Rookie Mag interview with Sheila Heti, co-author of Women in Clothes.
As much as the book talks about clothes and dressing and style, it is also very much about the relationships women have to other women-in-clothes. Can you talk about the range of responses you got about how clothing shapes how women interact with other women?
Yeah! I think that one of the warmest ways to strike up a conversation with another women is to compliment something she’s wearing. That says “I’m your friend. I’m not your enemy and I’m not competing with you. I like you! I see what you’re doing and I appreciate it.” I think compliments are a very natural and great way to open up a conversation and to become intimate with somebody right away. It’s just a way of saying “I notice you.”
[Clothing] is also something that everybody has to put a certain amount of thought into. Obviously, some people put more thought into it than others, but we all have to get dressed. So even if you decide “I’m not going to think about it,” that still says something about you and your values and your orientation—to yourself physically and to the world.
There’s a theme throughout the book of women looking at other women, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with envy. People often wrote in their surveys, “I want to be her, but I never will be” or “This is someone I really admire.”
It seems like a lot of women dress for other women. It’s different to dress with the idea of women as your audience. I mean, to dress with men as your audience is a pretty simple equation. But dressing for women is a more complex thing. But when you read surveys from 600, women you realize everyone is just expressing themselves. There’s not this ur-woman that everyone is trying to be. Everyone has their own idea in their head of who they want to be, or what’s admirable, or what suits them.
But I think that you learn who you are and who you’re not in relation to other people. You can’t, obviously, imitate all women—you can’t be the frumpy woman you admire and the manicured woman you admire. You can say, “I’m never going to be that woman, that perfectly manicured woman—but I appreciate her.” And by appreciating someone else, you can appreciate your own self more. For me, now, after doing this book, when I walk down the street, I notice and appreciate a greater range of women. And I also sort of feel more comfortable with myself and with my own choices, my own individuality, rather than feeling that I’m missing the mark.
I liked the conversation Leanne Shapton had with the human rights reporter Mac McClellan about conditions in overseas clothing factories, but it was pretty difficult to read. Mac was saying how it’s important to know where your clothes came from, and how difficult it is to actually shop ethically.
Yeah, secondhand seems to be the answer. Just because there are so many clothes in the world already, we don’t need to still be making more and more and more. If you’re shopping at H&M or any of those stores that peddle new clothes, you’re contributing to the consumption cycle in more disastrous way than if you buy something that already existed.
There are also interviews with women employed in the fashion industry, like Reba Sikder, who survived the collapse of the garment factory where she worked in Bangladesh. Did those interviews change your own feelings about shopping for and owning clothes?
I always felt a certain amount of guilt about spending what I would consider too much money on a piece of clothing. It was just this vague guilt. But now it seems like that is the right feeling to follow. There are so many better ways to spend your money. I hate the idea that a woman has to always wear a different dress every day. I hate the idea that a woman has to spend money on her clothes and therefore have less money for other things that are more important, you know?
For a while when I was doing the book, I spent a quite a bit of money on clothes, because my attention was on dressing. When I stopped, I realized I have so much in my closet that I don’t wear. And, you know, maybe my best friend has a jacket that I could wear. There’s a woman in the book, Molly Murray who says, “I prefer getting my clothes in a more interesting way than shopping for them.” I’m paraphrasing, but that line just keeps going through my head. I think it’s one of my favorite lines in the whole book.