It can be hard to talk about clothes in an intelligent way. Fashion critic Kennedy Fraser once wrote in The New Yorker that the act of donning a garment can seem almost furtive or trivial, something beneath debate or intellectual content. The editors of Women in Clothes would agree that it's a challenge. The book collects essays, conversations, pictures and testimonials from more than 600 women talking about how clothes shape or reflect them as human beings.
"When you hear the word 'fashion' you just think fashion magazine," says novelist and Women in Clothes editor Heidi Julavits. "You think of a ... much more superficial way of talking about what you put on your body."
So she and her two collaborators, writers Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, decided to send out questionnaires to hundreds of women.
"We wanted to ask people questions that might in some ways be the province of a fashion magazine, but we wanted to really free people from that fashion language," Julavits says.
After all, fashion magazine language can be both tired and patronizing: "must-have outfits," "do's and don'ts" or "who wore it best?" Together, the editors of Women in Clothes created a list of 50 far more intriguing clothing questions:
What is your cultural background and how has that influenced how you dress?
Do you think you have taste or style? Which one is more important?
How does money fit into all this?
Did your parents teach you things about clothing, care for your clothing, dressing or style?
Please describe your mind. Please describe your body. Please describe your emotions.
Another thing they wanted to know was how many women were not interested in clothing. Among the thousand or so responses, only 5 percent weren't.
"It's so frustrating when people say, 'I'm not interested in clothing,' " Julavits says. "You know, what they mean is, 'I don't want to appear to care about clothes.' "
That was certainly true for editor Sheila Heti. She's the author of the autobiographical novel How Should a Person Be?, which analyzes one woman's process of trying to answer that question. Heti says she never gave any thought to clothes; she had an interior life, and clothes were external. But that changed a couple of years ago.
She says, "I woke up one day and I just thought, 'Today's the day that I want to figure out how to dress.' You know, I wanted to know what other women thought about as they got dressed: how they knew what to buy in the store, how they knew what they wanted to wear. I wanted to sort of figure out what my taste was."