Six Questions — September 17, 2014, 8:00 am

Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton on Women in Clothes

Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton discuss how the clothes we wear shape our lives


Leanne Shapton, Sheila Heti, and Heidi Julavits © G Powell

Women and clothes are literally and conceptually together everywhere—in the streets, in magazines, on bus shelters and billboards. But what do ordinary women think about when they get dressed? Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, the editors of Women in Clothes, out this month from Blue Rider Press, decided to find out by surveying women they knew about clothes. They asked women eighty-three questions, which included: “Is there a certain look you feel you are expected to like that you have absolutely no interest in?” “When you see yourself in photographs, what do you think?” “How do you conform to or rebel against the dress expectations at your workplace?” The women they surveyed were also encouraged to engage in various creative and critical projects to explore their relationships to clothing. The result is a volume that combines the voices of 642 women—artists, dog catchers, office workers, farmers, writers, pilots, and everyone in between, stitching together survey answers, personal essays, poetry, photography, and illustration. The book is also peppered with short transcripts of women’s complements to other women and the brief conversations and connections that emerge from saying “I like that lipstick,” or “nice dress,” or “that’s a great haircut.” I talked to the editors about their ambitious and original project.

1. Sheila, were you the one who first had the idea of doing something like this? Did you envision it originally as a book?

Sheila Heti: I was looking for a book that would tell me what women thought about as they got dressed, how they put their style together and what the meanings were for them in dressing. It wasn’t an area of my life that I had given that much thought to. I literally went to a store to look and there was no such book. I thought, I’ll just do a little survey of my own, and I wrote an email to a group of female friends. I asked the kind of questions that I wanted to have answered. Heidi was the one who was like “I think this could be a book, maybe we could work on this as a project together.” I felt a little bit embarrassed about sending those questions around but the fact that Heidi responded so enthusiastically made me feel like maybe it was not just me who would be interested, maybe a book would be a good idea, and maybe it wasn’t embarrassing to ask other people these questions.

Heidi Julavits: No one had ever asked me questions like the ones Sheila asked. I just couldn’t stop writing answers to them, it felt so liberating. They enabled me to talk about memories I had, beliefs I had, all of these unarticulated systems that I had in place for myself.

SH: The last book I published, Leanne did the cover. For me, the cover of that book gave the book so much of its character. I thought that if Leanne would also agree to do this it would be the perfect chemistry or perfect alchemy.

Leanne Shapton: When they invited me to be part of it I said absolutely. I immediately knew that it would be very word-heavy, that it shouldn’t feel like an academic research book, it needed to have more visuals. The way that we read pictures is so different than the way we read text, and I knew that it would actually be much more powerful if we heard women’s voices before seeing their faces. I didn’t want it to be illustrated directly, I wanted there to be chapters that stood alone as visual pieces.

SH: It’s exhausting to look at pictures of women! If I don’t see another photograph of a woman for the next ten years I’ll be fine.

2. How did you pick the women to reach out to? Were there way more surveys done than there are actually in the book?

SH: We tried to get as many people as we could into the book, even if it was only one sentence. Leanne made these amazing business cards that said, “I like what you’re wearing, would you like to fill out a survey?” We handed the cards out on the street, we emailed all our contacts, we emailed journalists in other countries, we just kept thinking about ideas: wouldn’t it be interesting to ask somebody who wears a uniform and works in a nail salon? Wouldn’t it be interesting to ask somebody who works with animals?

3. Did you encounter anyone who didn’t want to participate, who didn’t want to take the survey?

LS: Some women said, “Oh, I don’t think about clothes.” That drove me a little bit crazy because it’s not that they don’t care about clothes, it’s that they don’t want to appear to care about clothes. I asked these two women I know who appeared not to care about clothes specifically because I wanted them to talk about it. One of them only wears saddle shoes and the other one only wears long-sleeved shirts, so I really wanted to know why. But their answer was just, “I don’t care about clothes.” It’s frustrating. I find that response pretty boring.

SH: It’s not really fair: You’re supposed to look good but also not really care. It’s this terrible bind. It’s another area of life for women where you’re fucked if you do and you’re fucked if you don’t. Clothes are a bit like eating: you have to dress yourself. You have to eat, and even if you eat pizza all day long, that’s still a choice. So you can not care but you also reveal something about yourself in not caring.

4. There’s a certain vulnerability in talking about some of these things. Did you ever have any hesitation about subjecting it to the male gaze or the publicness of these discussions?

LS: I think we actually edited for that vulnerability. When pieces came in, we could smell it a mile off if a woman was trying to impress us and trying to seem cool. The more original answers to us were when women were not trying to impress, were being vulnerable, were being private, were going a little bit deeper and not disguising, or concealing, or fixing, or being prescriptive.

JH: We have gotten a lot of feedback from guys who like it. I haven’t gotten an answer as to what about it attracted them to read it.

SH: To understand women! It think it would help you understand women a bit better if you’re a man.

LS: My husband read it and was laughing and was really moved. He worked in women’s magazines before so he had an ear for it, but he was very surprised by the content. I’m curious to hear what men do think about this.

9780399166563_Women_in_Clothes5. Do you feel like you’ve undergone some sort of transformation as a result of working on this and engaging with so many women about image and clothing and all the different aspects of being a woman? Do you look at the world with new eyes now?

LS: One of the things that really moved me was when we decided to put in these compliments. These little pieces actually hold a lot of the spirit of the book. Those compliments really moved me and changed how I approach and look at other women.

HJ: We ended up collaborating with hundreds of people. I feel like I want the collaboration to continue. So, for example, I keep talking about this one woman who said whenever she feels like her outfit’s not quite working she puts on an apron and she goes out into the world. I’ve just been fixated with that, I thought it’s so brilliant. I always wear a sweater around my waist—I guess I just secretly want to be wearing a cummerbund or something—but today I’ve started to tie it so that it looks more like an apron. Those voices are in my head. You get dressed in the morning and you don’t feel alone anymore.

SH: I like how the private thoughts of women dressing alone were exposed. We can all look at these thoughts together, so dressing doesn’t have to be like a competitive sport, but more a place of communion.

HJ: Before, I do feel like I would make judgments about women based on what they were wearing. And now I just see it as a message. Someone’s trying to communicate something to me. It’s not my place to judge the message, it’s just my place to receive it. As I was walking over here I walked past a woman who was dressed super revealing and sexily, and every guy on the street was whistling at her and instead of me thinking “What the hell? Why would you choose…” Now I just looked at her and I thought, you know what? She’s really happy with what she has on right now. She looks proud and she looks good.

6. Do you feel like you got the book you were looking for originally?

SH: I thought I would feel reassured to learn specific tips or something. But it’s actually more reassuring to learn that everybody approaches dressing in her own way. There’s no Ur-approach. So it’s a better book than what I set out looking for.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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