Open and Clothed: For the Passionate Clothes Lover, by Andrea Siegel. Agapanthus Books. 342 pp. $24.
YOU CAN'T STUFF back into the trunk all the descriptions of Andrea Siegel's clothes book: "crazy quilt" (New York Times), "potpourri" (East Bay Monthly), "mosaic" (Agapanthus Books). Add to that, "girl-chat," "therapy regurge," "clash of plaid with polka dots."
Open and Clothed, promoted as "the first useful book about wardrobe passion," could actually have used a little more design back of its designer.
Author Andrea Siegel is a textile artist with the clothing trade in her blood. Her great-grandfather was Samuel Klein, founder of the popular New York discount department store S. Klein's on the Square, and stories of frenzied shoppers were family lore.
While represented as a compilation of interviews with an academic, historical approach, intended to "focus on understanding the forces that subvert clarity about dress" and lead to a "vision of wardrobe happiness," this book is clearly a reflection of Siegel herself.
Open and Clothed's three sections--"Inner Fundamentals," "Expressive Fundamentals" and "Getting into Clothes"--actually improve as they rise toward wardrobe happiness. "Fashion and Its Discontents," with which the first section begins, is a collection of disparate elements. To define fashion and give it cultural and historical context, Siegel discusses the introduction of the sewing machine, the Civil War, the fact that Christian Lacroix produces only 20 wedding dresses per year, fashion as shock, Western clothing as genocide, Saudi-born Nada's ambivalence about donning the veil, herself as a Levite, and advice for "you" to consider your tribe and put it on the back burner. That's all in the first three pages.
It tends to muddy further. From a statistic on family farms, Siegel moves to a discussion of the "endlessly beating heart of yearning" for glamour, past "the well-documented reports that most models do their jobs on drugs and are sexually abused," and "the power dynamic created by painting over the wounds of abuse." Then she gives the reader an essay assignment to write about "What makes you feel glamorous" immediately followed by a paragraph in which she describes the "fortitude" needed to look radiant at a wedding when all the other women envy "you."
Does it have emotion? Yes. Detail? Yes. Logic, focus, coherence, audience awareness, deliberate diction, consistency in point of view or writing mode? Perhaps less than it should. From personal anecdote and questionnaires without answers to pseudo-psychology, through unsupported generalization, stereotyping, unintentional comedy and questionable observation, this writing abides by few rules of effective communication.
As Siegel should know, a pile of scraps does not a quilt make. Nor do snippets of ideas a book. And her editor should have reminded her of that reality.
Scraps are, however, colorful and textured. Stories have universal appeal. The combination could keep the clothes-lover reading.
Siegel interviewed over 50 clothes-lovers for this work, and she weaves into it their stories. Shopping-obsessed Isabelle Klein is memorable, as is Russ Harvey. Klein, whose annual salary was only $24,000, went on a buying bender that netted 100 pairs of shoes and 14 coats, including a Fendi mink the monthly payments for which would have leased a Mercedes. Harvey, whom Siegel met in a bookstore, sews, names and lovingly photographs all his Hawaiian shirts. He features 30 of them in a leather-bound album.
It's important to note that about halfway through, a clarifying moment occurs and the book begins to assume a shape. In "Body Acceptance," Siegel lets drop that she has suffered appearance and self-perception--weight and eating--problems. This lends the writer credibility. Not only do the seemingly random points of the previous section make sense, but from then on, the book seems to have some direction. Coincidentally or not, the writing is tighter, more unified and more focused.
Section three, "Getting into Clothes," becomes a readable, audience-oriented self-help piece. The clearest and most intelligent writing occurs in her final chapter, in which Siegel articulates her philosophy relating to the beauty culture: "to thoroughly study myself and my context so that my notions of beauty and comfort evolved from within."
Open and Clothed is extensively footnoted, showing substantial research. It has a chatty, engaged voice, showing commitment to the subject. Its message to know and trust oneself and not be dictated to in fashion is useful. Clothes lovers can enjoy the designer, if not the design.
Andrea Siegel will be reading from Open and Clothed at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., Friday, September 15 at 7 p.m.