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.

Single Page

More from Maya Dukmasova:

From the January 2015 issue

Pay Dirt

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


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.”

Subscribe Today