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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.