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An Interview With “Worn Stories” Author Emily Spivack

Nov 13, 2014

by Karen Brown

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Do you have something in your closet you can’t quite part with, even though its usefulness has long since passed? A holey pair of old sneakers? Your mom’s bathrobe? The necktie you wore to your college gradation? It’s not just hoarders who hold on to items like these. Writer Emily Spivack believes old clothes can be memoirs in miniature, testifying to our achievements, losses, loves, and dreams. Her new book, Worn Stories, features more than 60 “biographies” of treasured garments from artists, musicians, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs, in all their evocative, hilarious, and sometimes heartbreaking detail. As the creator of the Smithsonian’s fashion-history blog Threaded and the founder of Shop Well with You, an organization that helps women with cancer use clothing to improve their quality of life, Emily was uniquely qualified to assemble this collection — and to understand what the clothes that we keep say to, and about, each one of us.

Karen: Many of the connections in the book are sentimental. What does sentimentality mean to you?

Emily: I’m not a sentimental person. It would have been easy to fill a book with cloyingly sweet stories, but I am more fascinated and intrigued by pushing the boundaries of what sentimentality is. People have shared incredibly elaborate stories about mundane objects, and those stories are profoundly meaningful.

41_WornStories_Tiler

New York City Ballet dancer Tiler Peck’s trusty leg warmers.

Karen: Did you find that people sometimes hold on to things for mysterious reasons, even out of superstition?

Emily: Yes! Pieces of clothing can emerge as good-luck charms or allies. Tiler Peck really nails that idea — she’s worn the same pair of leg warmers before every single one of her performances as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. And sometimes our attachments to garments can take us straight into obsession. Karuna Scheinfeld (the Vice President of design at Woolrich) wore one of her father’s oxford shirts for years. She wouldn’t check it with her luggage for fear it would get lost, and she even commissioned a painting of it when it had deteriorated so much that one of the sleeves ripped out.

54_WornStories_Hodgman

A dress actor John Hodgman wears to get into character.

Karen: What have you discovered about the role of vintage — of buying garments that already have a lot of age in them?

Emily: Vintage is often about nostalgia for a time you weren’t there for, or a subculture or person you want to identify with. And in that case, what you’re wearing becomes a mode of creative expression. John Hodgman has a great story about a vintage dress he wears when he performs as Ayn Rand, to embrace her persona. Vintage is also about projecting an identity. Piper Kerman, the author of Orange is the New Black, was sentenced in a vintage suit she bought online. Of the choices she had available, her attorney told her to wear vintage because she would be more relatable to the judge, a Reagan appointee.

31_WornStories_Piper

The suit Orange is the New Black writer Piper Kerman wore to her sentencing.

Karen: Sometimes old items find a second life in a new form. I’m thinking of an Etsy seller, Aly Bond, who offers a special service. She will take an old coat from a loved one who has passed on — a garment that might be hanging like a ghost in the closet — and turn it into a bag that you can carry with you every day. Have you seen old clothes transform their meaning over time?

Emily: Something that comes to mind is a workshop I did at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland. A participant brought in a fur coat, which had been a huge purchase for her mother and father. Her mother’s name was embroidered on the label, and she even had a photo of the store where the coat was purchased. This woman would never wear fur but the coat was so rich in family meaning she couldn’t let it go. So she documented the story, wrote it all out. The process of doing that became very cathartic and therapeutic. Ultimately, she was able to part with the coat and not have the weight of it hanging in her closet.

60_WornStories_Karuna

Designer Karuna Scheinfeld’s most precious shirt — which once belonged to her father.

Karen: When garments become old, ripped, or stained, we usually consider them to be completely worthless. But Worn Stories seems to be saying old clothes may have the greatest value.

Emily: That’s what I loved so much about this project! People shared their stories about an important garment in their lives, and when I arranged to get the clothes to take photographs for the book, almost every garment was ripped or stained or torn. I don’t necessarily advocate wearing torn and stained clothes, but I’m hoping the book will encourage people to look through their closets and see an archive of experiences and memories, and rethink how we place value on things.

Karen: Are there more Worn Stories in your future?

Emily: Yes — and whether it’s an exhibit, a book, or a video, all my projects are enriched through other people’s experience. I invite any interested Etsy readers to share their stories with me; they can post them on the Worn Stories website, where they will later be published.

WornStories_cover

What’s the most meaningful article of clothing in your closet? Tell us in the comments.

All photographs by Ally Lindsay, courtesy of Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.

3 Featured Comments

  • WildRoseAndSparrow

    Liana from WildRoseAndSparrow said 2 years ago Featured

    There's a leather doctor's bag that's been passed down in my family. My grandfather gave it to my mother when she started university, and I got it from her when I started college too. It's a little battered at the corners, but the warm tan color of the leather still gleams and always reminds me of the excitement of a fresh start. This year, my daughter carries her books and laptop in it on her way to university too. This has become a rite of passage for us. :)

  • SusanFaye

    Susan Faye from SusanFayePetProjects said 2 years ago Featured

    I have a little four-piece crocheted baby outfit that I made 28 years ago for my unborn son. When I was pregnant, I almost lost him at the 6 month mark. I was confined to bed for 2 months and making this fancy little outfit with a complicated cable stitch was one of the ways I passed the time and defied my fears. It sounds cliched, but the day he was born was truly the happiest day of my life. As babies do, he grew far too fast, and could only wear the outfit for about 2 months. I cannot part with it-- so the hat, sweater and booties are now proudly worn by my childhood teddy bear, Mr. Smokey. My hope is that should I ever have a grandchild, Mr. Smokey and his fancy duds will be passed along with all of the love wrapped up in their stories...

  • StrangelyEverAfter

    Corrie Curry from StrangelyEverAfter said 2 years ago Featured

    Lovely story; so very touching! I have a dress that belonged to my maternal grandmother; I was never able to meet her as she died before I was born when my mom was in her early 20's. When I was younger I would wear it for "dress up" play. When I went to move out I begged my mom that I could keep it. I wore it on the day of my high school graduation, on the finals for my college classes, and on the day that I was to be getting a review for a potential raise at my last job. Having that dress is so important to me; imagining my grandmother wearing it living life in her kind, compassionate, and cheerful manner before she was taken.

47 comments

  • Circa810

    Thom Aten from Circa810 said 2 years ago

    Great interview and fun read! My meaningful article is a plaid shirt and a suede coat that were my fathers. I have a picture of him wearing both pieces the day they brought me home from the hospital as a baby. I can never part with them and have worn the shirt on occasion.

  • amysfunkyfibers

    Amy Gunderson from amysfunkyfibers said 2 years ago

    I just found my favorite boots last weekend from the 80's that are still beautiful. I let my teenage daughter try them on and they fit her perfectly! I could open a vintage shop, but that would mean I would have to part with old favorites!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 2 years ago

    Love this interview! I have a few pieces of clothing in my closet that are very meaningful to me. One is my wedding dress. I also have a few favorites from when I was pregnant with my kids. I also have my nursing uniform that I wore when I was pinned at graduation :)

  • alaskalisky

    Alaskalisky from AlaskaGoldRush said 2 years ago

    Great post!

  • safeharborboutique

    Safe Harbor Boutique from SafeHarborBoutique said 2 years ago

    Great interview! Recently we went through the family cedar chest. It took us back to another time in our life. Found some old favorites but the one I love most is the wedding dress my mother crocheted with fine threads!

  • vickyirish

    Happygirl from happygirlcards said 2 years ago

    Such a great article! i have some bits from my childhood that I can never part with - each clear-out they get squirreled away for the next time!

  • WildRoseAndSparrow

    Liana from WildRoseAndSparrow said 2 years ago Featured

    There's a leather doctor's bag that's been passed down in my family. My grandfather gave it to my mother when she started university, and I got it from her when I started college too. It's a little battered at the corners, but the warm tan color of the leather still gleams and always reminds me of the excitement of a fresh start. This year, my daughter carries her books and laptop in it on her way to university too. This has become a rite of passage for us. :)

  • sakao

    Erica xo from SakaoCo said 2 years ago

    Another book I need! Thanks for this great article! xo

  • janabozeman

    Jana Bozeman from QuotesofGratitude said 2 years ago

    Thank you for this great interview. This book is definitely being added to my to read list. And yes, I am writing this while wearing my favorite INC dress from Macy's, which years ago was my go to item when going out on the town. More recently it has morphed into my "comfort food." Worn over jeans or a pair of stretchy yoga pants, I get some of my best work done in my fave dress and believe it or not I still get compliments on it from time to time!

  • onefinedaisy

    primlark from primlark said 2 years ago

    Wow what a fascinating read! I would love to read this book, so interesting!

  • SusanFaye

    Susan Faye from SusanFayePetProjects said 2 years ago Featured

    I have a little four-piece crocheted baby outfit that I made 28 years ago for my unborn son. When I was pregnant, I almost lost him at the 6 month mark. I was confined to bed for 2 months and making this fancy little outfit with a complicated cable stitch was one of the ways I passed the time and defied my fears. It sounds cliched, but the day he was born was truly the happiest day of my life. As babies do, he grew far too fast, and could only wear the outfit for about 2 months. I cannot part with it-- so the hat, sweater and booties are now proudly worn by my childhood teddy bear, Mr. Smokey. My hope is that should I ever have a grandchild, Mr. Smokey and his fancy duds will be passed along with all of the love wrapped up in their stories...

  • helenharwood

    Helen Harwood from FatBerry said 2 years ago

    Great article! Thank you for sharing. It seems childhood clothes are the most memorable and inspirational things around...

  • RenataandJonathan

    Renata and Jonathan from RenataandJonathan said 2 years ago

    Interesting and inspiring. Thank you!

  • MokiMinis

    Mo and Ki from MokiMinis said 2 years ago

    Great post!

  • ArtisanSoapInVegas

    Cristy Ramos from ArtisanBathandBody said 2 years ago

    It is always amazing to discover new stuff. But discovering old stuff is the most amazing of all... those flashbacks are always something that come through your head. I love the title of this book, Worn Stories. I understand why and how she thought about this name. I love vintage!

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 2 years ago

    Interesting!

  • VintageWhiteWhale

    Vintage White Whale from VintageWhiteWhale said 2 years ago

    I love the stories behind Vintage pieces. With my shop, if I don't know the history of the piece, my imagination tends to go wild, who owned it...was it a gift, where is it from etc A vintage hunter, since I was 6years old....a vintage item holds a history that mass produced poorly made things will never have. I simply adored this story!!!!!!!!!!!

  • ArtFashionCreation

    Toile La La from ArtFashionCreation said 2 years ago

    Rescued clothing with a past life, from people I've known and loved, has always been the most interesting for me. I love the idea of Emily Spivack's book and think it will be a great read - for garments certainly radiate a personality and particularly formerly-owned, vintage clothing holds a feeling of history or an aspect of life. Such a great feature! I am forever intrigued by the way our clothing - whether it's trendy fashion or utilitarian - reflects the mindset of a particular era. Fashion, just like art or music, is a telling part of pop culture and is helpful in illuminating anthropological, psychological (and more) phases in a very long timeline of life!

  • TheGlowingSkin

    TheGlowingSkin from TheGlowingSkin said 2 years ago

    In a way we can say that clothes define us and become part of our personality. Its an emotional trigger to part with old clothes and I have dumped lots to clothes except the ones I wore during a specific part of my life. even though I do not fit in them anymore, it reminds me of good times and that moment in time. it's silly nostalgia.

  • lemonlizdesigns

    lemonlizdesigns from lemonlizdesigns said 2 years ago

    I love this topic, what a great conversation starter. Like the author I try not to be too sentimental but there are a few objects and pieces of clothing I can't seem to let go of. Some I've even cycled into new items because I couldn't let go of the sentiment. Fabulous coffee table conversation!

  • indigocanyonsoaps

    Indigo Canyon Soap Co. from INDIGOCANYONSOAPCO said 2 years ago

    This is such a meaningful and inspiring story for me. I have saved so many beautiful handmade quilts, handkerchiefs, etc., that my grandmother saved from her ancestors. Each carefully labeled with an attached story. I realized one day that they should been seen, and that she would love to see that tatted pillow case become a dress for the grand baby she never met, etc. So I have begun to preserve the memories, but breath new life into them, and that makes sense to me. I love your story, what you do, and can't wait to check out your blog. Best of luck to you!!!

  • StrangelyEverAfter

    Corrie Curry from StrangelyEverAfter said 2 years ago Featured

    Lovely story; so very touching! I have a dress that belonged to my maternal grandmother; I was never able to meet her as she died before I was born when my mom was in her early 20's. When I was younger I would wear it for "dress up" play. When I went to move out I begged my mom that I could keep it. I wore it on the day of my high school graduation, on the finals for my college classes, and on the day that I was to be getting a review for a potential raise at my last job. Having that dress is so important to me; imagining my grandmother wearing it living life in her kind, compassionate, and cheerful manner before she was taken.

  • thewildplum

    Christina from TheWildPlum said 2 years ago

    Intriguing! I am not attached to things, it is the invisible fibers of histories woven together that wrap me in warmth.

  • ArtFashionCreation

    Toile La La from ArtFashionCreation said 2 years ago

    Not in my closet, but saved... faded perfectly, tiny little utilitarian Pointer overalls worn when I was a toddler. Some very punk-looking black patent 3-strap shoes - from the same time. Not in my closet - but in my memory... an oversized mens black/white pinstriped seersucker padded-shoulder blazer I wore to "stand out" as an 80s teen. 40s straw and felt hats, which belonged to my Great Aunt...which made me feel like someone else as I viewed them on my head.

  • isewcute

    June from isewcute said 2 years ago

    I have a sweater of my Nana's in my closet & although it doesn't fit me, when I take it down from the shelf, and hold it close, it's like a virtual time machine that brings me closer to her memory. It's one thing to remember something in your head, but an entirely different enhanced physical memory when you can hold onto something soft & smell the memory as well.

  • HeyChica

    Hey Chica from HeyChica said 2 years ago

    Would love to read this book! have a few pieces I'm attached too, one being a cable sweater my Mom bought me not too long before she passed away. We were shopping in one of my favorite vintage stores at the time, the sweater has these great peach pit buttons. I don't wear it often but can't seem to part with it.

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 2 years ago

    Great interview and fun read!

  • MiddleCoast

    Katie Anne from MiddleCoast said 2 years ago

    Typically I like the idea of being able to live out of a suitcase like Andy Warhol mentioned in his book, "From A to Z and Back Again," but like most people that suitcase may become two or maybe even three suitcases when we think what is meaningful and we don't want to give up. Considering it's cold and snowing outside I'll share a cold-weather item I haven't been able to give up for the past 10 years or so, and I do believe I will wear to the point of disintegration! When I was in college, off on my own for the first time, I loved walking or biking everywhere and anywhere and some places were to thrift or retail shops. There was one in particular I thought was a gem, because most everything they had seemed to come from another planet. I went there often, and one day on their shelves were a pair of fuzzy vintage boots. They not only slipped on my feet like a glove, but also were worn in perfectly as if I had been wearing them my whole life. They're a combination of a brownish suede leather and tan (fake) fuzzy fur from ankle to low calf with (fake) white sheep fur coating the inside. A textured rubbery slight wedge base, with twisted/braided two tone (brown and tan) rope line the seams and braided dark brown shoe laces top it off. The only label on the boots are on the inside and all it says is "Ski Lodge" with an image of a man skiing down a hill. I wore these boots everywhere. So comfortable, cozy, and the warmest shoes I had. I eventually had to replace the inserts, and "repair" the braided shoe laces (there is no way I'll ever find replacements), and currently there is a hole in the seam on each back ankle and the rubbery base is starting to crack and "chip" off. Eventually I'll take them to a shoe repairman and see what he/she can do for them. But it's funny these falling apart, fuzzy boots I will not give up on. They are almost like a power boot to me! heehee It's silly determination and sentiment, but they make me happy :)

  • silkstory

    Zita from silkstory said 2 years ago

    Such a great feature! So touching story...

  • Goodmoodwoods

    Kristina from GoodMoodWoods said 2 years ago

    Thank you for this great interview!

  • Dorinavdbrandeler

    Dorina van den Brandeler from DoriKri said 2 years ago

    Thank you for this amazing story, so inspiring!

  • bedouin

    Nicole from Crackerjackarma said 2 years ago

    This is why we love the land of vintage !! Terrific article moving and artful.

  • ssguzart

    Savannah Schroll Guz from SavannahGuzArt said 2 years ago

    Wonderful interview! Such moving stories.

  • WoodsyWools

    ACR from WoodsyWools said 2 years ago

    Love this interview! Hope to read the book...

  • MackinacIslandInk

    bm from MackinacIslandInk said 2 years ago

    yes, very good.

  • kararane

    Kara Rane from kararane said 2 years ago

    brilliant Emily!! & yes I have a great love for my grandmothers clothes that she bought while traveling (which she loved to do as a single woman well before it was 'acceptable'). Some of her clothes I am able to wear, enjoy doing so, and receive compliments on. In fact! I am wearing one of her vintage Guatemalan shirts in my Etsy profile pic. <<<----xox.

  • alybond1

    Aly Bond from AlyBondLeather said 2 years ago

    Thank you Karen for another interesting and close to my own heart read. You are so generous.x

  • glitterandstones

    glitterandstones from glitterandstones said 2 years ago

    Great interview! What an amazing story.

  • Leebeevee

    Libivee from Libivee said 2 years ago

    Amazing and inspiring story! Thank you

  • retiredsoldiers

    Mark Lam from Markfabric said 2 years ago

    Great article. Very interesting.

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage from accentonvintage said 2 years ago

    Wonderful story!

  • beckyo93

    Rebecca Cormell from SissysBoutiquee said 2 years ago

    thank you for your story! very inspiring!!! -Sleek-Chick www.sleek-chick.myshopify.com

  • Herides

    Des from Herides said 2 years ago

    Great interview!!!thanks.....

  • dominna

    Katrina Dzerkale from Dominna said 2 years ago

    Thank you , inspiring.

  • elisabergstrom1

    Elisa from FleurDeLisArtGlass said 2 years ago

    Great interview!

  • thupten1234

    Tenzin Yonten from MandalaStoreToronto said 2 years ago

    great interview

  • korenkwan

    Koren Kwan from GarasuWonderland said 2 years ago

    interesting interview~

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