Fashion Is Around Us and Within Us

The new Women in Clothes (Blue Rider Press), edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton, is a wonderful collection of essays, diary entries, surveys and conversations about women's relationship to clothes. I'm thrilled to be one of the contributors, and it's gotten me thinking more about the role of fashion in my life.

I don't consider myself a woman who's especially interested in fashion, but a look around my study as I write this makes me reconsider. There are photos of Frida Kahlo in a long Mexican dress, with rings on every finger; Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, wearing the little black dress, gloves and pearl necklace, hair caught up in a sparkly clasp; Siena Miller in a black-and-white feathered gown, surrounded by white marble sculptures; Ameesha Patel in a jeweled lehenga skirt on the cover of Verve magazine, a French chateau in the background.

Though for the most part, I don't have the chance -- unfortunately -- to dress in styles like these, the photos inspire me. Not only beautiful in and of themselves, they lead to thoughts of much more. Looking at them, I'm reminded of something Jean Cocteau said: "Style is a simple way of saying complicated things." The photo of Frida Kahlo in the native costume of women from Mexico's Tehuantepec region, for example, says complicated things about physical suffering: Kahlo wore long dresses and skirts to hide her body, which was disfigured from childhood polio and a near-fatal tram accident. The photo speaks as well of her love-hate relationship with painter Diego Rivera, who encouraged her to wear traditional Mexican clothing (and whom she married -- twice). It also talks about cultural identity and creativity: of European and indigenous Mexican ancestry, Kahlo explored the tension between these identities in her painting. This aspect especially intrigues me because so much of what I write is related to my Tibetan American heritage.

Fashion often takes me back to childhood. A flowered dress, a fuzzy pompon, can trigger a Proustian reverie. Though I don't feel the "all-powerful joy" the narrator in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past experiences when he tastes the madeleine that returns him to his boyhood days, I'm flooded by memories of a more innocent time, when my parents were still together and life felt simple and wholesome. As a young girl, I had a white cotton dress splashed with yellow flowers; being reminded of it transports me to the trim, two-story suburban house where we last lived together as a family, to lazy afternoons lying in the grass watching vapor trails in the deep blue sky or playing with my dolls under the forsythia bushes while my father did yard work. The pompon reminds me of winter mornings walking to school deep in conversation with my best friend, the two of us wearing matching furry hats with pompons, sun glittering on the ice-encrusted trees; it takes me back to racing on the town skating pond, to huddling frozen but happy in an igloo my mother built for us after a big snow.

Until I went to college, I spent a lot of time sewing. My mother, an expert seamstress, taught me, and one of my favorite things to do was go with her to the fabric store and pore over the big pattern books (Simplicity, Butterick, Vogue), envisioning the different styles and the materials I could use, settling on a pattern -- or three -- after much delicious deliberation, then buying everything I needed and rushing home to get started. I loved pinning the tissue paper to the fabric, cutting, stitching and ironing; figuring out the difficult parts and experimenting with fixes when I made mistakes; altering the pattern if I preferred a more fitted waist, a lower neckline. Often I stayed up all night, the quiet hours slipping past and my thoughts roaming free as a new dress or skirt or jacket took shape, as I grappled with -- and ultimately accepted -- the imperfections and idiosyncrasies, in the same way we work to make a life.

I realize that, in fact, fashion is deeply interesting to me. It's about who we are, who we were, who we might become. Coco Chanel said, "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." It is, indeed, about how we think and how we live, about the world around us and the worlds within us.

Women in Clothes was published September 4.