‘“Women in Clothes” by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton’, A Review by Madelaine Lucas

Suitcase

For three weeks after I returned from travelling around America, I lived out of my suitcase. I had promised myself I’d clean out my closet as soon as I got back; after living with only the things I could carry, I realised I had a lot of things back home I didn’t need. The things I’d bought while I was away seemed much closer to me than those I had left behind.

The clothes I bought in America radiated so strongly with my situation in the present; they embodied a moment or a city I was passing through. Some things were bought on the spur of the moment like a pair of blue suede cowboy boots I bought for $20 on the way to Joshua Tree because I was afraid of snakes and needed closed-in shoes and also because I wanted to feel like a cowgirl in the sand. Dressing became my way of interacting with my ideas and associations of a place I’d dreamed of, and I chose clothes that created a character out of how that place made me feel: grey slacks and crisp white shirts for a day spent in a New York City art gallery; Pendleton coats in Portland, Oregon; a handmade Mexican dress for the Californian desert.

Back home, I kept avoiding the task of going through my wardrobe. Inevitably, sorting out my dresses and jumpers would unearth the past, and I wasn’t ready to face that baggage, those silk, lace and cashmere reminders of who I used to be.

Memory Chest

In her essay, ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, Joan Didion writes: “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” For Didion, the notebook offers a route back into the past, and a kind of charm against forgetting. Rather than keeping a factual record of dates and places, Didion’s notebook is an assemblage of scenes and overheard dialogue that recall a mood, a moment, or a memory from her past.

Our closets are another way of getting in touch with past versions of ourselves. Women in Clothes, the new book-collaboration by Shelia Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton demonstrates the wardrobe can be seen as a memory chest – a way to remember who we were, by what we wore. The book reads like a collective diary, with essays, illustrations, interviews and survey responses from 642 contributors all cobbled together under different headings.

Women in Clothes is successful because it is self-consciously not about fashion. Several reviews have commented on (and celebrated) the lack of quotes from Coco Chanel and illustrations of shoes that look like cupcakes that one, unfortunately, usually expects to find inside a book about style for women. There are no photographs of contributors, and while some of them are famous (Miranda July, Tavi Gevinson, Kim Gordon, Lena Dunham, Cindy Sherman), the book proves that it is a mistake to associate the importance of clothing with only the lives of the fashionable. In these pages, the stories of farmers, garment workers, dancers, and restaurant critics are just as relevant as those of artists and designers. The oldest contributor is ninety-seven; the youngest is a five-year-old with a very particular sense of what is ugly (bathtub plugs) and what is not ugly (fancy dresses and rings). The multiplicity of voices makes Women in Clothes feel like an open conversation, and it is impossible not to be flooded with sartorial memories while reading it.

Dressing is a part of our everyday experience, an essential part of navigating the world, and it is the responses of the lesser-known contributors that best demonstrate how vulnerable we are when we talk about our clothes. Seeing their names reoccurring throughout the book in response to different sections (‘Mandates of Place’, ‘Gut Feeling’, ‘Fathers’) I felt close to them, as if they were friends I hadn’t met yet. This is the true gift of Women in Clothes—in a world where the media and fashion industry thrive on encouraging women to compete with one another, this book made me feel like I had comrades around the world, from all walks of life and all generations. Through secrets and confessions, photos of mothers and pictures of items owned in multiple, Women in Clothes creates a sense of intimacy and shared experience between the reader and all these strangers. I found reflections of myself in many of their stories, such as feeling superstitious about the powers of a certain ‘magic’ dress, or developing a fresh fascination in my early-twenties with my mother’s life before I was born.

Laced as they are with stories of family, religion, sexuality, it is almost as if by speaking about our clothes we are stripping bare. In the way that a friend telling you a secret makes you feel compelled to confess one in return, the book made me want to offer something to the responders who shared so much of themselves with me and made me go forth, clothed and emboldened, dressed for myself.

Tides

Influences are forces, strong as the tidal pull. The contributors in Women in Clothes reveal that our choices when dressing are not shaped by trends or magazines, but the structures of our lives and the roles we play, like needing a coat to fit all the tissues and cough drops and lollipops whilst commuting three children to school in the New York winter, as described by Amy Fusselman in her piece ‘The Mom Coat’. We dress to withstand the elements, to be noticed, to be invisible, to find a way in or out of femininity.

Dressing is a daily dialogue we have with ourselves.

Dressing is a daily dialogue we have with ourselves, where self-doubt, confidence, power and insecurity, gender, place and politics interact. While this is true of all genders, it is especially true for women, who have to negotiate a bombardment of conflicting messages from society and the media: be sexy but not too sexy, care about your appearance but don’t be vain, look flawless and yet natural.

Sometimes, I think about fashion the way Roxane Gay feels about handbags and high heels: “pretty, but designed to SLOW women down”. It is not uncommon for me to sit for too long on the edge of my bed in my underwear, staring at my wardrobe and hoping for inspiration. It is never as simple as wanting to appear attractive, or be comfortable; it is a question of who I want to be that day, or how I want to feel at work, or on stage, or in the rain. Clothing is the threshold between what is public and private, and a way of choosing what we want to show about ourselves and what we want to conceal.

Whenever I feel nervous about a situation, I spend days visualising the outfits I might wear for that occasion, whether it’s a job interview, a performance, or a party full of people I don’t know. This started when I was younger, during a time when I had trouble falling asleep. Lying awake in the dark, my head would become full of thoughts that scared me. In their place, I’d try to think of things that were ‘nice’ or ‘safe’, and for some reason this always came back to picturing myself in beautiful dresses or dreaming up what I might wear to an event I was looking forward to. We can’t predict how we will be received by others, but choosing how we dress can at least provide us with a sense of control.

Flowers in the Bathtub

Once, I accompanied a friend to a dinner party in Elizabeth Bay. The host was very beautiful and intelligent, and though I didn’t know her well, I respected her dedication to her studies and her sense of direction in life. When I meet someone I think I can be friends with, it’s a micro-version of falling in love, except instead of wanting to be with the person, I want to be them in some way.

Everything in the apartment was neat and organised. All over it were pretty little details: pale pink tiles in the kitchen, pale blue tiles in the bathroom and a matching blue tub that was filled that night with potted ferns and flowers. As part of the grand tour, my friend took me into the host’s room and slid across the white double-doors of her closet. Inside were neatly folded wool and cashmere sweaters in white, grey, pink, black and blue, and shoes lined up below the hanging dresses. All the clothes were elegant and simple. The wardrobe was the perfect representation of the host, and I admired the coherent way she seemed to live her life. It wasn’t until later that I realised it wasn’t the apartment or the jumpers I desired, but to be a person who had figured herself out, whose life and wardrobe was not a mismatch of other times and former selves, but neatly and deliberately curated.

Who I am now is always rubbing shoulders with who I used to be.

Sometimes, I feel I am a stylish woman trapped inside the body of a messy person. This stops me from ever being too put together – something always gives me away, like chipped nail polish or knotty hair. I live the way I grew up, in a creative, chaotic disarray. Dirty clothes live on the floor with books and papers, clean clothes live on the table next to fruit and coffee cups – anywhere but the wardrobe. My clothing situation reflects the way I work and write – all over the floor, messily, but with a constant interaction of past and present, memory and experience. Who I am now is always rubbing shoulders with who I used to be.

Inheritance

The closet is also a museum, an archive of family, love and loss.

Hanging outside my wardrobe is a broken, hand-beaded dress that belonged to my grandmother, who died just before my twenty-first birthday. She gave it to me to wear at my party, and I did, as my mother had worn it to her eighteenth. After three generations, it’s irreparably torn and tattered, but I still could never throw it away.

Inside, my old party dresses hang alongside a black jumper with rabbit fur cuffs that once belonged to my mother in her art school days, and my grandmother’s cashmere sweaters which I didn’t dry clean for a year after she died because they still smelt like her house, like perfume and lavender.

Clothes seem to contain memories, including those that are inherited, and others that don’t technically belong to us. Certain fabrics recall moments that I know and yet have never experienced. Chiffon and tulle reminds me of school dances, first kisses, and ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’; silk and fur makes me dream of a long forgotten decadence I know I’ll never get close to touching; blue velvet makes me think of smoky bars, David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini. Like the outfits I composed while travelling, even regular clothes can be costumes, allowing us to briefly step into another version of ourselves, another life or another time.

In a conversation with Sheila Heti, professional “declutter coach” Juliet Landau-Pope describes the process people go through when parting with their clothes. “People find it very difficult to just show me things without telling me stories – every item has a story … Something I especially encounter with older people is fear of losing the memory. They’re afraid if they give away the physical item, they’ll lose the memory attached to it.”

No matter how much we try to tell ourselves that memory functions like a tape recorder, a video camera or a computer hard drive, such metaphors deceive us with their impressions of accuracy, permanency, reliability.

Whenever I get a good distance from the past, I no longer feel attached to my memories. I look back and see myself from the outside, while the real me – that is, the me in the present – watches with interest, like it was a movie. I lack the sensation of being there. Although I can recall dates and places, and am aware of my own biography, the older I get, the more it feels like the things that happened to me in the past actually happened to someone else.

For this reason, I tend to invest my memories in other things: songs, objects, dresses, and stories. As much as I dream of living my life free of baggage, I can’t shift the feeling that the relics I have collected over my life are pieces of my history, my story. They recall the textures of the past when memory fails.

I keep the party dresses to remind me what it was to be me, at seventeen, nineteen or twenty-two. As much as I dream of throwing it all away and starting over, I just can’t leave myself behind.

Madelaine Lucas writes short fiction, essays and love songs. A recent graduate of the University of Technology Sydney, her writing has appeared in Island, Overland and The Lifted Brow. Her piece, ‘Dog Story’, won the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers.