Roobeedoo has been talking about a book she has been reading, Women In Clothes, and it sounded interesting so I bought a copy of the Kindle edition, which is about half the price of the paper book, so may be a better option if you’re considering it but not sure you’ll love it, though I think it would have been hard to read on a standard Kindle screen (I read it on my iPad). It’s an odd book, unstructured, a collection of responses from hundreds of women across the world to a survey about their relationships with clothes, interspersed with longer interviews, reflections, pictures of collections of similar items from women’s wardrobes. Interviews with garment workers in Asia (including a survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse) mingle with thoughts on make-up, shopping, clothing as art. The book doesn’t set out to present a particular thesis; rather, the eclectic and seemingly random contents seem to aim at building up a more general picture of how women relate to clothing (and to questions of appearance in general – there are sections on body image, make-up and hair).
For me, it doesn’t quite work. The plural of anecdote is not data, not even where there are as many anecdotes as this book contains. There are no pictures of the respondents, which I think is actually a really clever choice – as readers, we share their thoughts uncoloured by our own judgements on their appearances – but I got the impression that a lot of them were young (in their 20s and 30s), lived in cities and worked in creative professions. There were a lot of references to designer brands, to shopping, to parties, to international travel; the sections about sweatshop workers and Rana Plaza seemed to me to sit oddly with these, to throw their shallowness into sharp relief.
To be fair, I don’t think it’s intended to be a serious sociological study so much as an impressionistic celebration of women’s relationship with their appearance. I don’t recall anything being mentioned about how potential respondents to the questionnaire were identified, which it would have been interesting to know, but I suspect that those who responded were more likely to be people with a strong interest in clothes and their appearance; there are a lot of questions and I suspect anyone who wasn’t particularly interested wouldn’t have got through it. Frankly, I consider myself to be pretty interested in clothes, and I couldn’t answer half of the questions. The first one is “What is the most transformative conversation you have ever had with someone on the subject of fashion or style?”, which I’m not even sure I understand, and a lot of the others are along the same lines. I think that, fundamentally, the book is simply about enjoying and being interested in clothes in a very different way from the way I enjoy and am interested in clothes. The book is about women who are interested in clothes because of how they make them look, or how they make them feel (there’s an interview with a farmer who wants to feel sexy even in the clothes she wears around the farm). Mostly, I am interested in clothes for their own sake, as beautiful objects. I’m interested in colours and patterns and textures, much less interested in shape and style and cut. I wear things more because they are pretty than because they make me look pretty (though wearing pretty things does make me feel pretty, except that sometimes I catch sight of myself in the mirror wearing clothes I think are lovely and see myself looking short, dumpy and rumpled, and my response to that is to spend less time looking in mirrors). If I find something I like I want to buy it in every single colour. At the moment, my dream wardrobe would be a whole series of really simple dresses cut to the same pattern, in fabulous colours and prints and different textured fabrics, with colourful beads and scarves and cardigans to go with them, and really comfortable flat shoes, also in lots of bright colours. (My real-life wardrobe isn’t too far off that, actually.) I really want to make more of my clothes. That’s something the book didn’t seem to cover at all – I’m not sure there were any women talking about making their own clothes, which seems like a big gap to me, and is maybe why it felt so shallow and consumerist.
So, while it was interesting in parts, I didn’t particularly enjoy Women in Clothes or find it thought-provoking (other than trying to work out how I could be as interested in clothes as I thought I was if the book was leaving me so cold). It’s not a book I would recommend, though I know many other people would.