Eve Babitz meets Roland Barthes. Composed of essays and stories commissioned by fashion, art, and culture magazines, Sleeveless is an on the ground report from New York in the 2010s. During those years, Stagg worked as an editor for V magazine and as a consultant, creating copy for fashion brands. In Sleeveless, she exposes the mechanics of personal identity and its monetization that propelled her from a mall job in Tucson to international travel and internet fame.
... works best as a vehicle that explores the fashion world, and New York media more broadly, pre- and post-2016 ... Stagg’s writing inhabits a space of contradictions. But the resulting work is incisive — only someone lucky enough to live in the center of a Venn diagram consisting of such multitudes could connect, say, Russian collusion in the 2016 election to the popularity of communist-red boots on the runway the next season. And Sleeveless is chock full of these sharp associations ... The release of this collection is timely, then, as if this book was made specifically for 2019, a time where beyond self-image nothing matters — yet everything is dialed up, put on full-volume, to be broadcast to the masses regardless ... It is refreshing to read complex observations of overwhelming doubt and confusion, rather than have to fake feeling heard by the sometimes-inflexible and sometimes-staunch opinions over-published everywhere else ... Despite the tough subject and prickly opinions, Stagg provides room for the preposterous, for small pockets of chuckles, if not outright laughter. The humor in the essays lies in Stagg’s deadpan delivery and clear cynicism, and also in these moments of surprising absurdity. It is all incredibly relatable, too. But underneath the absurdity is a sense of alarm, and panic ... it’s clear Stagg is honest. And it’s writing like hers that we need nowadays, not something that beats around the bush, but something that takes a good hard look at the ugliness of the twenty-tens ... There are a few weak(er) pieces in Sleeveless, though Stagg is a sharp critic so these moments are still worthy of your time. For a collection, however, I wish Sleeveless would have been a slightly slimmer volume with only Stagg’s strongest pieces ... it is Stagg’s cynical and honest observations, and her distinctive and advantageous viewpoint (how many other texts do you know that confront the Trump era do it through a — mostly — fashion lens?) that make Sleeveless so unlike anything else out there.
In Sleeveless, Stagg picks up where she left off in Surveys, this time pushing her observations through a kaleidoscope of cultural lenses. Stagg’s various positions in the multifaceted world of contemporary media—as an editor at a fashion magazine, an advertising copywriter, and a branding consultant—have granted her an intimacy with those spheres’ vernaculars, and Sleeveless makes good use of this. This is cultural criticism, but straight from the horse’s mouth ... The essays 'Right Place' and 'Right Time' are particularly devastating and make quick work of any illusions we might harbor about the transparency of our idols. They also challenge the consumer’s ability to differentiate the real from the false, or even care which is which ... In the strongest narrative pieces...Stagg’s prose is sparsely decorated but not devoid of its own kind of poetry and rhythm. The hyper-personal tone of these pieces, more so than the analytical essays, makes for a mode of critical observation that feels closer to the subject material. Her deadpan cynicism, as well as her knack for restrained yet vivid description of settings and interactions, endears her bleak and comical impressions to us. It also proves to be a useful means of providing commentary on social controversies without sounding either dogmatic or contentious ... Stagg writes from inside an insular microcosm, but it’s one that is increasingly representative of society at large. We’re so enmeshed in these processes that we feel we have no alternative but to accept them. Stagg’s dissection of these phenomena, however, reveals our complicity in a way that implies we might have more of a choice than we think. Neuromancer served, in some ways, as a cautionary tale; Sleeveless has the same capacity for revelation.
Spanning the majority of the 2010s, Sleeveless suggests a decade that is anxious, self-immolatory, and more interested in surfaces than in significance. Stagg is particularly insightful on such subjects as the Kardashian family, influencers, and the sociopolitical importance of tall, cherry-red Balenciaga boots ... Prose has no temperature; assuming that it did, Sleeveless would bite like January in New York. Its best lines are chill as ice water: pellucid, unembellished, rich with subtext ... What is most alarming about Sleeveless is also its most radical quality: its candor, sometimes offered at the expense of the author’s dignity or liberal credibility, becomes its own sign of resilience ... Hip and jaded, within fashion and without it, an active participant in the industry at work and dispassionately removed from it in her perspective and her politics, it is her continuing willingness to contradict herself that makes her one of the best and most interesting documentarians of our modern millennial media .. Sleeveless does not offer answers, per se; what is valuable in it is its rare acknowledgement of the impossibility of modern life, the horror of having to maintain a twenty four hours a day, seven days a week lie.