They say you are what you eat, but in the case of Women in Clothes, the idea is that you are what you wear. A collection of interviews, surveys, drawings and conversations, the new book—edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapto and boasting contributors like Miranda July and Lena Dunham—explores the true meaning of style and the many motivations behind the ways women present themselves through fashion. We polled two local contributors, editor/blogger Jill Gallagher (pictured) and writer/performer Ren Jender, before they join a panel discussion on the book at Harvard Book Store on Jan. 16.
How or why did you get involved with the book?
Ren Jender: Even though I’m someone whose demographic screams “not interested in fashion”—anti-capitalist, queer and (now) 50—I actually think clothes and fashion are really important, not shallow, concerns.
Jill Gallagher: I had recently read Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? and followed her on Twitter, which is how I initially heard about the project. The idea of publishing a book about women’s relationship to clothing immediately appealed to me. I actually write a blog called Looks & Books, which was founded on the idea that what one wears is a fundamental aspect of their identity.
What does personal style mean to you?
JG: It’s a way for a person to show how it is they want to be seen in the world. It’s like that old maxim: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” That concept of aspiration applies to style in every facet of life—not just the office, but the classroom, the subway and even the bedroom. If you think about it, every article of clothing, piece of jewelry or pair of shoes we own has a story, and we choose the stories we want to tell every day when we get dressed. A person who cultivates a particular style does so with intention.
RJ: Being comfortable, able to hop on my bike without incident, but still fairly well put-together. So I don’t wear heels, but I do wear shoes made in Italy. I don’t wear skirts or dresses, but I do wear short shorts. I hate the look of leggings (instead of pants: I’m firmly on the side that believes leggings are not pants), but I do wear skinny jeans. I also wear mostly dark or deeply colored clothes, a holdover from the post-punk ’80s I suppose. That’s probably also the reason I never wear sandals. And I’m a style minimalist, so I never wear jewelry of any kind. And the vast majority of the clothes I buy are second-hand.
One item in your closet you could never live without?
RJ: Probably a pair of Italian flat pumps. I usually only have one, buy them incredibly cheaply second-hand and just get them resoled when they wear out.
JG: While technically I don’t keep them in my closet, I consider my glasses an indispensable part of my daily wardrobe. I’ve worn glasses since I was nine years old, and they are as much a part of my identity as my job or my friends. I briefly considered getting contacts when I was in high school, but ultimately decided that I love my glasses.
One item of clothing that you put on when you want to feel powerful?
RJ: I have a belt that I wear all the time that’s like a vintage car seat belt—it even says “GM” on the buckle. I wear it pretty much every day, so I must feel something when I wear it.
JG: I feel most powerful and in control when I’m exercising, so I put on my sneakers. It makes me feel strong and accomplished.
Name one woman whose style you admire.
RJ: Can I choose someone fictional? I always loved Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg, in reruns of the British TV show The Avengers. She wore a lot of fashionable pants and saved her crime-fighting partner as often as he saved her. I think she was maybe the one who gave me the idea that I could be fashionable but still be able to move, and be smart and competent. If I have to choose someone real, it would probably be, if I turned back time—her continued association with Woody Allen is too distasteful—Diane Keaton, just because she found a lot of different ways to wear suits and pants. Also, as long as we’re in the time machine I would say Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards in that white satin Italian suit with seemingly nothing underneath was a great look.
JG: One of my style icons right now is Tavi Gevinson because she’s always had an innate sense of her own style. She started Style Rookie as a child … I could barely find a pair of matching socks when I was that young. Instead of using her fame to become another socialite or image-obsessed fashion blogger, she launched Rookie, the online magazine for teenagers, and it is so good. She’s also going to school and starring in her first Broadway play. It’s a good example of how important staying true to your personal style and your sense of self can be.