Women in Clothes

by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton (Blue Rider Press)

Women and their clothes: such a simple conceit, and yet there’s so very much to say. For this literary take on a quotidian concern, editors Heti, Julavits, and Shapton (the first two accomplished fiction writers, the third an artist and memoirist) invited many dozens of contributors to discuss things like their shopping methodologies and the colors they most like to wear. But they talk about larger ideas too, such as what it means to look and be looked at, and the ways in which the artifacts in our closets connect us to our mothers and grandmothers before us.

Unlike the average anthology, this one is absolutely packed with content—just over 500 pages’ worth. The contributions come in a huge range of categories, and were written by famous ladies and ordinary folks alike, the latter via “surveys” styled like questions you’d ask a close friend. (“What’s the situation with your hair?”) Their responses are so varied, humorous, and brief as to result in a kind of massive-scale coffee break (or cocktail hour). And with the inclusion of women like Girls’ Lena Dunham, teenage fashion editor Tavi Gevinson, and elder hipsters Kim Gordon and Cindy Sherman, the book’s vibe is modern and cool.

Surely, there is something here for everyone. You might like the Projects section, which features artistic riffs on the same themes. Miranda July’s “Thirty Six Women” shows photographs of six people swapping clothes—they take turns wearing each other’s favorite outfit—with the result looking something like one of those “who wore it better” photo spreads, only for, say, The Paris Review instead of US Weekly. “Ring Cycle” is a collection of interviews with women in a newspaper office about the rings they’re wearing, accompanied by photocopies of their hands. This piece, like many others in the book, has a wonderful way of feeling carefully considered and off-the-cuff at the same time—like your favorite outfit, perhaps, which makes you look great but also like you haven’t tried too hard.

The Conversations might appeal to you the most, since they feel so deliciously like eavesdropping. “Black Girls Talking” is a charming conversation about favorite fabrics and new hairstyles by a few young women—friends, from the sound of it—who produce a podcast by the same name.

There are longer prose pieces in here too, but even those have a fleeting feeling, as though you’ve just flipped past someone talking on TV and decided to leave the channel on while she describes the freedom she feels when she wears the hijab, or which jeans she prefers to have on while she works on her father’s horse ranch.

Guaranteed, somewhere in this book someone has expressed an opinion you haven’t heard yet, and you’ll be the better for having read it. Every page is brimming with ideas in their many forms: memories, opinions, even half-remembered dreams. Because the thing that editors Heti, Julavits and Shapton know—and that makes this book such a delightful success—is that clothing is never just about clothing.

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