do like legs, don't they? But I'm pretty clear even unconscious flirting wasn't the impetus. Dan and I both thought that it might be a simple acknowledgement of kindred spirits. We don't see young men who dress up here very often ... or dress in specifically modern style-conscious ways. His tone was cordial and charmingly collegial ... he was surely a little out of his element here in rural nowhere. Actually, as I think about it, he might have been talking to Dan instead of me! Dan was looking spiffier than ususal! Hmmmm...
    Know what you mean about a bit of a flirt ... nice to be acknowledged.
    Thank you ... happy you think my outfit works! So far as I know, all the dark reds ... oxblood, wine, burgundy; all still good this year! So glad, 'cause they're among my favorite fall hues, as as well. I'm in good company!
    So happy you stopped by!

  28. Thank you, Cherie! I bet you'd get a lot of fun out of this book. My husband, Dan ( the sociology wonk) is reading it and getting that voyeuristic kick that one gets out of eavesdropping on a good conversation. He gets my fascination with how dress operates in our lives.
    So happy you like my outfit efforts ... there's the changing landscape and cool looking gray skies accompanied by 80 degrees and 100 percent humidity. Ick. It's hard sometimes to transition without looking dumb. And that's why I'm an accessory hound ... a great tool, don't you think?

  29. Hey, Olga! Thank you ... I never pull off your successes with color, but sometimes one works for me. If you ever get a chance to look through the book, I think you'd enjoy it. Hope you do, and hope you're well and happy now that you're back home-away-from-home!

  30. Hey, Jack! Well, of course it should be read without skimming! One of the virtues of the book is that it's organized in bite-sized chapters. It would make great bedside reading for those of us who like a little read before shutting it all down for the night. It took me longer than books usually do because while reading it on my Kindle Fire, I was able to instantly quick-Google any respondant to see more about their perspective, then pop right back to my place in the book. Neat function, and great for students, but can bog you down if you're as nosey as I am. Astonishingly, 90 percent of those I Googled had a public persona . How the world has changed for me with technology! I love a physical, paper-smelling book still, but it's really all about the words and the information ... none of the art and wonder disappears for me with a digital format. But it can make the process more involved, for sure.
    Glad you didn't mind my bloody outfit!

  31. Hey, DL! Hope you do get a chance to read it ... I'd love to hear what you think. Glad you like my outfit ... it did, indeed, function as a cool-comfortable outfit and still satisfy me need for at least a nod to the season. Had a cool night last night ... I'm so jazzed!
    So happy you stopped by, as always.

  32. I know I'm late to comment on this post but I want to thank you for the review. I heard about this book and plan to get it since it sounds like wonderful education for me. Unlike most women who've grown up in their clothes, I'm new to the subject and still learning the basics. Hearing other women speak teaches me what I care to know.

  33. I'm glad you enjoyed it and found it useful. Hope you like the book. It's an education for all of us. I know you've thought at least once that just because women have been dressing themselves their whole lives, it doesn't mean they know absolutely how to do it well. I am always self-conscious of my short, square, non-traditional shape, and I can't tell you the number of times I look at my efforts in the mirror and think "I have no idea what I'm doing."
    What I liked about this book is what I like about the Over 40-50-60+ blogs; they're really about process, and transformation, and the evolution we all tangle with daily until we die. We're telling the world about what we see as our best selves in the way we dress. At least I hope that's what's happening!
    And bla, bla, bla, Jan. I do go on.
    Thanks for stopping by, and I'm beyond thrilled that you took the time to write!

  34. Hey Jan. I just finished reading "Women in Clothes." I have very mixed feelings about it. I actually found it to be a bit depressing. Though there were certainly a few gems. And visual blogger that I am, I wanted more photos! I don't know if I'll go online for the survey. Did you do that?

  35. Yup, the more I think about it the more mixed my feelings are. I've got a bone to pick with a respondent or two ... not so much about the book itself ... and will piss and moan about that this week. I was just annoyed by some of the photographs. Please. Spare me someone's bobby pin "collection". And are the butts of cigarette's you smoked that week a "collection" or just really smelly trash. I dunno.
    I'll probably do the online questionnaire at some point soon ... time permitting ... just 'cause some old girls should do so in some kind of genuine way. And I do like to make my opinions known. Sad that I'm so shy, right? Let me know if you decide to participate.

  36. Hmmmm...I'm just guessing but I'll bet that the authors are probably in their 30's, going through that "I'm so hip" phase that I have to admit that I went through at that age. The most honest survey was the one done by the 5 year old! Loved that. Yep. We need some"mature" representation. I'll let you know if I do the survey and promise me that you'll let me know if you do it. Saw the green flash at sunset the other day. Sending you some So Cal vibes. XXXXOOO

  37. Shelley@ForestCityFashionistaDecember 10, 2014 at 1:04 PM

    I had completed the survey when it was initially sent around by the authors and found it an interesting process, but I was disappointed that it seemed the majority were completed by fairly conservative dressers. I was hoping I might find some kindred spirits there, but I enjoyed reading other's contributions anyway. I agree with you about some of the photos - my favourite were the ones of the contributors' mothers before they became mothers.


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