• Blue Rider Press

A few years ago, inspired by her boyfriend, who cared a lot about clothes, Sheila Heti, the author of the great autobiographical novel/philosophical inquiry How Should a Person Be?, decided that it was time to learn how to put more thought into her personal appearance and become more stylish.

“For someone who is fascinated by how people relate to one another,” she writes, “it’s hard to overlook personal style as a way we speak to the world.” She rode her bike to a chain bookstore and began to explore, but all she found were photo collections from Vogue and instructions on how to dress like Audrey Hepburn. Strangely enough, she did not find these books useful. So she decided to consult two of her more stylish friends, Heidi Julavits, a novelist and editor of The Believer and a professor at Columbia University, and Leanne Shapton, an illustrator and author of the memoir Swimming Studies. The three of them compiled a long list of questions about clothes and personal style—the sort of questions Heti was hoping to find answers to at the bookstore—and began passing it around to friends, friends of friends, and anyone else they could find. The result is Women in Clothes, a 500-page exploration of style with contributions from 639 people, mostly women, including former Reader intern Kerry Cardoza.

I was concerned at first that the book would just be a compilation of style tips from slender white women who live in New York and can afford designer clothes. And in the authors’ introduction, this fear seemed confirmed, especially when Shapton talks about going to the Met Ball and the Oscars and how only a few of the celebrities there looked truly great. (Her husband is James Truman, the former editorial director of Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, among other very fancy magazines, and she writes that during their early years together, he bought her lots of clothes so she would dress better.)

But once you get past the introduction, the book is a remarkable collection of diverse voices. It feels like a zine or a scrapbook, with snippets of many women’s thoughts on the same subject (“Economics of Style,” “Dressing for Success,” “Color,” “Breasts”), interviews with women both famous (Lena Dunham, Kim Gordon) and not (garment workers in Cambodia and Bangladesh), personal essays, illustrations of body “wear areas” of particular concern, collections of various items of clothing (raincoats, white nightgowns, false eyelashes, guitar straps), projects (six women of varying ages and shapes trying on one another’s favorite outfits, sketches of rejected outfits on bedroom floors). Most segments don’t last more than a page or two; if you don’t like one, it’s easy to move on.

And, yes, there were a few that were boring and self-involved that I wanted to skip. But most I wanted to keep reading.

Some of the best pieces look at style and body image in unexpected ways. Smell scientist Leslie Vosshall noses around a coat room in a busy New York restaurant and characterizes people by the smell of their coats. Of a couple whose coats smell like Axe and “really powdery violets,” she says, “I think she’s with the wrong guy. I really feel for her.” Critic Margo Jefferson analyzes the way black women’s bodies were viewed in the 1950s: “Obtrusive behinds refused to slip into sheath dresses, subside and stay put.” Shani Boianjiu, a novelist and former Israeli soldier, sardonically offers fashion tips for current teenage soldiers: “Do wear a linked dozen 7.62 bullets as a necklace. You’ll look tough, confident, and maybe a little like the Terminator, but in a fun way.” Emily Stokes, an editor in New York, lists what she spent on clothing and personal care items—including haircuts and dry cleaning—for five months; casually, she mentions that she is four-foot-eight, has scoliosis, and walks with a cane, but she’s less preoccupied with those things than with having bought, in a short span of time, two really ugly skirts.

Other pieces tap into more universal feelings, like Amy Fusselman’s essay on her “mom coat,” Sadie Stein’s about her three magic dresses, and Ida Hatemmer-Higgins’s about the expectation that different clothes will make you a different person. Two of the loveliest sections are “Mothers as Others,” in which contributors look at pictures of their mothers before they became their mothers and think about who they were and how their styles changed or evolved as they grew older.

Women in Clothes will not answer any concrete style questions, such as “How can I wear a scarf with the panache of a Frenchwoman?” or “Which kind of dress best suits my body type?” (Though I do wish I knew how to design a dress like sculptor Michele Oka Doner; she has one basic pattern in enough colors and fabrics that she can wear one every day because, she says, “it was the go-to dress that made me feel so comfortable I never had to think about how I was going to look or what to wear with it.” It also looks really cool.) Instead, it’s meant to get you thinking about your own style and engage in a conversation with hundreds of other people.

Like most conversations, this one has some basic recurring themes: clothes as representation of identity, clothes as costumes, clothes and gender roles, clothes as a way to hide or be seen. These are important questions that go beyond fashion, and they’re not frivolous at all.

They’re also really fun questions to think about, at least with the voices Heti, Julavits, and Shapton have assembled. Everyone is bound to find one who makes you sit up and wait to hear from again. Mine is Gilda Haber, a British-born sociology professor who provides a highly entertaining history of sumptuary laws and whose entry on the subject of glamour begins, “I was seven and about to be a bridesmaid at my wicked aunt Mitzi’s first wedding.” It ends, “Right then, I decided to leave home and come to America, which I did.” There’s a whole novel right there.