Women in Clothes and The WORN Archive – New Ways of Writing About Fashion

Toronto Fashion District, May 2014, photo by K.Sark

When smart and creative feminist women take the business of writing about fashion into their own hands – unrestricted by magazine advertisers who, as Gloria Steinem revealed, dictate the contents of women’s fashion magazines to sell products; not influenced by mainstream fashion media that perpetuates impossible and unreal standards of beauty; and unaffected by the patriarchal gaze and objectification of women’s bodies – we get not only a very different kind of literary style and genre, but also a new cultural perspective on fashion.

This year’s publications of Women in Clothes (edited and conceptualized by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton) and The WORN Archive (edited by Worn magazine founder Serah-Marie McMahon) offer two very different kind of anthologies of fashion articles, images, and discussions, as well as new ways of talking about fashion, styles, body image, and fashion consumption practices without objectifying, condescending, or trivializing women or fashion.

King Textiles Store, Toronto, May 2014, photo by K.Sark

What both anthologies have in common is a new kind of unpretentiousness and unapologetic honesty about the female experience, which not surprisingly correspond to a new type of mainstream feminism emerging in the last decade thanks to actresses, writers, and comediennes such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Lena Dunham, Jenny Slate, Abbi Jacobson, and Ilana Glazer, to name a few.

Unlike numerous contemporary fashion books that fill the fashion sections of most book stores, and like to parade international designers, local boutiques, fashionable life-styles, and street styles, these two anthologies deliberately approach fashion narratives and images in new, provocative ways, questioning not only what constitutes fashion and style, but the very discourse and ways in which we talk about, look at, stage, perform, consume, and produce fashion.

Women in Clothes authors   Women in Clothes poster   Women in Clothes authors, Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton

Women in Clothes explores the wide range of motives that inform how women present themselves through clothes, and what style means to more than 600 women contributors. Through original interviews, conversations, surveys, diagrams and drawings, the editors “were interested in how weird and funny and heartbreaking it all is,” explained Shapton. “We’re not trying to sell anyone on anything.”

Women in Clothes

With many contributions from women around the world, including Girls creator Lena Dunham, Sonic Youth front-woman Kim Gordon, artist Cindy Sherman, actress Molly Ringwald, Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay, and National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner, to name a few, the anthology provides a broad spectrum of how women think and feel about fashion. To collect their data, the editors devised a survey comprised of 83 questions about the many intricate and significant ways women relate to fashion. The images are accompanied by often humorous, ironic, or sincere commentaries and interviews.

But perhaps the most interesting feature of this anthology is the two-part segment of authentic photographs entitled “Mothers as Others” in which the contributors were asked to send a photograph of their mother from the time before she had children and tell us what they see. Both the images and the comments are moving, personal, and political, and provide a lot of insight into the relationality of fashion.

Women in Clothes, Justyna Matusiak, Jowita Bydlowska mom   Women in Clothes, Susan Elizabeth Troup, Heidi Julavit's mom   Women in Clothes, Mothers as Others

Through the various interviews and surveys, it becomes apparent that women not only know how to take themselves and their fashion habits seriously, but also know how to humour themselves, the way they look, and the way they relate to fashion. Girls colleagues Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet each provide great examples of this combination of humour and an empowering stance that proclaims “I take no bullshit from anyone about my body and my style” – an attitude up to now exclusively reserved for rich, thin, mainstream celebrities, but only recently democratized and made acceptable for all.

Zosia Mamet vintage magazine poses   Lena Dunham Instagram

The three New York and Toronto-based editors and writers produced a valuable collection – albeit not without some hipster aesthetics – that may well pave new ways for women to write about, experience, consume, practice, and relate to fashion. The book comes out in the next few day, with book launches in Montreal and Toronto, September 16 and 18, 2014.

Worn Archive

WORNcoverA similar avant-gardist trend can be observed in The WORN Archive, a collection of WORN magazine’s best articles and images, edited by the founder and editor in chief, Montreal-native and Toronto-based Serah-Marie McMahon, and published by Montreal’s own Drawn & Quarterly in April 2014.

The anthology is comprised of the first fourteen issues of WORN, with each chapter celebrating a different part of fashion – that fashion can be fun, fashion can be art, identity, politics, and most of all, that fashion is a personal medium for self-expression. It’s a 400+ page manifesto, a resource of incredible information, and a beautiful book for Wornettes all over the world.

Founded in 2005, the magazine comes out twice a year and is based in Toronto. Its content is not time or location specific, since it does not report on trends or promote the newest items on the market. The magazine includes content from all over Canada and the rest of the world. It is conceptualized to be a mix between a pop-cultural magazine and an academic journal that deals with popular, theoretical, historical, and political aspects of fashion, and includes highly professional photo shoots that highlight various aspects of fashion and art without objectifying the persons portrayed.

WORN editor, Serah-Marie McMahonWhen founding WORN, McMahon was motivated by the fact that despite the myriad of available fashion magazines around the world, something has always been missing: “opinion and intelligent commentary that’s untainted by advertisers’ demands.” WORN fills that niche in Canada by discussing the cultures, subcultures, histories, and personal stories of fashion.

The Archive also features a tribute to mothers, entitled “The Mom Project – A Sartorial Bouquet for the Women Who Gave Us Style” that presents staged photographs of men and women dressed similarly to what their mothers used to wear when they were young, whose photos are included as wall portraits in each image. This photographic homage to the women who influence our understanding and relationships with fashion from an early age is accompanied by an article by G. Stegelmann, entitled “Everything I Know About Fashion (I Learned From My Mother).”

From basic and material practicalities of fashion (such as sewing machines and buttons) to its aesthetics, practices, exhibitions, design, and politics, the collection is tastefully put together and can serve as a rich resource for anyone interested in the non-conventional way of presenting and discussing fashion, both academically and culturally.

WORN Archive Montreal launch, photo by K.Sark     Display window at Type book store in Toronto, photo by K.Sark

While conceptualizing the Canadian volumes on Montreal and Toronto Chic for the Urban Chic book series, which I co-founded, these two anthologies are very timely and inspirational in their approach to fashion in the Canadian and international contexts. My aim is to keep this conversation going about the ways fashion invites us to make meaning of our surroundings, locations, experiences, bodies, and relationships.

King Textile store, Toronto, May 2014, photo by K.Sark

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