Musician Rosanne Cash reminisces about a purple shirt that once belonged to her legendary father. Designer Cynthia Rowley rhapsodizes about the Girl Scouts sash that helped ignite her entrepreneurial spark. And an octogenarian Holocaust survivor named Dorothy Finger shares memories of a suit made with a bolt of cloth she took from her childhood home — her only possession touched by her late mother.
Their stories are among 67 “sartorial memoirs” in “Worn Stories” (Princeton Architectural Press), a new book inspired by the blog where visitors share their stories about clothing and life experiences. A stark, simple image of an article of clothing — many in an advanced state of wear — accompanies each testimonial.
“Most of the garments aren’t particularly extraordinary by themselves,” says Worn Stories creator Emily Spivack. “It’s only by hearing each story that you recognize the significance. And even though the memories are all very specific, the themes they touch on are universal — family, relationships, a funny moment. They’re all moments in time from a personal and cultural perspective.”
Spivack, who also created the Threaded fashion-history blog for the Smithsonian, said the project represents her own ambivalence toward fashsion. “The assumption is that it’s exclusive, superficial, even wasteful. But for me, clothing as form of creative expression is a way to establish identity and communicate with the world. All of my projects tap at the fashion world, then pull back when it doesn’t feel right.”
The seed of Worn Stories was planted with Sentimental Value, an internet project Spivack launched in 2007 to collect stories behind clothing and accessories on eBay. The Brooklyn-based artist and writer gathered more than 600 mini-memoirs before realizing she hadn’t catalogued her own experiences.
“I looked in my closet and realize it contained an entire archive of experiences and memories,” she said. “Any time I would go on a trip, I’d go to a flea market, and whatever I’d pick up would be the memento from that trip.”
But Spivack also realized she was more interested in talking to other people than writing about herself. “So I started the process over with friends. These were people I thought I knew incredibly well, but stories they shared I’d never heard before. Their garments became storytelling tools in a very untraditional way.” And Worn Stories was born.
“I always knew I wanted to make it a book,” Spivack said. With that in mind, she started tapping a wider circle, including acquaintances from Reboot, the global Jewish network of “cultural creatives, innovators and thought leaders.” Spivack also — quite literally — searched high and low, soliciting memoirs on Craigslist and approaching cultural figures from Marina Abramovic to Simon Doonan to Greta Gerwig.
“I’d just get on the phone or meet up to interview them, then transcribe and edit their story,” Spivack said. “But they’d also have to give me the garment — that was essential, and a little bit terrifying. They’d be entrusting me with this incredible garment with a rich story and so much meaning to them.”
Abramovic shared the hiking boots she wore to walk the Great Wall of China; Doonan contributed leg warmers from an early-‘80s LA aerobics class with a bigger backstory about the advent of AIDS; and Gerwig shares an emotional story of an ex-boyfriend’s shirt.
“The process was incredibly satisfying,” Spivack said. “I would get on the phone with someone, and have no idea what their story would be. And I was constantly surprised, excited, and amused by what people were sharing. You can have all these ‘I wore this to my graduation/prom/bar mitzvah’ stories, but I wanted to push a little and get deeper.”
And Spivack’s own “worn story”? It’s about a pair of FloJo flip-flops that conjure up memories of her late grandmother and Rehoboth Beach, where her family summered for years. “They were a quick purchase when we were together,” Spivack said. “And they’ve come with me around the world.”
The Clothes We Carried