August 29, 2014 6:32 pm

Why fashion matters – no matter who you are

The FT’s style editor on two books that explore our relationship with clothing and its power as a communication tool

Why do I put what I put on my body? It was in search of an answer to this very question that spurred Sheila Heti to visit her local bookstore in early 2012. In a cool irony, the trip was actually inspired by a man. “I went to look for a book on dressing because my boyfriend, who I had just moved in with, is such a good dresser and I felt ashamed by it,” recalls the 37-year-old writer and editor, from her home in Toronto. “I didn’t realise how much pleasure there is to be found in thinking about clothes, and I wanted to read a book that would help me think about clothes in a better way. I went to the bookstore and there was just nothing that could help me think about clothes in the way I wanted to.”

Heti set out to find the answers herself, writing a series of questions about clothes and sending them to friends, colleagues and associates canvassing opinion about what they wore, and why. It was academic in its approach but, crucially, it demanded intensely personal responses: do you think you have taste or style? Do you notice women on the street? Do you have a dress code? When do you feel your most attractive? [Can you] tell us about something in your closet that you keep but never wear? Are there any dressing rules you’d convey to other women? What’s your process of getting dressed every morning? What are you trying to achieve when you dress? What’s the situation with your hair?

Although Heti hadn’t imagined a life for her research much beyond a possible magazine article, its potential for something bigger emerged when she showed the survey to Heidi Julavits (a co-founding editor of the Believer magazine, with Heti, and an associate professor at Columbia University).

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“I flipped out,” says Julavits, from her home in New York. “I was sitting in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, filling in the survey, and I was amazed at how these questions made me very self-reflective, and how they opened up all these memories and stories that I hadn’t even thought of. They made me articulate certain beliefs that I had about why – and what – I put on my body. It’s a question we encounter every time we get dressed to go outside and it involves every single human on the planet – unless they are nudists.”

The field study grew larger, stretching beyond the middle-class academic associates of Heti and Julavits and out into the wider world – to factory workers in Bangladesh, Muslim women in the Middle East, stylists in London and farmers in Kansas. It also acquired another editor, the illustrator and author Leanne Shapton whose autobiographical novel Swimming Studies was published to wide acclaim in 2012. She offered neat visual ideas about how to illustrate the book without having to photograph the respondents. “If all of those snippets of advice were accompanied by a picture, we would dismiss them because we make snap judgements about people,” she explains. Instead, she was tasked with “activating the grey” text with ways of showing how women “think and feel” about clothes.

. . .

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the 36-year-old writer and editor Emily Spivack was compiling a field study of her own. The founder of non-profit organisation Shop Well With You, which helps women with breast cancer use clothes both to ease their discomfort and to improve their body image during treatment and after surgery, Spivack had become fascinated by the way people view clothing, and what stories their clothes might contain. “I had always been interested in looking at clothing from a cultural, historical and anthropological perspective,” she says, “but [then] I approached it in a more therapeutic way.”

To this end, she started a project called “Sentimental Stories”, gathering material from details that were sometimes posted alongside clothes for sale on the auction site eBay, revealing tales about their previous owners. But now she wanted to broaden her scope. She wrote to friends: “Tell me a story, connected to a piece of clothing that you still have in your possession in which something monumental, spectacular, odd or even just unusual happened while you were wearing it. Why is it special? Why does it have meaning? And why are you holding on to it?”

The results of both studies are now being published. After long gestations, Women in Clothes, by Julavits, Heti and Shapton, and Spivack’s Worn Stories will be born within days of each other. Both books offer extraordinary, and unusual, insights into our relationship with clothes.

Women in Clothes has incorporated 639 voices to create an exhaustive study of how we (OK, women) dress. Its chapters are organised according to the different themes of the questionnaire and the text is interspersed with interviews, artwork, poems and diagrams. Everything is up for discussion: hair, shopping habits, confidence, shared style, uniforms, religious practices, interview outfits, sisters, smell, attractiveness, “investment items”, make-up, breasts.

The collection of experiences is broad and unfiltered. Celebrity contributors sit alongside “normal” folk, designers next to dentists. A garment worker in Cambodia marvels at the construction – and expense – of the bras she stitches when her own is bought from a pile of jumble; film-maker Miranda July dresses six women in each other’s favourite outfits; Lena Dunham celebrates the influence of a friend and Girls co-star, Jemima Kirke, on her sense of style. In “Color Taxonomy”, the writer and magazine editor Tavi Gevinson codifies the spectrum according to clothes: “Gray was made for nice sweaters and gross sweatpants”, Pink “is fraught with politics” and “Gold has been rightfully monopolized by disco, Dynasty, and the Illuminati”. In “Covet Diary”, Shapton chronicles her determined appropriation of another woman’s look – or, more bluntly, how she went out and bought another woman’s dress. So many voices might have been overwhelming but together they make a surprisingly consistent and companionable chorus.

Spivack’s Worn Stories has more modest ambitions but draws a similarly tender portrait in which even the most inconsequential garments are elevated to superhero status: film-maker Greta Gerwig tells a charming love story about the flannel shirt she wears to write in; Albert Maysles, the documentarian behind Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975), describes his attachment to a quilted jacket known as a fufaika, which once identified one as a Russian peasant. Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black (a memoir describing her year in prison) recalls how she wore a “vintage 1950s pencil-skirt suit I had bought on eBay” to make her final court appearance on the advice of a lawyer who told her: “We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbour when he looks at you.” And the artist Marina Abramovic talks us through her relationship with a pair of hiking boots that have seen her traverse the Great Wall of China, as well as three performance pieces.

. . .

Why are these books important? Because both make an elegant case for the fact that clothes matter. What we wear, even though we might not care to admit it, matters. Clothes are a language by which we are judged: a shorthand that allows us to communicate with others, and an expression of our feelings of self-worth or status. Moreover, these books take the subjects of fashion, style and image and start a conversation outside of the typical forums of sartorial discussion. They are not didactic guides, offering us tips and tricks for how to dress. A case in point comes with next week’s publication of How to be Parisian, Wherever You Are (Ebury/Doubleday), a style manifesto for aspirant Left Bankers flavoured with typically Gallic autoritaire: Uggs? No! Make-up? No! Brassières? Peut-être . . .  As Heti insists in some of her earliest correspondence with Julavits (printed in their introduction “Clothing Garden”): “The one thing we want to steer away from is pronouncements on fashion from people like Coco Chanel or Diane von Furstenberg (‘A woman’s style is in direct proportion to her misery’ or whatever, I just made that up). I think we want regular women, not only the most fashionable . . .  We should send surveys to whoever we’re curious about and inspired to learn about and hear from.”

. . .

The results are fascinating. Perhaps most surprising for me, as a newly installed fashion editor about to embark on the whirligig of the spring/summer 2015 show season (one of the busiest and, arguably, most important months in the fashion calendar), is how few of the participants respond explicitly to the influences of the catwalk. Despite caring deeply about clothes, how they might appear, and fashion in general, few remark on a desire for specific designer pieces. Few of the Worn Stories feature an investment garment, or tell a tale of a longed-for acquisition. Rare is the Women in Clothes contributor who responds to catwalk trends, or credits the glossy fashion shoots essayed in fashion magazines as being especially influential in the way she dresses.

“It surprised me, too,” says Julavits. “Maybe it’s because it has been drummed into most people by the time they are my age [46] that fashion magazines are BAD! I understand that but I still read them. I still buy them and I still enjoy them. But I know magazines are going to present me with a version of beauty and femininity, and I know very well what is driving that version, and I don’t have to take it seriously.”

There is a surprising lack also of a sense of physical inadequacy on the pages: drilled as we are as a society to assume women are riven with self-doubt and anxiety about the way they look, I was expecting the dialogue to be full of self-hate. In fact, the respondents seem to be pretty positive about the way they look.

“I was expecting a lot more angst,” says Heti. “I think maybe the reason there wasn’t is because we gave people the opportunity to speak about themselves and their own experiences, and there is a lot of pleasure in that – it’s such a relief. That is what the culture lacks for a lot of women. So a woman on the front of a fashion magazine is a very different woman to the one in front of a survey asking her about her life and her relationship with clothes. One is a position of power and confidence, and she knows the answer. The other is a model like Gisele Bündchen in some designer gown, and what does that mean for your life? Nothing.”

“One of the reasons I was drawn to Worn Stories and why I think it offers a different side of fashion, is our absolute relate-ability to clothing,” says Spivack (who describes her personal style as “an outlet for creative expression. I was always wearing the crazy stuff.”). “I think that fashion is a little bit different. We see what is in fashion magazines, what is on trend, we look at beautiful garments that are out of our reach in terms of our ability to buy them – but we all wear clothing.”

Painting by Lisa Milroy©Lisa Milroy

‘Dress painting’ (2011-14) by Lisa Milroy

Neither book is anti-fashion. Although all of the editors admit that during their projects they became more mindful about what they needed, their shopping habits and their “need” to shop, they still profess a continued interest in fashion and style. More urgent, though, is their insistence on the importance of clothes as a tool of communication. For instance: Women in Clothes features transcripts of short, recorded conversations between strangers that were precipitated by one complimenting the other on something they were wearing. With each compliment, a door opens and a story begins. Conclusion: chatting about clothes is a surefire way to make friends.

“What continues to surprise me is how much I can learn about the person through a simple piece of clothing,” says Spivack, who was entrusted both with each story and with the garment itself, which she photographed, looking somewhat forlorn and denuded, on a hanger. “Clothes,” she adds, “are just a conduit to sharing life stories.”

Of course, there will always be those who won’t engage in the conversation: the subject of fashion will always be dismissed as being silly or unimportant. Julavits estimates that around 8-10 per cent of the women they approached refused to participate at all: “Every once in a while you would get someone who said, ‘I can’t answer this survey because I don’t care about clothes’,” she says. “But I think there are two ways to look at it. One is – ‘oh this is a shallow concern and I can’t be associated with it’. The other is that there’s a shame in seeming to care.”

It’s a question we encounter every time we get dressed to go outside, and it involves every single human

I can vouch for this prejudice. In my previous job at Vogue, I would regularly approach businesswomen and female professionals and politicians to appear in features or interviews, only to be met with withering rejection; as though to be associated with a glossy magazine would somehow negate one’s intellectual credibility or status (conversely, I found men rarely had this issue).

“Even I feel like that and I wrote this book,” admits Heti. “I’m sitting here wondering why I’m talking so much about clothes in a newspaper interview.” That said, she argues: “I do think there is something in the culture that makes one feel like this is very shameful and frivolous. And I wouldn’t want to live in a world where clothes were the most important thing. But I don’t think that people who care about clothes should feel ashamed: we are humans in a society who talk to each other, and one of the ways we talk to each other is through what we wear. And that is undeniable: that is not frivolous or shallow – that is the whole world.” Unless you’re a nudist.

‘Women in Clothes’ is published on September 4 (Blue Rider Press, Penguin UK, and S Fischer Verlag). ‘Worn Stories’ is available now in the US (Princeton Architectural Press) and will be published in the UK on September 1 (Abrams & Chronicle)

Slideshow images: Lisa Milroy

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