Interview: Leanne Shapton on “Women in Clothes”

To be honest, preparing my interview with Leanne didn’t come easy when all I wanted to say to her was: “YOU. NAILED. IT.”
That said, honesty is also what sums up “Women in Clothes” in the most subtle way.

Together with artists, writers and – most importantly – her close friends Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits, Canadian artist Leanne Shapton started out on a mission: To create a readable reflection  of conversations of women talking about clothes in the most un-superficial and, therefore, unconventional, way.

The book started as a questionnaire sent out to close friends and ended as a moving collection of  “the most surprising, vulnerable, sometimes most, sometimes least judgemental answers.” This collection is narrated through poems, essays, photo documentaries and illustrations by known personalities, like Miranda July and Lena Dunham, next to over 600 other women with varying relationships to the world of fashion. They speak about their mothers, their braids, their memories, their insecurities and what makes their hearts beat (faster). And why. Whatever you expect to find in this book, I promise you – you will be treated to surprises, laughter,  and a closer look at yourself – beyond the weird T-shirt you might be wearing while flipping through the 515 pages.

I met up with Leanne, tried to swallow my urge to just hug her, and talked about the process of compiling the book, the definition of fashion, the impact of social media on our everyday perspectives – and the story behind her beautiful skirt she was wearing that day.

I’m curious: How exactly did you select the 639 (!) contributing women for the book?

We started with our friends. Sheila started by asking Heidi and I the first questions and at the same time established the tone of the book, which is a friend talking to another friend. And then we asked our friends and they passed on to other friends and so on. It was done completely unscientifically.

After receiving quite a few answers we realized that we are getting the same well-educated, white answers talking to women from the same socio-economic environment. We recognized we have to talk to women who, for example, don’t know about computers, who have to deal with head coverings. We put a lot of effort in finding good journalists to help us with reaching out to the women we wanted to include.

Who were the women that really moved you?

Definitely the Cambodian sweatshop workers. It was important to us to not talk about the factory conditions around them but them. And what clothes they are wearing and how. It did touch upon the political details but it was also very personal which I think is much more revealing.

Was it clear from the beginning that you would only talk to women? That itself is an overall political statement.

Not at all. The first working title was “Philosophy of Style.” We did get surveys done by boys but we realized that those answers stuck out in a way. It became clear that it was going to be a feminist statement and say something about how women talk to each other and that it would be easier to contain with women. It was the idea of getting the conversation out about cliché books about French women staying thin, movie star styles and all the stuff that you are surrounded by in the style sections of bookstores.

Besides some well known individuals most of the women in the book are not necessarily famous. After reading some pieces I caught myself researching who the women are and what they look like. During the process did you ever consider adding photos and short intros for the people?

We thought about it right from the start. One of the things Sheila had a really strong opinion about was that she wanted to understand what was behind the judgement and competition that comes up around women and clothes. And in terms of design I just thought if we add photos to it it would become so time relevant. Sheila also made the point that when you see a picture and you read a text written in the first person you attribute that “I” to the photo. And if you don’t see any visual attachment you put yourself into her shoes. That relation and empathy was a huge part of the psychological and emotional perspective we wanted to transport.

We are all guilty though, we three looked up people we got weird answers from, we just didn’t want to add that layer to the book.

Did your relationships to clothes change?

Yes, a little bit. After finishing the pieces that are around labor work I shop more consciously, thinking about who touched this and that piec. My grandmother used to work in a factory so I have more empathy. I don’t like to buy new things anymore, I love second hand not just out of ethical reasons but also taste and style-wise. I do think design used to be “better”.

Heidi, who is a fiction writer and always used to look at how people put themselves together as a story says her perspective changed in a way that she is not looking at the woman in the room who is the most interesting. Heidi looks at the women who deliberately make themselves less interesting because she wants to understand that subtlety of character.

I know quite a few girls who regularly say “I don’t care about clothes. I don’t like fashion.” I always think that that is not true or even possible. What do you think?

They are talking about a specific thing that they want to reject but it’s not clothes. Even if they say that statement they display and betray a presentation that they want to make.

… and that is “fashion” again.

Totally. Look at how the rejection of fashion has the tendency to become so stylistic. Punk, Vivienne Westwood and especially Malcolm Mclaren. He understood the messaging of rebellion.

Imagine – even if just for a period of time – women would get the same pieces of clothing to wear. Uniforms. How would that change our society?

I mean can’t you see evidence now? We all have something that resembles something else in someone else’s wardrobe. I sort of want to see that sci-fi version though. I didn’t wear a uniform at school but I think it looks absolutely stunning. And even within the girls who wear them you can see so many layers of personalization. You see that with doctors, you see that with bankers, you see that with policemen.

I was an athlete and always thought there is a lovely militarism and purpose when everyone is wearing the same thing but that also comes with a lot of not so pleasant associations.

You are part of a community that I would call “sensitive invaders of people’s comfort zones”, which are their belongings, pieces they attach their identities to. A few decades ago it was impossible to “see” into other people’s life. Today, with home portraits and people’s social media presence you can have insights into their lives with just a few clicks. You recognize people on the street that you’ve never talked to but you know how their fruit basket looked this morning, their bathroom, what pair of new boots they bought yesterday. Why and how do you think this has evolved?

First of all it’s how the people choose to reveal themselves too, which is weird not just as a matter of fact but also because it is so controlled. I mean are those things they are showing really the truth? I don’t think so.

Through photography and social media we have developed this language that we don’t have a dictionary for. I love how quickly our visual literacy is developing. The fact that even you and I know how a bathroom should be photographed is crazy. I think documentary photography will change because there are new subsets of photography. There is no map to it yet which is fascinated to me. We see a shot of a grapefruit and think “That is how grapefruits were shot two years ago.” I mean what are we doing with this absurd knowledge and this part of our perception? It is almost like we developed another thumb and eyeball. And a place in our brain to store “pictures of grapefruits.” I am fascinated by it and I definitely want to continue working within that topic.

That being said channels like Instagram cannot and shouldn’t be ignored. I would happily refer to Kanye West here and scream “Listen to the youth!”

I love leaving the house, looking at my head-to-toe outfit and remembering the story behind each piece and finding the individual story that the combination of clothes narrate…

Me too. I was actually thinking just now about the skirt that I am wearing. I bought it in 1997 when I was an art intern at Harper’s Magazine. I remember the first day I was wearing it, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, meeting my boyfriend at the time, I didn’t wear it for years and just pulled it out a week ago and I am really happy I did. I really love the little memory of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 90s. Even though I think it ended up being a bad night with fights I think. (laughs)

I have the talent of damaging the pieces I love the most. I am wondering what it says about me.

That is funny you mention that. Actually one of the main approaches Sheila had in mind with “Women in Clothes” was answering the question “What is YOUR DEEP STYLE?” How do you approach your relationships? How do you organize your refrigerator, how do you pack your luggage? How are you? Sheila would probably tell you that what you just said is YOUR DEEP STYLE. Damage. A new way of punk I guess. (laughs)

What part of the process of making the book will you remember in 30 years?

The relationship between Heidi Sheila and I, most definitely. It made us closer friends. We worked together so well but we also saw each other at our weakest, messiest, angriest, with bad ideas, with good ideas. That can never be contained. I will never forget the picture that Heidi took of me and Sheila in a hotel room. We were staying up super late, editing, Heidi is wearing a bathrobe and I am in a weird dress and trackpants. We are lying and eating soup off the floor. It identifies the level of unselfconsciousness and friendship and the whole process we went through.

After this interview I will text them and ask what I should be wearing tonight to my book presentation.

 Find out more information about “Women in Clothes” on the website of the book.
Zsuzsanna Toth

Born in Budapest and raised in Vienna writer and producer Zsuzsanna Toth settled down in Berlin in 2009. Since her teenage years she has been a collector of magazines and is constantly busy inhaling new publications - both print and digital. After her fashion studies she worked as the editorial and managing director of I Love You Magazine and Freunde von Freunden. Today she focuses her freelance work on the intersection of editorial consulting and content production.