Women in Clothes: The Perfect Holiday Read

A couple of weeks ago, right before finals, and papers, and grading, I made a not all too uncommon, much needed stress-relieving trip to T.J. Maxx. I went under the guise of Christmas shopping, and while I did buy something for my mom and dad, brainstormed ideas for my sister, and took a picture of a t-shirt featuring Abe Lincoln and George Washington as “Original Gangsters” for my boyfriend, I mainly left with more than $200 worth of clothing for myself. I justified each of these items somehow: two pairs of jeans – one slouchy, boyfriend style, one high-waisted, black Lucky Brand (ONLY THIRTY BUCKS) – because I recently looked through two “denim issue” fashion magazines, even though I rarely wear pants; a black pencil skirt with repeated petals because you can never have too many black skirts (I’m a professional! It’s for teaching days!); and a pair of black chiffon, pleated, wide-legged dress pants, which in the harsh fluorescent changing room light were amazing and fulfilled some glamorous sense I have of myself as this amazing fashion risk taker.

Two days later, I returned it all except for the presents to my parents, the boyfriend jeans (which I have worn multiple times in the week since), and white loafers (not mentioned above). I noticed the petals on the skirt were ripped when I got home, and I don’t know what I was thinking with the pleated pants because I looked so unbelievably frumpy. Also, how do you wash an item like that? When would I ever iron those pleats?

This is actually a normal occurrence for me, and it’s not all that different from the stories about clothes, shopping, and fashion, and feeling alternately sexy, safe, and comfy in Women in Clothes, a collaborative endeavor put together by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, featuring the opinions and clothing narratives of 639 other women in the form of photographs, stories, diary entries, and various other genres. Reading this book right before Christmas – the season of giving – made me really think about my own clothing rituals (disclaimer: it also made me want to go shopping), where those traditions came from, and why it felt so important to me to be reading this book.

In less than a week I will be home for Christmas. I can’t put this any less bluntly: it’s my mother’s fault I love shopping so much. She is an enabler. When I call her to mull over a potential purchase, she’ll ask me a few background and contextual questions, but usually she’ll just tell me to get it. (See studded, bedazzled trench coat I purchased after landing my first “real” job after college. A jacket she now claims to hate.) But this isn’t to say her enabling is a bad thing. When I’m at the cash register, I don’t blame her for taking money out of my wallet; instead, I regard her with the utmost love and value her good intentions. She and I have gone to various T.J. Maxx’s across the country and had a blast or bemoaned the lack of choices. Usually it’s both. This has been going on for years, and we’ve bonded because of it. Both of us return most of what we buy, but the high of going – of sharing, of talking – that is what remains. We are always honest with one another and never get mad if we buy the other a gift and it doesn’t work as well as we’d hoped. We have encountered other Polish immigrant mother/daughter duos in the store and giggled. We are Maxxinistas because for the longest time, we couldn’t afford to be even that, let alone real-deal fashionistas. Even without the swipe of a credit card, shopping and looking at clothes is a shared, common experience.

This relationship with my mother is, I think, where my belief in female friendship and collaboration between women originated, a sentiment echoed by many of the women surveyed in the collection and articulated via the included photographs of various mothers before children, before marriage. These are pictures and stories featuring Women with other women, dressed, laughing, doing things with other women. This semester, I was lucky enough to be a part of a few all-female collectives. For my birthday, in August, at the start of the semester, I somewhat jokingly had a “girls only” cocktail party, and it was incredible. It felt fantastic to be surrounded by all these awesome ladies I had met in graduate school. Later, the girls at Blue Mesa Review, old and new members, met a couple times for all-female dinners, where we drank wine and had girl talk of various kinds. And most lastingly, a few literature students and I established a writing group, where we meet once a week to pronounce our writing goals, hold each other accountable for our work, have writing “power hours,” edit, and provide support. This productivity is usually welcomingly interrupted with compliments, questions about where you got that outfit, love your hair today.

The female collaborations that appear in Women in Clothes spans race, gender, generations, class, and geography. It really made me think about the way I see clothes, the different ways others view them, the similarities between us, and how all of these viewpoints are okay, valid. This scope was one of the biggest strengths of the book: there were women in cities, farmer women, lesbian women, black women, laboring women, immigrant women, sweatshop women, and academic women. You name it, and those women have thoughts about clothes.

I can quite surely say that I have never read a book like Women in Clothes, and I don’t think I have ever read a book that seemed to align so thematically with the time of my life I was in while reading it. The book felt like a perfect outfit on a day you feel your best (something also discussed repeatedly throughout the book) – it just fit. It’s a large book, colorful, expansive, and full of pieces that work on their own and also as a whole, kind of like the perfect wardrobe, the one I’ve been trying to cultivate my whole life.

Diana Filar is a Master’s student in Literature at The University of New Mexico.