Sheila Heti Is a Woman in Clothes

<i>Women in Clothes</i> is a collection of voices from 642 different women describing what their clothes mean to them. Edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavitis, and Leanne Shapton, it’s the perfect comedown after eight days of dealing with the hell of...

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Sep 12 2014, 5:06pm

Women in Clothes is a collection of voices from 642 different women describing what their clothes mean to them. Edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavitis, and Leanne Shapton, it’s the perfect comedown after eight days of dealing with the hell of New York fashion week. The voices in the book range from Miranda July and Lena Dunham to Eileen Myles and Mira Gonzalez. There are also Skype conversations, podcast transcripts, and full-color photography collections of over-the-knee socks, closets, and toothpicks.

Sheila Heti is the author of How Should a Person Be?, a New York Times notable book. I first met her in Los Angeles when I attended a party at her friend's beautiful, expensive, tastefully-furnished home, wearing this t-shirt. I was convinced it would be good for my career to don it confidently, but the whole time I was terrified no one would be able to get past it. Sheila did, though, immediately greeting me with warmth. We've maintained a nice, infrequent friendship ever since. I spoke with her about her newest project, and how she thinks about clothes. 

VICE: Your last novel set out to answer the question How Should A Person Be? What is the question you set out to answer with this book? 
Sheila: I just wanted to dress better. That was my motivation in beginning this book. Thankfully Heidi and Leanne had different, more interesting motivations. The book really is a collaboration in the sense that it’s a vision that came about through the alchemy of our minds (plus the minds of our 600+ contributors)—so my vision wasn’t the guiding one for the project, but neither was Leanne’s or Heidi’s vision the single guiding one. A true collaboration makes a new person who didn’t exist before, who is the person who made that thing. I feel that when I look at this book. It’s not like “Heidi did this part, and Leanne did this chapter, and I found this contributor.” It’s much more fluid than that. I love this about collaborating but I hadn’t fully experienced it until doing this book—that a new mind is created, which creates the art.

How did the question of what women wear come about?
It came out of a personal place—my boyfriend is a very sharp dresser and I began to feel quite inadequate in relation to him, in terms of dressing and clothes. I would buy something I thought was marvelous and he’d point out the bad stitching—he just saw all these things I had never seen. Living with him, I became aware of how little thought I had given to dress, and I wanted to change this. I can’t really think about anything unless I make it a project, so my project was to interview the women I knew about what they knew about dressing and clothes. I didn’t want to be a woman in a threadbare dress beside a man in a tailored suit for the rest of my life.

We begin every project with a certain hope for how it will turn out, eventually amending our hopes or altering the projects. How did Women in Clothes compare with your original intention?
It’s smarter than my original hope. My original hope was probably more like a series of instructions that I could follow—I hoped women with great style would give me a million tips that would cause me to have great style; this is kind of facile, in retrospect. What we ended up with is much more nuanced, and more like a novel: it’s a book with 600 characters, rather than 600 tips. 

How did you go about choosing contributors?
We wanted to have as many contributors as possible, from all over the world. We were all traveling a lot during this period, so when we traveled, we asked women on the street to fill out our survey (we had business cards made up that we gave out to strangers). We posted calls for contributors on Facebook and Twitter, and we contacted journalists in other countries and asked them to ask their contacts to fill out the survey we had posted on our website. Then we contacted specific people we were interested in having in the book—artists like Cindy Sherman and Kim Gordon, sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, “smell scientist” Leslie Vosshall, farmers, bankers… just people we wanted to have be part of the book, whose perspectives we thought would be interesting and important.

You've written novels, short story collections, non-fiction, a children's book… What did you want to achieve with this sort of anthology that you couldn't with the other mediums you've worked in?
Access to other minds—minds I didn’t have to imagine. Though I don’t really think of it as an anthology because I think the book is more aesthetically and formally cohesive than what you think of as a typical anthology. I specifically didn’t want an anthology, because I hate reading anthologies. Anyway, this project felt like the deepest I’ve been able to go into other minds. It was like swimming in this wonderful sea of consciousness—in thoughts and feelings that had previously been locked inside these distinct and separate bodies, but that came together like tributaries into the sea.

What was it like collaborating with so many women from different class and cultural backgrounds?
I found the interviews and surveys from people whose backgrounds differed from mine interested me much more than surveys from people whose backgrounds were more similar. I didn't learn tips from the woman who wore a hijab, necessarily, but it put my own habits into perspective as being so tied to my context or culture, rather than coming from some floating Self I imagine is mine. 

How do you dress?
I’m not really into fashion. I don’t read fashion magazines. I dress very simply, and would, if I could, have a uniform of six simple shift dresses. But I do notice women on the street and am kind of mesmerized by women and appreciate it when a woman has some attitude in the way she walks or puts herself together or presents herself to the world. I love it when someone’s aesthetic or sensibility can be seen on their person, not just in what they create. I will probably never be like the women I admire on the street because I don’t like drawing attention to myself; I prefer to be the one who is noticing. 

Something Heidi Julavitis said struck me: "When I was very young, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be stylish, because to be stylish was to be poised on the precipice between reality and fiction."
That was completely fascinating to me. I had never really imagined myself as being stylish when I would fantasize about my future self. I imagined a million other things though. 

Like what?
Misery, sex. And friendships. Poverty too, I guess.

Another thing from Heidi: the idea of using clothes to wear past selves, to enter places we've been, versions of ourselves we miss and fear losing touch with. Wearing who we used to be in certain garments.
I just found a box of clothes from about ten years ago, and though these were clothes I had once loved, to have not seen them in so long and then excavating them, it was like bringing back a former self but not one I wanted on my body ever again. Those clothes made me nauseous.  

Do you see yourself in other women more, after completing this project?
Yes. And sometimes women wrote things that I wouldn't have ever thought of, which became my thoughts, and which are now part of my mind.

What's the book not about?
It’s about how women think about what they wear, not about what women wear. 

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