It’s a Sunday afternoon in late September, and Leanne Shapton and Heidi Julavits, the authors (together with Sheila Heti) of Women in Clothes, are sitting in Shapton’s apartment in Greenwich Village, New York, holding true to their preference to under- rather than over-dress. Jeans, T-shirts and casual tops – nothing showy – are the order of this late summer’s day.
Women in Clothes is their survey of the fashion preferences of 639 women, of different ages, social classes from around the world. While a small percentage of women professed not to care about clothes, says Julavits, “Most of us live in a world where we must wear clothes in order to leave the house and interact with other humans. So we wanted to look at what guides our decisions.”
Celebrities and artists (including Kim Gordon, Molly Ringwald and Tavi Gevinson) contributed to this idiosyncratic book.
Shapton and Julavits argue that women in the public eye are judged harshly for what they wear. “In the case of politicians,” Shapton says, “it’s fair that so many have a uniform that, while potentially derided, allows them to not worry about it and get on with their jobs. I also love that the Duchess of Cambridge wears the same, relatively inexpensive things over and over again, and that a royal being seen in the same outfit two or three times these days can be admired and respected.”
Yet fashion is often seen as trivial. “It depends on how meaningful it is to a person,” says Shapton. “Many men and women don’t want to be seen to care about clothes even when they do.” The question then is, “If you don’t care, why do you not care, and how does that inform your choice of clothes?”
It is “impossible”, says Julavits, to say nothing about your personality through your attire. “I used to frequent nude hot springs in northern California, and it was always so shocking to see people who I’d only known clothesless suddenly in their clothes, and how much more naked and revealed they seemed when dressed.”
The range of testimonies in Women in Clothes is impressive. The transgender journalist Juliet Jacques speaks about how she learned to dress like a woman at 28, and there is an interview with Reba Sikder, a Bangladeshi factory worker who survived the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in which 1,100 garment workers died.
Girls creator and star Lena Dunham says that with clothes she tries to become a character: “schoolgirl, new lesbian, lapsed nun, Miami mistress”. Shapton agrees that getting dressed can be a performance: “It might be a whispered one-liner, or a charade.”
And clothes maketh the woman, every bit as they do the man. “Clothing is a wonderful object to use as a prism through which one’s personality can fall,” adds co-author Sheila Heti in a later email exchange, “simply because it’s an object everyone has to contend with. Everyone gets dressed.”
Women in Clothes is out on Thursday (Penguin, £24). Click here to buy it for £19.20 with free UK pp