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Idle Threads

The sartorial unconscious


Women in Clothes,
by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits,
and Leanne Shapton,
Blue Rider Press, $30

Worn Stories,
by Emily Spivack,
Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95

Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss,
Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen,
and the ’90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion
by Maureen Callahan,
Simon and Schuster, $26

In The Devil Wears Prada, the 2006 rom-com starring Meryl Streep as a cartoonish version of the notoriously icy Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Streep delivers a speech about the importance of the fashion industry. “You think this has nothing to do with you,” Streep says to her new assistant (Anne Hathaway), who wishes she were doing hard-hitting investigative work rather than fetching coffee for an arbiter of high-end taste. “You go to your closet and you select . . . I don’t know . . . that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back.”

And yet, Streep explains, her assistant’s sweater is this particular shade of blue because a designer featured it on the runway a few years ago, a decision that then trickled down through the fashion food chain all the way to the shopping-mall clearance racks. “It’s sort of comical,” she concludes, “how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” You think you choose to wear things because you like them, because they’re special, or maybe because you’re special. But in fact, you’re not special, and neither are your choices. You’re just an angora-clad cog in a great capitalist wheel.

The real Anna Wintour would never put it so bluntly, even behind closed doors. Hers is an industry that depends on all of us continuing to believe that our choices are special and that our senses of style are unique. At a White House event for aspiring fashion designers this year, Wintour said, “Fashion can be a powerful instrument for social change. It allows us to think about who we are as individuals and as a society.” She did not say, “A handful of luxury designers and a few major clothing brands decide what you will like and, in turn, buy and wear.” Why would she? The modern fashion industry wants consumers to think that we are not consumers at all, but curators instead. If the midcentury mantra was “Dress to impress,” and the roaring-’80s catchphrase was “Dress for success,” the directive now is “Dress to express.”

This approach to fashion is at the heart of Women in Clothes, a thick new book based on a survey that writers Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton circulated to more than six hundred women asking them what they wear and how they feel about it. The women offer hyperspecific thoughts about their every sartorial choice, but only a few admit that they are influenced by trends or marketing. They are much more likely to lay the blame on their own bodies. “A woman is never thin enough,” writes Vedrana Rudan. “I have a double chin, I shove my tits into minimizers that minimize nothing, I get into Levi’s designed to flatten the tummy and lift the ass, but my ass and stomach are immune to the intention of the jeans. I am a cow!”

The survey responses are shot through with the hollow promises of the fashion industry—that with the right combination of trousers and shirts and dresses and skirts, cut in the right way and worn just so, women can be more glamorous, more powerful, more desired, more respected. “I dress to withstand the elements,” says one woman. “I dress to be as interesting as the Tate. I dress to insert myself into social strata, to be accepted, to pass.” One five-year-old respondent says, in an aside designed to break every would-be earth mother’s heart, “I am always conscious of what I’m wearing.” Another woman offers a detailed journal of every high-end item she covets, from a Kenzo silk-crepe shirt to an “amazing Gudrun & Gudrun multi-coloured dream sweater.” Even unattainable fashion goals start to sound like they’d be great fun to pursue—a repudiation, somehow, of the grim, dictatorial vision of sexism as an obliging handmaiden of capitalism. There are, however, a few brief hints to the contrary: a Muslim woman who wears a jilbab writes, “When I see what the women on billboards, commercials, and game shows are wearing, it really aches my heart. I mean no offense to anyone, but it hurts me to see the bodies of these innocent women being used to sell products. And they are made to believe that this is freedom.”

Women, the book implies, are not sheep who will buy whatever they’re told is on trend or anything H&M stocks for less than $39.50. They are thoughtful and careful about what they wear and why. Fast fashion barely exists in the world of Women in Clothes; its carefully edited accounts of self-declared style preferences seem, indeed, to be the sartorial equivalent of the “slow food” revolution that Michael Pollan jumpstarted in 2006 with The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In response to a survey question about shopping, women express discomfort, embarrassment, or outright denial before the suggestion that they, as a group, buy a lot of new clothes. They describe shopping as an activity for which they must adopt a battle plan—or that, at the very least, they avoid on an empty stomach. “To hell with the whole concept of shopping,” says one respondent. “Who needs clothes?”

This professed aversion to the rigors of acquiring clothing doesn’t match up with the manifest joy that many of the women take in describing what ends up in their closets. It’s also an awkward fit with the book’s own apparent marketing strategy. Since it first appeared last fall, I’ve seen Women in Clothes on display in several women’s clothing shops, for sale alongside small leather goods and gold jewelry. It’s safe to assume that the owners of these boutiques don’t see the book as an antidote to the psychological pain endured by female shoppers, but as yet another fashionable accessory.

You’re just an angora-clad cog in a great capitalist wheel.

There’s a lot of whimsy in Women in Clothes—an artist’s rendering of various stains as they appear on women’s clothing, Lena Dunham’s description of her mother’s sartorial vibe as “bejeweled ventriloquist dummy,” a photo series cataloging each pair of black underwear a woman owns—but its main revelation is how serious women are about what they wear. They’ve so thoroughly infused their wardrobes with their hopes, dreams, and aspirations that the anthology could just as easily be titled Women as Clothes. “Because I resist the ephemerality of clothing, I make grandiose demands of it: a garment must touch on all that I have ever been and will be,” writes Ida Hattemer-Higgins in an essay about how a secondhand store in Athens helped her get over a breakup. “The irony is that, for all my grasping at eternity, in the end, I almost never wear any item for more than a few months.”

Out of context, such grandiose pronouncements seem over the top, but they’re right at home in a book about fashion and the female self. While J.Crew and GQ can still get away with acting as though it’s utterly modern for men to care about style, women have long been culturally saddled with the knowledge that they are how they look, and that therefore they are what they wear. The pursuit of stylishness is not something they opt into, but rather something they must opt out of at great social cost. Hattemer-Higgins tells herself she is resisting the ephemerality of clothing—and with it the dictates of the fashion industry—by carefully selecting each piece she wears from a pile of thrifted cast-offs.

But to scour the racks, secondhand or otherwise, for the makings of self-expression is only to double down on the importance of fashion. The truly transgressive choice—to dress purely for utility—never seems to cross the minds of the women featured in the book. I don’t blame them. Utility isn’t much fun. If you can’t control the fact that you’re going to be judged on your appearance, why not derive what pleasure you can from conveying to observers how you wish to be judged? The inadequacy of clothes—their inability to express the depth and complexity of female experiences—probably explains both why women invest their wardrobes with so much significance and why their clothes so often fail to satisfy them.

It can be hard to tell why women are overburdening their wardrobes with mystic powers of signification: Is it in spite of the fashion industry or because of it? If you were to ask Streep’s Wintour-like character, she would say the answer hardly matters. Whether you are an avid follower of fashion or studiously ignorant of what appears on the runways, you’re still affected by the prevailing style that’s set, in part, by clothing companies. Even secondhand shoppers are not immune; even the disenchanted can’t leave their houses naked.

Garb In, Garb Out

Worn Stories, another new book of “sartorial memoirs,” this one collected by Emily Spivack, is an extended meditation on the notion that “our clothes are full of memory and meaning.” As Spivack writes in the introduction, “My own closet is full of clothes; it is also an evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories.” Despite this lofty preamble, many of the Worn Stories essays and as-told-tos—by assorted pseudo-celebrities, creative types, and fashion civilians—fall flat. The lesson seems to be that just because a shirt is meaningful to you, that doesn’t make it interesting for the rest of us to read about. The stories are illustrated with photographs of the items on hangers, unworn as if they are up for auction—a format that makes sense, since Spivack for years culled quirky apparel listings from eBay and published them on her blog, Sentimental Value. In the book, though, this item-centric approach comes off as strangely bloodless. Some of the essays succeed in conveying the emotional connections the authors have forged with their clothes. But many, such as designer Cynthia Rowley’s description of her Girl Scout sash and actress Greta Gerwig’s feelings about a men’s button-down shirt, are perilously boring. Where Women in Clothes adopts the narrative strategy of presenting clothes as a stand-in for women, Worn Stories treats clothes, rather wanly, as, you know, clothes.

Spivack is right to observe that everyday items, especially ones kept so close to our bodies, are bound to be vessels for our emotions. But documenting them tends to produce a more powerful result when it’s done with a specific goal in mind. Anti-rape activists, for example, have collected descriptions of what women were wearing when they were sexually assaulted in order to prove that none of them was “asking for it.” Efforts like these remind us that stories about our clothes needn’t be self-indulgent—they can be politically minded. At times, Worn Stories nods in this direction, by virtue of a distinct anticonsumerist undercurrent. Against the old adage that there’s nothing more exciting than showing off a new dress, Spivack’s collection insists that a pair of fifteen-year-old black plastic flip-flops are thrilling in their own way: we can claim the power to give objects meaning, rather than ritually investing them with the power to give us meaning. The approach to fashion sketched out in Worn Stories is the antithesis of the shopper’s high.

Women in Clothes and Worn Stories both owe a debt to Ilene Beckerman’s mid-1990s memoir told through her outfits, Love, Loss, and What I Wore. And each, appropriately enough, got its start on the Internet. Spivack has been collecting eBay narratives on Sentimental Value since 2007 and accepting submissions for her Worn Stories blog since 2010, and the surveys that Heti and Julavits and Shapton used to compile Women in Clothes were first sent out as chain emails. Even as Americans’ spending on clothes has declined, we’ve found new ways of digitally communicating the joys of consumption—like YouTube videos in which eager shoppers unbox their new purchases, or rich kids’ Instagram photos hashtagged #Gucci. Online, every mundane choice is a vital part of identity construction.

The books feature a heavy sprinkling of celebrities and art-fashion types, but even so, they aim to position themselves as participants in the democratization of fashion. Caring deeply about clothes and the meaning they telegraph was once the province of high-fashion designers and magazines—the Anna Wintours of the world—until blogs made the street the new runway and fashion bloggers became the new chaperones of taste.

But as with other online modes of reputation, the proliferation of fashion blogs hasn’t so much diminished the power of the host industry as created a new perch on which to prop it up. In remarkably short order, clothing brands latched onto upstart style blogs and digital icons of fashion independence. What better way, after all, to reinforce the message that every personal fashion choice is a unique one than to have it packaged in the wisecracking argot of a teenager or shown through the lens of an amateur photographer? Now, nearly a decade after the advent of fashion blogging, most independent style bloggers post photos in exchange for free merchandise, with “courtesy of” credits that look much like the fine print at the bottom of fashion-magazine editorial spreads. They offer brand-sponsored giveaways to devoted readers and disclaimers like “This post was written in collaboration with HP & Intel” to explain why their outfits are now accessorized with electronics. They sit in the front rows at New York Fashion Week, which, in what is either its own nod to the rites of digital cool-hunting or a budget-minded response to Mercedes-Benz pulling its sponsorship, has announced that after being displaced from Lincoln Center, it’s moving to an “undisclosed” downtown location.

The status of the reader, however, remains unchanged. Blog browsers and magazine buyers are equally secure in the knowledge that they will never be able to afford the Miu Miu skirts and Margiela ankle boots they see pictured. “Rather than normalizing young girls and women wearing luxury items, high-end personal style blogs bring into sharp relief the difference between the fashion industry and those who love it,” wrote Alice Marwick in The New Inquiry last year. “This frank acknowledgement of budget constraints, especially when combined with condemnation of high fashion’s unrealities, reveals a push-pull relationship between the exclusivity industry that is fashion and the sui generis self-expression fetishized by personal style blogs.” Now that fashion blogs are just as inauthentic as fashion magazines and runways, we’ve collectively moved on to “everyday” people talking about their everyday clothes. The exclusive nature of fashion is, increasingly, played out in the personal stories we tell about clothes and the meanings that only we can give them.

Bearing a Grunge

This transition actually antedates the Internet, as Maureen Callahan argues in her new book Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and the ’90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion. As tastes shifted away from shellacked and shoulder-padded ’80s perfection, the industry began to question traditional measures of power and popularity. High-fashion brands realized that even if consumers didn’t want an edgy downtown lifestyle, they wanted edgy downtown fashion, or at least an approximation of it. Designers who sold exclusively to the rich started paying serious attention to subcultures that had never telegraphed wealth or power. Amazonian supermodels were still the norm, but John Galliano wanted Moss, then an unknown who was half a foot shorter than the industry standard, to walk his runway because “we were looking for new girls, and she was cast as a wild child.” Anna Wintour put a woman in jeans on the cover of the first issue of Vogue she edited. The industry started taking more cues from outsiders like X-Girl—a brand designed by Daisy von Furth and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and described by its fit model Chloë Sevigny as “too cool for school.”

Even secondhand shoppers are not immune;
even the disenchanted can’t leave their houses naked.

The early ’90s, Callahan argues, were packed with challenges to the tastemaking power of traditional modeling agencies, magazines, and fashion houses. But outsiders still needed the imprimatur of the fashion machine to find success. Moss was represented by a traditional modeling agency, and Wintour favored clothes by known fashion houses in her editorial spreads. “Fashion,” Callahan writes, “wasn’t just in the throes of a generational coup d’état: What was happening now would change everything, and would—along with technology—democratize the industry, turning real people into models, reality show contestants and pop stars into designers, teenage bloggers into front-row eminences.” Yet here, too, one should caution that most of these convulsions represented only the veneer of democratization. The “renegades” who anchor Callahan’s book were deeply invested in the traditional industry, and their digital-era successors would be too. McQueen, Jacobs, and Moss may have been insurgents storming the ramparts in the ’90s, but today their names are synonymous with the moneyed center of the fashion establishment.

And their career trajectories, as Callahan traces them, make this point unmistakably clear. Jacobs was one of the first designers to fully capitalize on the realization that it was cool—essential, even—to adopt the air of a disaffected outsider. In the first years of his career, when he assiduously cultivated the image of a scrappy upstart with a tiny staff and budget, Jacobs was living in a luxury apartment on the Upper West Side, already had the world’s top supermodels walking in his shows, and had been covered by Women’s Wear Daily and the New York Times ever since he was a student at the prestigious Parsons School of Design. Alexander McQueen had an undeniably rougher upbringing. Lee McQueen—Alexander was his middle name—was the chubby son of a taxi driver and was raised in public housing in east London; after he dropped out of high school, he managed to talk his way into the fashion design program at Central Saint Martins. But even as he was building a self-consciously high-end brand, with outré runway shows (his most famous was titled “Highland Rape”) and collections that were deliberately noncommercial, he, too, was well inside the power circles of the London fashion world.

Both designers understood that the appearance of transgression is a highly marketable thing. The early adopters of high fashion—the people who find themselves in the front row at fashion week and who embrace a certain look years before it’s repurposed for lucrative, off-the-rack knock-off deals with fast-fashion merchandisers like Target and Forever 21—need to be convinced that they are special and nonconformist. If McQueen’s genius was to take the disgusting and unseemly aspects of life and make them glamorous, Jacobs’s genius, Callahan writes, was “to transmute the lowly into the aspirational.” Here’s the way that Jacobs articulated his ethos, as it applied to nightlife in the metropole: “The ideal girl will just sort of roll out of bed some night after taking a nap and put on a slip that looks like this and go out to some club or go dancing or something. She’d be all dressed, but she’d still be kind of undressed . . . and she wouldn’t have to do anything else.”

“She,” as it turned out, was Kate Moss—as Callahan writes, “the first supermodel who was coming of age with the Internet, the first one girls looked to off the runway: What Kate wore, whether on the street or on the red carpet, was much cooler to them than what she modeled. Her paparazzi photos were becoming indistinguishable from her editorials.”

Despite Callahan’s efforts to elevate her into the full-blown symbol of an age, Moss comes across as painfully dull. She ran away from her middle-class, suburban home and dropped out of high school because she was more interested in the London club scene. There is no story of pluck, grit, and drive behind her decision to make fashion her career. In Callahan’s telling, Moss got famous almost by chance, after an alternative magazine photographer fished her headshot out from a bottom drawer at a modeling agency. Even after she became the face of Calvin Klein and one of the most recognizable icons of the ’90s fashion scene, Moss’s biography is run-of-the-mill celebrity stuff: she did a lot of drugs and dated famous actors and drew accolades for her carefully selected vintage dresses on the red carpet. Even she seemed bored by herself. “Fashion’s not satisfying to me at all,” Moss said during her ’90s heyday. “You can’t change the world through fashion because the average person doesn’t look at fashion pictures.”

But, as Streep so artfully argued in The Devil Wears Prada, that doesn’t really matter. The average person doesn’t flip through Vogue and doesn’t follow Garance Doré’s street-style blog and will never come near a copy of Worn Stories. Still, it’s just as clearly the case that the same average person doesn’t want to feel like an average person. So long as she has even a little bit of disposable income to spend on clothes, and even if she’s shopping secondhand or raiding a friend’s closet, she’s affected by the notion that what she wears communicates something about who she is.

Fashion brands and clothing retailers understand this, which is why they remain so massively influential. No matter how the basic elements of a trend, a look, or a line get reassembled under the competitive taste and marketing pressures of a new season, the basic social contract underlying the fashion system remains intact: every consumer in the orbit of the industry believes that every choice she makes is an authentic expression of her true self. That’s even, or perhaps especially, true if what she’s trying to express is that she doesn’t really care about the clothes she puts on her back.