Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ann, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for talking about your book, Nevertheless, She Wore It: 50 Iconic Fashion Moments.

Ann Shen: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: This book was so awesome. I couldn’t even decide which I found most interesting, some of the current-day fashion trends or all the ones from back in the day, the invention of the bikini or when pants were a big deal and all of that stuff. How did you come up with all of these different fashion moments? What is the bigger story behind assembling them all together?

Ann: Oh, my gosh, that’s such a good question. I love fashion and style. I love it as a way that we can express ourselves. I was thinking about all the ways that people who are very much in the public eye are aware of that, and especially women who historically have been a group that haven’t always had a voice, are aware that people are always looking at what they’re wearing. Then there have been people who use that as a way to deliver a message. That’s kind of the theme that I started with. A lot of the time, the message was a way to give women more of a voice, a place, power, more liberation. I looked for examples in history that started evolving styles, but in ways that were for women to feel more empowered. Narrowing it down to fifty moments was really difficult because there’s so many fun styles, interesting styles to talk about and the history behind everything. I really tried to either trace the lineage of styles, because they evolve through time, to, where did this come from? What did it mean at the time? And then moments that were very politically or news-groundbreaking that we still remember even now that are tied to a message like Lady Gaga’s meat dress or Hillary Clinton’s white suits.

Zibby: You mentioned in the beginning of the book how things really changed after the Industrial Revolution. What happened? What happened then?

Ann: Before then, all clothes are handmade, literally by hand. Most people didn’t own a lot of clothes. The Industrial Revolution created factories that then were able to create garment mills and sewing factories and make clothing more accessible, meaning more affordable, to everyone besides the upper class. The only people who had real costumes or changes were people who were royalty or who were very, very famous or well-off. Once the Industrial Revolution happened and everybody was able to get clothing, they were able to have a bigger wardrobe to express themselves, to have more of a say in how they wanted to present in the world versus, here are the few dresses that my mom made and have handed down, or that I made. That made style a more accessible choice to everyone as a way of personal expression.

Zibby: It’s funny because I don’t really think about what I wear that much. I’m not very stylish. I’m not really into fashion so much. My clothes don’t make a statement. If they fit, it’s a good day. I know what I like. My main criterion is, does this hide the places that need to be hidden right now? That’s how I dress. I realize for all the women in here, everybody, not everybody, but most people were trying to say something or do something, or maybe inadvertently, like Michelle Obama with the sleeveless shift dress or Serena Williams with her tennis catsuit. Were they all trying to make such a message? Even Elizabeth Hurley, how you point out how she created an influencer at all, really. How intentional do you think most of these current-day moments were? Did they mean to create such a stir? Maybe it just varies.

Ann: That’s such a good question. I want to go back to you not thinking you’re a stylish person. The thing is, we all get dressed every day. We all make choices of how we want to dress. What you expressed was just, you dress to feel good about your body because you’re emphasizing the things you like and directing the attention. You’re in control of the attention. That’s part of the power of getting dressed. Even if you’re not a celebrity on the red carpet or a politician, you’re still making those choices of how you want to present in the world. That is your personal power you have every day. Every single person has that. Even little kids have that. They definitely want to express themselves through their clothes. Some of the choices in there, some of it incidentally turned out to be controversial, like Michelle Obama’s sleeveless shift. It was just a shift dress from J.Crew.

Zibby: I’m pretty sure I had that dress.

Ann: Every woman owns a dress like that. It looks like a professional dress. It’s a high collar. It’s black. It’s very simple and silhouette. People were so scandalized because she was the first First Lady to wear a dress without sleeves in her official portrait. Also, she had amazing arms. That helped. It also was just so silly that that was something that became newsworthy, but at the same time speaks to how conservative and how different we view everyday women versus someone in political power, perhaps. Then there are also intentional ones. Even with the Liz Hurley dress, she wasn’t famous at the time. She became famous overnight because of that dress. She was just Hugh Grant’s girlfriend, was going to one of his premieres. He had connections to, I think it was Versace. They only had one dress available for her, which was the safety pin dress. She was confident enough to be like, yeah, I’m going to wear that dress. I didn’t really think anything of it. It looks like a little black dress. Photographs of her at the premiere were all over the world. It was really interesting that a woman confident in her body making a choice that really wasn’t a choice because that was the only dress she had been offered also became a statement.

Zibby: If that was the only dress I was offered, I would not go. You have to be able to pull that off.

Ann: She was also probably twenty-four.

Zibby: Okay, fine. Yes.

Ann: She’s dating Hugh Grant who’s super hot at the time. She was really feeling herself. Absolutely, I don’t think I would either. The fact that a woman was feeling comfortable enough to wear that was already headline news, which is also kind of crazy.

Zibby: Even how you point out in the book, J Lo’s famous Versace dress — I think it was Versace.

Ann: Yeah.

Zibby: Two other people had already worn it. Nobody had really cared or noticed or taken note of it. It was just the fact that it was so right for her and brought out all of her glowing-ness, if you will.

Ann: Yeah, and at that moment. You know what’s funny? Looking back at that dress when I was painting it, I was like, wow, it doesn’t look that scandalous compared to what people wear now. I remember at that time we were all so scandalized, like, oh, my god.

Zibby: Now people are basically naked all the time. People don’t even get dressed. What is that? Let’s go back. How did you get here? How did you end up writing this book? How did you get your start with writing and illustrating and all the rest?

Ann: I went to college for a degree in writing. Then I worked for a few years in nonprofits. Then after that, I decided I wanted to go back to school and be a professional illustrator and designer. I did that. Then I was working for a few years in-house as a professional designer and then freelancing on the side and working on little passion projects. One of them was Bad Girls Throughout History, which ended up being my first book. It came out in 2016, but I started it in about probably 2010. It was a book about female trailblazers like the first woman to do X, Y, Z. I try to cover a lot of broad fields. At the time, I was finding myself struggling with finding any female role models who had broken the rules, who had been the first to do something that they were told not to do, which was something that I felt like I was running up against a lot as a young professional. Since I couldn’t find it, I started collecting them and telling their stories. The more I did that, the more people would share with me, “Have you heard of so-and-so and so-and-so?” Before I knew it, I had a whole book. My agent had seen it. It was a little zine at the time. My agent had seen it. Posted it on a blog.

She reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in turning it into a book. I was like, only my hope and dream in life. I played it cool. I was like, “Yeah, that’d be cool.” We made a proposal, pitched it. Chronicle Books gave us a great offer. They were a great fit for it. They’ve been a publisher of my books ever since because they really get what I’m doing, which is something kind of unusual. It’s not a children’s book, but it’s not a usual adult book. It’s a coffee table book. I want it to feel like learning history, but from your best friend where you’re just like, have you heard of this cool person? That’s the thread of all my books, which is all about feminine power, women in history which have been largely marginalized. My second book was about goddesses in all different cultures because I wanted to explore archetypes and the way women were treated or how females were thought of in cultures, the important roles they played prior to even pre-Christian colonialism, basically. My third book now, I wanted to explore a different angle of feminism and something that I felt like is kind of coming up again, especially with how much we pay attention to — I think it came up a lot after the 2016 election where everybody was wearing a pink pussy hat to the Women’s March. It was the first time that we had a collective style moment where we could feel together even though we were very despondent. That’s something that people have done throughout history, like the Black Panthers with black berets, suffragettes with their tricolor stripe. That was really interesting to me.

Then we always get articles about — there was a while, people were saying “Ask her more” for women on red carpets. They were saying women are just asked about who they’re wearing. Then women kind of co-opted that for the Time’s Up movement when they all wore black on the Golden Globes red carpet. That was really interesting. These women know that they’re in visible positions and what they say has a lot of power because we all see them. Their images are all around the world within the hour. That visual representation is just as important as what you’re saying. You could use that as a means of style. Then of course, we see it in politics all the time. We see it right now, especially with Kamala Harris wearing Chuck Taylors and boots. Everyone’s writing about it. It sends a message about the kind of leader she is. It’s a really interesting time since we are such a visual society with social media. We’re getting news refreshed every second. We’re so visual that we take those visuals even more as a means of power and expression. Anyway, that was my longwinded story of how I got here and how I ended up writing this book.

Zibby: I totally understood those Golden Globes. It was the Golden Globes, right? Or was it the Academy Awards when they all wore black? Selfishly, I was very disappointed not to have all that eye candy of dresses and necklaces and all the glittery things that we don’t get in our normal life.

Ann: I know. I definitely had a moment where I was like, wait, are they doing this at every award show this year?

Zibby: How long is this going on?

Ann: I totally support the visibility of it. I love the red carpet because it’s such a way for people to appreciate artists too, like a lot of young American designers. Michelle Obama only chose to wear American designers. Their choices in celebrating these designers, it gives them a platform unlike anything else.

Zibby: What’s your fashion motif? What do you like to wear?

Ann: Oh, my gosh. I always love a Peter Pan collar.

Zibby: Very cute.

Ann: It kind of reminds me Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course. I feel professional but also feminine. It’s our version of our white collar. I love a red lipstick. I definitely do feel more put together even if I’m just wearing red lipstick, which has been a thing even through quarantine. I’m like, if I just put on lipstick for this Zoom, I will feel like my life’s together and everything is not falling apart around me.

Zibby: Lip gloss is my thing. I continue to put it on. I don’t even have it. It stays on for like three seconds. In those three seconds, I’m like, oh, yeah, I’m all put together. Now with the pandemic, I put it on, and then I put my mask on. It’s so stupid. Why do I do this? But I know. I know it’s under there.

Ann: It makes you feel good. It makes you feel like, my life is together.

Zibby: So silly. The red lipstick, it’s nice to have a signature thing like that. It makes it sort of easier to get out the door when you know that’s what you do, the red lipstick, not the lip gloss.

Ann: The lip gloss too. What’s your favorite lip gloss?

Zibby: No, only I can ever tell that it’s on. Yours is a statement that I can see now. So are you working on a new project after this? What’s coming next for you?

Ann: I’m actually working on a fourth book which I’m really excited about. We haven’t announced it yet, but it’s inspired by a lot of the events of this year.

Zibby: I will translate that in my head. I happen to love both your illustration style and your writing style. Both, I find, it’s a little bit of flirty fun and sense of humor mixed with actual great depiction of things. I didn’t say that very well. Even the title, it’s like you don’t take yourself too seriously and yet you’re also teaching, which is the best kind of teacher there is, really, versus, I am going to make you realize this about feminism or whatever. I unfortunately feel that some more feminist-leaning things — now this is going to sound bad. I don’t know. I just don’t like anybody being too didactic in what they’re trying to teach or to share. There’s gentler ways to communicate. Anyway, I just love it. You should do commissions. Do you do that, like somebody commissioning for my mom’s birthday or something, you would do ? I could send you her favorite coat and then frame it.

Ann: I get asked all the time for that, but I really don’t have time since I’m always working on a new book.

Zibby: You’re like, I’m way too famous and accomplished for a picture mom. Thank you for the thought. On my last dime, maybe I’ll call you.

Ann: I am too busy hustling to make more things that are accessible to everyone. It’s way easier to buy a twenty-dollar book than to afford a commission.

Zibby: I’ll just say I really appreciate your work. The book is great. It’s also a great giftable book. If you even do the necklace and black dress and this book, what a perfect gift is that.

Ann: That would be so sweet.

Zibby: Holidays are coming sort of soon. I’m going to have to remember this around the holiday time, to match it with any of these things, and especially with Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the cover given her recent loss and everything. Do you have any advice to aspiring author/illustrators such as yourself?

Ann: Just follow your curiosity. Those things are things that are unique to you, your voice, your point of view. Create the things that you wish existed in the world. That’s what I continue to keep trying to do with my books. Like you said, I like to make cheeky, fun books. I had a hard time memorizing history or being really interested in history when I was in school. My approach to it now is, I rediscovered it as, these are all people just like we were, just human, messy, complicated, funny, accomplished. They could still do all these amazing things. When I talk about it like that and when I’m sharing it with a girlfriend, I’m like, this is fascinating, or when I’m hearing stories from a friend. I want it to be cheeky and fun and interesting and also make you feel smarter and more connected to the world and our collective ancestors. That’s what I’m interested in. Think about the things that you’re interested in and you’re curious about and love and want to share with the world. Someone else will need the thing that you want to make.

Zibby: Hopefully.

Ann: They will. There’s so many people. You look on the internet, there are groups for everything. You will find your people. You’ll find your tribe.

Zibby: That’s true.

Ann: How big it’ll be… Someone needs what you make.

Zibby: Someone will need it. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for Nevertheless, She Wore It. I just loved it. It’s adorable and awesome. Thank you.

Ann: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Ann: Bye.