Who says fashion and literature don’t mix?
Writers don’t typically hold fashion in high esteem. Shakespeare dubbed fashion a “deformed thief.” The dandyish Oscar Wilde said, perhaps hypocritically, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Some writers even dress poorly on purpose. Rivka Galchen, one of my favourites, once wore to a videotaped interview at Strand Bookstore an oversized navy blue T-shirt with a happy face on it. The idea is this: the less a writer appears to care about her appearance, the more she appears to care about writing—or something like that.
This doesn’t mean that writers write fashion off completely, however. Clothes play a crucial role in literature. To take a general example, it’s conventional for a novelist to introduce a character by remarking on his or her outfit. To take a specific example, in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, the narrator’s decision to buy the same dress as her best friend, Margaux, provokes a fight between them. Then again, in Alice Munro’s “Red Dress,” the narrator’s distaste of the dress that her mother makes her reveals, poignantly, the growing distance between them. Clothes mean, clothes signify, clothes show but do not tell. Some writers may think fashion ‘beneath’ them, sure. But they’d be duds to ignore clothes in their writing.
On a basic level, a writer—or, more broadly, a storyteller—can use clothes to help guide, shape, or anchor a narrative. This is how storytellers used clothes last August 13th at a night of storytelling called simply “Fashion” The event was held at The Tranzac, and hosted by Raconteurs in conjunction with Worn Fashion Journal. Nine comedians, writers, actors, broadcasters, and other artists each chose a personally significant piece of clothing and told a true story about it without notes or props. (The full list of storytellers: Aisha Alfa, Monica Heisey, Alexandra Molotkow, Jordan Sowunmi, Max Mosher, Chris Berube, Elliott Allen, Erica Ruth Kelly, and Natalie Norman). Choices ranged from “red peekaboo jeans,” to dresses tailor-made in Vietnam, to a Moist T-shirt, to a green Starbucks apron.
Raconteurs dates back to 2009, when Alicia Merchant and Laura-Louise Tobin launched, in association with The Moth, the event’s inaugural iteration, MothUP Toronto. Three years later, Merchant and Tobin broke with The Moth and re-launched the event, rebranded under a new name, Raconteurs. Nowadays, Raconteurs hosts live storytelling events on the second Wednesday of every month. Their next event is September 17 at The Tranzac.
Max Mosher told the story about the green Starbucks apron. He began with a joke to warm the crowd, “Like every gay boy in Toronto, I used to work at Starbucks.” Then, after the laughter faded, he continued,
I never thought of myself as all that sexy, or that I could be some sort of fetishist sex symbol, until I worked at Starbucks. People have a weird relationship to uniforms. They start seeing you not as just a person; they start seeing you as an idea.
Mosher recalled a night at an odd burlesque show, where a handsome, “cheek-bony” Starbucks customer, who often flirted with him at the café, performed a striptease in a Starbucks apron. “He spilled milk. He did a lap dance on a customer. He yelled out that he understood me, at one point.” Afterward, though, nothing came of it. The customer came into the store, “but we were just back to being customer and barista.” The message here? Sexual fantasies about a person can have little to do with that person, and performing that fantasy can be more exciting than realizing it.
Toni Morrison and sundry others peruse a fashion magazine
Most of the storytellers at “Fashion” used, as Mosher did, clothing as a vehicle to explore tenors such as identity, friendship, maturation, desire, and loss. And most of the storytellers concluded with a realization or a moral, sincere or ironic. Generally, the funnier stories were more engaging, though writer and broadcaster Chris Berube’s subdued coming-of-age story, “Magic Shoes,” about dress shoes and his father’s sudden death, was genuinely moving. My personal favourite was writer and comedian Monica Heisey’s story about the clothes people wear in airports, which involved puke, a stranger’s puke, another stranger’s used chewing gum, and more puke. With a comedian’s sense of timing and bathos, Heisey used clothing as a vehicle to explore such tenors as class aspirations and one-upmanship. “The most important thing when you’re travelling is to look comfortable both physically and financially. It needs to look like it’s a mistake that you’re in coach.”
“Fashion” preceded the release of another collection of narratives based around clothing, Women in Clothes, the new book by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and 639 Others (forthcoming this September from Blue Rider Press, Penguin UK, and S. Fischer Verlag). Women in Clothes is a sartorial assemblage of writings, photographs, interviews, and illustrations about clothes that encourages people to think critically and inventively about fashion. It also serves, in Shapton’s words, to “eliminate a certain amount of nervousness and shame around dressing.”
The book—which skirts genre (pun intended)—is comprised of 11 sections: “Introduction,” “As Told,” “Collections,” “Conversations,” “Editors,” “On Dressing,” “Poems,” “Projects,” “Survey,” “Surveys,” and “Wear Areas.” One of my favourites is a piece from the “Projects” section entitled “Mothers as Others,” in which contributors send in photographs of their mothers, before they became mothers, and describe what they see, paying particular attention to clothing and style. Here is Emily Coyle on a black and white photograph of her mother, Ellie Csepregi, dressed in a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette in front of what could be a curtain or a wrinkly canvas,
I think what’s most interesting about it is that it’s staged. At the same time, it seems like it’s a staging of who my mom actually was. It feels like she’s performing her own personality, like she put on a leather jacket and lit up a cigarette to become herself … It’s hard to read, but that’s exactly my mom.
In “Mothers as Others,” contributors analyze their mothers’ clothes to better know the person who donned them.
Women in Clothes fills a gap in critical writing about fashion and style—and clothing in particular. Heti came up with the seed of the project after perusing a bookstore for a book that would tell her “what women thought about as they got dressed” and leaving empty-handed. “There were books,” Heti writes in the introduction, “about Audrey Hepburn or books filled with pictures from Vogue, but nothing that felt useful to me at all. I thought, I’ll have to make this a project.” Heti began by asking some of the women she knew the “very questions” she’d “hoped to find answered in a book.” Soon, she and Julavits and Shapton created a survey with “an ever-evolving list of questions” about clothes. They sent out copies to women from all over the world, including cross-dressers and transgendered people. (Big name contributors include Rivka Galchen, Margaux Williamson, Lisa Robertson, Elif Batuman, Juliet Jacques, Emily Gould, Miranda July, Tavi Gevinson, Lena Dunham, and Molly Ringwald, but there are far more anonymous and little-known contributors involved). Women in Clothes became, in this way, a communal, non-hierarchal, international project that, like “Fashion,” is based around clothes.
The multi-authored Women in Clothes
The book explores in a variety of ways, through a variety of voices, the relationships between fashion and gender, outfits and identity. In “Mother, Daughter, Moustache,” Christin Clifford recounts, through twenty different numbered passages, the process by which she became “less feminine” and started dressing like a man. “Giving up femininity is a relief,” she writes in passage 12. “It makes me less eager to please. By not dressing in a traditionally feminine way, I have been able to stop making everything better for everyone else.”
Similarly, in a piece entitled “1989,” Cath Le Couteur recalls the time she spent dressing wildly in Sydney, during the Australian AIDS crisis. “So many guys were dying,” she writes. “Dressing up at night was a way to take action against the AIDS horror and stigma.” One day, she walked passed a group of drunk teenage boys on the street. One of them asked, “‘Are you a boy or a girl?’” Couteur waited until she got close. Then she said, “Yes,” and walked on. Both Couteur and Clifford use clothes in their writing and in their personal lives as a form of activism. And in Couteur’s terms, “One shouldn’t underestimate the power” of “style activism.”
Overall, contributors to Women in Clothes use what they wear in more ingenious ways than I can count. In a piece entitled “Nothing,” Lisa Robertson catalogues the outfits she “needs” while reading certain poets. “I need a feathered dress for reading Pessoa, I need violet platform pumps for reading Mouré …” Contributors use clothes not only to guide, but also to shape and anchor narratives. They also use clothes to pursue the political, the aesthetic, the racial and sexual. To put theory into practice. To confess secrets. To share tips about daily life. To play with identity. To subvert assumptions. And more.
“Fashion” at The Tranzac offered a space where storytellers could freely weave clothes into narratives, and Women in Clothes does this and more, offering a new, daring, playful space for critical dialogue about the things we wear on our bodies. For authors interested in using clothes in their writing, the book offers a plethora of examples from which to draw. I’m even willing to wager that, what The Elements of Style is to style, Women in Clothes is to writing about clothes. If, as an author, you have ever wondered how to engage with fashion, style, and what you wear, it may be as easy as opening up your laptop and dressing your prose in clothes.