Part One: The Clothing Swap—Adventure of the Green Dress
An hour-long clothing swap kicked-off this busy event featuring Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton in celebration of their new book, Women in Clothes.
Earlier in the day I’d ransacked my closet for three pieces to bring. I decided on a strapless black and white dress and a pair of stylish baggy jeans I’d found in Barcelona, but the piece I was most excited about—the piece I really wanted someone to fall in love with—was a hand-made green dress (raw silk) I’d bought at a market in Shanghai three years ago. I knew it was a nice dress; the green really popped—but for some inexplicable reason I hadn’t worn it enough.
I arrived at Theater Junction Grand with my friend Kat. She brought a pink and navy dress, a silk skirt and a pair of funky tights. We made our way up the spiral staircase to the Theater’s lobby and into the racks where we accepted sticky-notes on which to write a brief story associated with each garment. For my green dress I simply wrote, this dress was hand-made at a market in Shanghai. On the jeans, perfect for Folk Fest.
What a beautiful green, I heard murmurs as I added my garments to the mix. A young woman with fun, messy hair eyeballed the dress and pulled it off the rack to hold it up to the halogens and run her fingertips over the silk.
Because she had longer hair in her author photo at the back of Swimming Studies, I did not realize until later that this woman was in fact LEANNE SHAPTON. She moved toward the change room. I called after her, “Can I see you in that if you like it?”
“Sure,” she said.
In the meantime I slipped on a black leather jacket and faced Kat. “Too big?”
“I think you can carry it.”
“I can layer it. Wear a sweater underneath.”
We headed into the change rooms where Sheila Heti was deciding against a purple top and Leanne fit very nicely into the green dress. She assessed the fabric and style before a big mirror.
“Can I take your picture?” I asked Leanne, still not registering who she was.
“Sure.” She let me take a few shots.
She scrunched a first of hair.
“I like it a lot,” she said. “But I think it might be a bit too shiny—for me.”
Alas. The adventure of the green dress would have to carry on.
Kat and I made our way back out to the racks where we ran into two women we know, Leslie Gavel and Laura Wershler. Leslie had the pink and navy dress that Kat had brought. “Hey, Kat brought that,” I said, and she held the dress happily against herself.
After festival photographer Radim Rybacek took this picture of us together (left), I asked Laura what she thought of the book. With a glass of white in hand and beaming under the dim lights she said:
“So, the book is one big sociological study of what women wear and why they wear it, and it’s incredibly interesting—probably much more interesting than it would have been if someone had actually done a sociological study.”
Laura caught sight of my green dress. Someone had put it back on the rack. “Look at this green!” she said, reaching for the hanger and moving past me toward the change room.
She emerged from the stall. The dress fit her perfectly. All the women in the room nodded, emitted collective sounds of approval. “I could maybe wear this to my son’s wedding next year,” she thought outloud.
Part Two: The Program—Why Do We Wear What We Wear?
“Clothing is not necessarily just about style and fashion,” host Shelley Youngblut opened the event, “but individuality.” She introduced both Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton and I threw my head back in embarrassment, groaning on the inside, now recognizing Leanne clearly. I’d seen her photo in the Globe & Mail last month. And she’d been with Sheila Heti in the change room. Duh.
Leanne read first from a piece in the collection called The Mom Coat by Amy Fusselman—an essay I imagine every mom will enjoy and relate to. The end of this particular essay was arm-pricklingly poignant: “I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson’s words, ‘Beauty—be not caused—It is,’” Fusselman wrote, “I think this speaks to the trickiest thing to embrace about fashion and style, which is that the product of all the effort is ultimately not that important. This is hard to accept because it’s absurd. But I think it’s the truth: you can’t actually make yourself beautiful. It’s similar to writing: what’s beautiful about writing is not the words. The words are a recording of the beautiful thing. The words are a recording of the beautiful thing in the person, the thing that becomes beautified only by action, and ultimately becomes most beautified only by the most beautiful action of all—love. This thing, this transmitter of beauty, is ultimately unadornable and undecoratable. It is invisible and it bedazzles. That we can’t see or touch it should not stop us from paying homage to it, and we do this by imitating it. We do this by sincerely and wholeheartedly beautifying to no end.”
Sheila then read from two pieces, one amusing, the other sad. The first was from This Person is a Robot by Leslie Vosshall and Heidi Julavits; A smell scientist sniffs coats in a busy New York City restaurant’s coatcheck closet. You’re going to have to check this one out for yourself to do it justice.
The second reading was from Clothes on the Ground, an essay by American writer Julia Wallace who has spent three years interviewing garment workers in Cambodia. Here, from the perspective of a young garment worker named Leap: “I used to think that if I could have one quality and beautiful bra like I make, I would be really happy and I would be very beautiful. But it’s impossible. These bras are for export, and the price of one of the bras I make is almost equal to my salary. While working, I hold the bra up in front of my face, then I ask myself who is the woman who will wear the bra I am sewing. I also wonder how the woman in those countries are so rich and lucky to wear these expensive bras while the person who makes that bra just wears a very cheap one bought from the pile of clothes on the ground under the umbrella. So I feel jealous.”
Leanne returned to close the reading portion and to say that Women in Clothes truly runs the gamut of perspectives on clothing and fashion.
A special guest was invited into the discussion that followed: fashion designer Paul Hardy. He brought some of the unclaimed clothes from the swap and shared the attached stories with the audience:
My husband loves me in this shirt, yours will too…
I last wore these jeans on a date night; I think they’re lucky…
However many blouses with blue polka-dots she acquired, the fact remained: She looked terrible in white with blue polka-dots. Please save her from her sad Ghost World existence. Breathe new life into this dating number…
The discussion with Sheila, Leanne and Paul—led by Shelley—was animated and interactive. They discussed the book—the interviews, survey questions and the volume’s unique physical design. They’d wanted the collaboration to look more like an art book than an anthology which they most certainly achieved. The book includes essays, poetry, art work and photography—a beautiful result of their shared fascination with our global obsessions, accumulations, preferences and personal narratives around clothing.
Paul Hardy offered meaningful anecdotes of his experiences as a fashion designer working with individuals. “Everyone’s got a story,” he said. “Life in its essence is about relationships.”
At the end of the session, several audience members were invited to answer questions onstage. The first woman, Mary Susanna, wore a necklace adorned with a small Boston Terrier pendant.
“Why a Boston Terrier?” Leanne and Sheila asked her.
“Because my best friend is a Boston Terrier.”
“Do you have any rules around shopping?” they asked a man named Bob.
“I don’t shop,” he said. “I buy.”
“What do you find beautiful?”
“It’s not about whether you’ve won the genetic lottery [like we were talking about earlier]. It’s the sense of the individual…in her own right.”