In 2019, Shahidha Bari wrote an excellent book titled Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes, which was published by Vintage, an imprint of Penguin. This spring, the book moves to Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus owned by Hachette, where it will relaunch with the updated title Dressed: A Philosophy of Clothes. The foggy degrees of difference between “secret life” and “philosophy” illuminate precisely the beauty of Bari’s effort, yet also the difficulty it faces in marketing—a good book is often hard to define. The original version is listed on Amazon under anthropology. Bari herself is a Professor of Fashion Cultures and Histories at London College of Fashion, as well as a Fellow of the Forum for Philosophy at the London School of Economics.
It’s not splitting hairs to say that Bari’s writing is, in an academic sense, much closer to literary theory than philosophy. Her examples both visual and textual are classics culled from iconic moments in popular culture, from Cary Grant’s suits to Alexander McQueen’s dresses, from the overcoat in Gogol’s short story of the same title to the glass slipper in
Cinderella. The author’s richly detailed and complex reflection on these artifacts stays quite firmly planted in the visual and emotional landscape of clothing, highlighting common threads that most readers perhaps intuit but lack the concepts to articulate.
Bari’s language choices and syntax are dreamy and fluid, always laden with inference and rarely pointing in the straight-ahead trajectory of an argument. At no point do the chapters cohere into one thesis for their entirety, unless it is simply that our clothes deserve thoughtful attention. Instead, reading
Dressed is more like the experience of wandering through a department store or a friend’s well-curated closet.
The author has a lot in common with Roland Barthes or even Camille Paglia. When it comes down to name-dropping some theory, Bari seldom spends more than a page on elucidation of abstract concepts, always returning both usefully and quickly to the clothes. She culls out a necessary bit of
A Thousand Plateaus in literally two sentences—somewhere in France, Deleuze is rolling over in his grave—in order to use the rhizome as a metaphor for how Nike’s flyknit technology is a feat of engineering so potentially perfect that it borders on magic. Then she devotes more page space to a French soccer documentary about star player Zinédine Zidane than she devoted to either Nike or Deleuze.
The majority of her theorists are French (or else Freud) and she tends to emphasize psychoanalysis as that’s most appropriate to her subject. Dressed is so admirably free of critical theory jargon that perhaps some academics—and certainly those in philosophy departments—may be a bit disappointed. But for the rest of the world, this book is a highly readable, deliciously thoughtful approach that cracks open much of the how and why we dress in the ways we do.
In addition to laying off any needlessly specialized vocabulary, Bari also goes wonderfully broad in her range of both topics and examples. Amateur or professional students of fashion will want to read Dressed of course, but so too should dance, film, and literary studies folks interested in freshening up their thinking on favorite texts like Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In a manner similar to her deployment of the theory, Bari cuts through all the background and summary crap readers already know about widely studied canonical texts in favor of a close reading of the clothes within them, yet her analysis does hold up quite well in a vacuum where readers may not recall much about the source material, such as with the finer plot points of Charlie Chaplin’s movies.
In looking at the table of contents, readers may fear Bari is trying to do too much—but it works. There are five chapters: dresses; suits, coats, and jackets; shoes; fur, feathers, and skins; and pockets, purses, and suitcases. The chapter on shoes is comparatively the weakest, if only because there is a cornucopia of serious literature already available to provide deep dives on any kind of shoe minutiae that’s of interest. Yet the author more than adequately wrangles this abundance into a springboard for the uninitiated. For readers already obsessed with deep shoe knowledge, the poetry of Bari’s effort is still worth soaking in. My favorite chapter was “Fur, Feathers, and Skins”, both for the truly lovely contemplation of a snakeskin dress that opens it and for Bari’s ability to analyze feathers and furs in a way that elevates them to the same consideration we’ve always given to leather.
The author likewise deserves a heap of praise for the fifth chapter, a terrific accounting of how clothes contribute to conversations on privacy and preparedness. We may be accustomed to thinking of clothes in terms of the cut or the fabric or other design elements, but seldom do we think about how they include empty space. There is a good riff on the idea of a bottomless bag carried by the likes of Mary Poppins and Hermione Granger. This chapter makes a killer addendum to Poetics of Space, so much so that I was surprised to see no references to Bachelard in there.
Perhaps there are a few good books on purses and a few good aphorisms on pockets, but I have never seen a book on clothes that also attempts to think about suitcases. The book is not doing too much; it is rigorous and comprehensive in the study without growing onerous and exhausting in the reading. Dressed is a well-packed suitcase indeed.