During Makeshift 2012, we dedicated a portion of one event to “Worn Stories,” a concept defined and documented by Emily Spivack that explores the stories and emotional attachments surrounding our clothing. Jessamyn Hatcher introduced us to Emily and her work about the relationships we create with our garments and the rich memories we associate with our clothes. Those memories are certainly why we hold on to items long out of fashion, in sizes we will never wear again. The clothing is a physical representation of our emotional scrapbook.
Spivack’s recent book, also titled Worn Stories, is moving and relatable—and earned it’s way to the New York Times’ Bestseller List. In it, she collects over sixty clothing-inspired remembrances from famous faces and everyday people; each was asked to describe the most meaningful item of clothing in their closet—and the stories that surround them.
Worn Stories is meant not only to unearth memories through storytelling, but also to offer intimate glimpses into the lives, memories, and psyches of the tellers. It also prompts readers to delve into their own closets and consider the role clothing plays in their own lives. The book and website together amount to an extensive catalog of oral and written histories, all surrounding garments.
The stories themselves are human, reveal often-surprising vulnerabilities and personal histories, and shed new light on personalities we thought we knew. Included are histories from performance artist Marina Abramovic, clothing designer Cynthia Rowley, artist Maira Kalman, writer Susan Orlean, and designer Andy Spade.
Spivack told NPR’s Scott Simon, “I asked them to look for something that they couldn’t part with, something that held some memory, whether it was something spectacular, momentous, wonderful, unusual that happened to them while they were wearing that piece of clothing.”
In the book, she writes, “My own closet is full of clothes; it is also an evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories. I began using my clothes to write about those experiences—my first concert T-shirt, a hand-me-down scarf, a handmade sweater. Quickly, three things became clear: First, clothes can be a rich and universal storytelling device. Second, I was much more interested in the clothing-inspired narratives of other people than in my own. And third, if those stories aren’t captured, they disappear.”
We were lucky enough to catch up with Emily about these stories:
Alabama Chanin: You clearly have a love of and appreciation for clothing. When did this develop? Were you a stylish child or teenager?
Emily Spivack: I think that I was always kind of wearing unusual things, and kind of putting things together [as a child]. I started going to thrift stores when I was a young teenager and developed a sense of style that way. I saw it as a form of creative expression–that’s how it originated. I was certainly the person in high school wearing interesting clothing, unique pieces…thinking back on them now.
AC: Worn Stories evolved out of another project – Sentimental Value, in which you collected stories about clothing you found on eBay.
Was there one particular story that made you decide to expand the concept? At what point did you think: “I need to be writing these down?”
ES: I had been collecting stories for Sentimental Value since 2007. I was looking at my own closet and realized I had an archive of experiences and memories. Whenever I’d travel somewhere, I would end up at a flea market, or make a purchase someplace that reminded me of that experience, that particular trip…
It was triggering memories for me and I started writing those down–but I quickly realized I was far more interested in others’ stories than my own. I started talking to friends and family, asking them to share. And these were people I knew really well, but was told stories I’d never heard before.
From there I started asking people I didn’t know, people I found interesting. That’s how the process evolved.
AC: Do you believe that everyone has a story? Or do some people attach absolutely no emotion or sentimentality to their clothing?
ES: I do think it is relatively universal. Because what it is…it is people walking through life wearing something. And our experiences get kind of latched on to our clothing as we wear them. Clothes are porous, first of all, but also because we have experiences while we are wearing the stuff. The majority of people wear some type of clothing or garment–so it winds up being universal.
Not all of the stories are sentimental; some are funny, or interesting, or sad. So not everyone feels some type of sentimentality to their clothing, but that’s not really what I was trying to get at anyway. I wanted to use clothing as a storytelling tool.
AC: How did you decide whom to approach for interviews? Or did people gravitate to you?
ES: I gathered stories in a variety of different ways. In the book, some of the stories are from friends of mine, some are friends of friends of friends, and some people I reached out to via cold emails. I asked them if they’d be willing to participate in something like this. A relatively straightforward ask: “Meet me for a cup of coffee and tell me your story.”
There are some stories that are the result of Craigslist. I posted on the site for shares, in different cities all over the country. I really wanted a diversity of people, location, age, and background. That was really important to me.
AC: Did you have a process for selecting what stories would be included in the book? Or was it more emotional or instinctual?
ES: I wanted it to be a cross section of people and stories. But, at the end of day it was about the best stories I could possibly gather. I wanted the stories to be strong and resonate with people.
From there, I wanted a diverse range of stories. Different locations, ages, men and women…I wanted to shift the balance to get different perspectives. It was really shaping itself as I collected the stories.
AC: Have you ever been shocked by a story told to you? Have there been stories that you’ve been hesitant to share on your blog or in the book?
ES: What I love about this project is never knowing what to expect. I would be really excited to get on the phone with someone and hear a story. And not knowing what they were about to share with me. So that was a fun and surprising moment.
As for shocking — I don’t know. There are definitely intense stories in the book that take different forms. There is an incredible story from a Holocaust survivor that is just beautiful and a very intense story.
AC: As a sustainable designer, we at Alabama Chanin design clothing carefully – and I personally choose each item in my closet very thoughtfully. Do you think that telling a garment’s story will make people more mindful of what is in their closet?
ES: You nailed it. Yes. I couldn’t agree more on that. My feeling is with all of this stuff out there that we can purchase all the time, why not pause for a minute and be more thoughtful about what we already have in our closet and where it came from. Is the value having the latest thing or holding on for a memory or experience? Is there a connection to it, was it passed down, or made in a specific way?
My hope is that people will be a bit more thoughtful about how and what and why they purchase, and think about clothing in a different way, and slow down and look at what they already have.
AC: When considering fast fashion, do you think this is a way to create emotional connections with garments?
ES: When people go out shopping, they need to think about, “Do I need this?” or “Why do I want this?” Think about your purchases: “Will it last?” “Can I pass it down?” I hope this project gets folks thinking…
AC: Do you buy vintage garments? If so, do you imagine or invent histories for them?
ES: Yeah, I do. It’s fun to wear clothes. From the time I was younger, I’ve seen it as a way to express myself. Certainly my style has evolved and changed. But now I’m more aware.
And yeah, sometimes. It depends on the garment. What I love is if I find a receipt in the pocket of some jeans, or a purse with a movie stub or something. And I think “Who had this before me, where did it come from?” And creating a narrative around that.
AC: Do you have a favorite item of clothing?
ES: Well, today it is freezing cold in New York, and this morning when I was choosing a sweater to wear, I decided on one that’s just a bit warmer, but my other option was this pink and purple hand knit sweater my grandmother made for my mom. And my mom wore it with these purple leather pants in the 80s. And now it has been passed on to me; stylistically speaking it wouldn’t be my favorite. But the fact that my grandmother made it and my mom wore it makes it my favorite. It’s got these sharp angles knit into it. The design is so from another time but it’s beautiful.
AC: What projects do you have in the works?
ES: I have some projects in the works, but in their initial, early stages.
I started Worn Stories in 2010, and will continue to work on it. People can submit stories online or via Instagram. There are ways for people to still contribute to this ongoing project.
The more people know, the more people are submitting. I want to collect as many stories as I can before they disappear.