Clothing is important enough for everyone (except for a handful of ecdysiasts) to wear every single day of their lives, but it’s not something that’s usually considered worth discussing. Sure, friends can chat about it while they shop, and maybe an author can dwell on the sumptuous costumes of her characters if she’s writing historical romance, but asking “What are you wearing?” is not a fit topic for “serious” conversation or “serious” writing.
That question can sound altogether mundane or totally creepy, depending on the circumstances. (Not as creepy to my ears as the one that gets asked on red carpets,”Who are you wearing?” but still.) A subject that’s somehow too boring and too erotically fraught at the same time? How is that possible? Oh right, because sexism. Clothes are a woman thing, so even though they’re almost as ubiquitous as oxygen, they’re pushed to the periphery.
Not always, though. There are a couple of recent books that treat clothes with respect without forgetting to have fun while they do it.
Worn Stories, edited by Emily Spivack, is a collection of “memoir[s] in miniature” that includes photos and reminiscences from more than sixty thoughtful contributors, including fashion designers, musicians, artists, actors, and comedians. Each one chooses a personally significant piece of clothing and explains how it came to enter the wardrobe. It’s simple in concept, but complex in execution as the stories unfold. There are timeless hand-me-downs that inspire heartfelt family tales and also trendy one-off items that evoke very specific moments. For example, designer Simon Doonan shares a pair of garish New Wave leggings that summon up the aerobics and AIDS epidemics of the 1980s like ghosts. My favorite entry is hard to pick, but I think it’s intellectual funnyman John Hodgman’s, in which he shows off the dowdy dress he wore when he toured in the persona of Ayn Rand.
Sheila Heti (How Should a Person Be?), Heidi Julavits (The Vanishers), and Leanne Shapton (Swimming Studies) are very much writers of the now, and their latest contribution to the zeitgeist is Women in Clothes, a mammoth and beatiful compendium of interviews and essays. Says the publisher, “It is essentially a conversation among hundreds of women of all nationalities—famous, anonymous, religious, secular, married, single, young, old—on the subject of clothing, and how the garments we put on every day define and shape our lives.” It’s intelligent without being academically dry, exhaustive without being exhausting. You can read it straight through in a single sitting (if you’re not doing anything else with your weekend) or dip into it briefly for insight and amusement. Even leafing through it for the images is pretty spectacular. You can get a taste of what these three sharp-minded editors are up to via this conversation they had with The Rumpus.
Two remarkable books, but they shouldn’t be so remarkable, if you know what I mean. Why can’t we have more like them?
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