Clothing makes authors uncomfortable. Most every novel I've read that takes place in part at a shopping mall describes the experience with an air of snooty derision. Likewise, I can't think of a fictional discussion about the importance of fashion that wasn't tinged with some sort of irony. Maybe it's a fear of being confused with writing ad copy that keeps writers from using their full imaginative powers to examine the buying and owning and wearing of goods, or maybe it's anxiety over a lack of sartorial style. But they should, with all due respect, get over themselves and get to work.
At first, Sarah Lazarovic's confessions in A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, a heavily illustrated little manifesto about how to become a better shopper, feel almost pornographic. She's discussing her life in shopping without a shrug of apology. Sometimes, she even seems to... enjoy it. In college, Lazarovic bought unwisely and so learned about the value of quality. Later, she felt guilt over buying too many clothes and so stopped buying anything for a year. She tried to find the perfect items to wear all the time and then realized that perfection does not exist. Now, she says, "The occasional pieces I pine for become like paintings in a gallery. I don't need to own them. I don't need to wear them to appreciate them." She addresses the ethical difficulties of buying cheap clothes in an age of globalism. She offers tips, brief treatises on how to recognize quality, and plenty of illustrations about items of clothing she's coveted. Things is a shopper's version of Mark Bittman's wonderful little guide to eating, Food Matters, an important book you never realized you needed.
The other revelatory book to be published about fashion this year is Women in Clothes, a huge, profusely illustrated anthology collecting the fashion-minded opinions, experiences, and aspirations of 642 women. Edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, Clothes began as an informal e-mail survey of friends and acquaintances about various aspects of clothing, with questions including "Do you address anything political in the way that you dress?" and "What are some things you admire about how other women present themselves?" and "How does money fit into all this?"
Clothes would be fascinating even if it simply compiled responses to this survey, but along the way it became much more. The book also includes a collection of 30 tiny photographs of every single pair of black panties owned by one woman, an essay about shopping for bras, a survey of all the rings worn by women working in a single office, discussions with professional perfume-makers, women reflecting on photos of their mothers as young women, and a wrenching interview with Reba Sikder, an 18-year-old garment worker in Bangladesh who survived a factory collapse: "I hear this huge sound, like BOOM, and everything collapsing. My coworkers ran to the stairs and I was following them, and then I fall, and I'm stuck under a machine." Julavits sneaks a "smell scientist" into a restaurant's coatroom to learn what she can tell about people from their coat-smells. ("This person is a robot. A lifeless robot just walked in here. I don't smell anything... It's like unscented soap, scentless, dye-free, fragrance-free deodorant, fragrance-free laundry detergent. It's a complete absence of anything.") A conversation between Heti and journalist Juliet Jacques about her life as a trans woman unveils the fact that women feel societal pressure to sneeze more quietly than men.
Clothing expands to subsume everything: economics, race, work, crime, love, globalism, and feminism. "By the time I was six," Joanna Walsh writes, "I'd formulated a theory: The good people grow up to be men, and the bad people grow up to be women. Men had so many rewards, I thought, and women so few, that I could intuit no other reasonable explanation."
I can't recall the last time I tore so eagerly through a 500-page book. Reading Clothes is like sitting down in a department store and eavesdropping on all the unguarded people wandering around you. Sure, some of those discussions may have to do with bargains and base venality, but it's more likely that you'll hear people talk about their hopes, their fears, their worries, the news. Why should writing about fashion be any different?