Worn Stories: Playful and Poignant Tales of Clothes That Encode Life’s Most Meaningful Memories
By Maria Popova
One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.
For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.
The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.
Spivack writes in the introduction:
The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone — in all of these are encoded the stories of our lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.
Piper Kerman selects an outfit she wore at a key moment in the memoir-turned-TV-hit Orange Is the New Black — a vintage suit that was among the three outfits she packed for her final court appearance and sentencing after taking a plea deal (which, she explains, 95% of criminal defendants do):
As your case wends through the system, you barely speak in court; the prosecutor and defense attorney do most of the talking. Unlike 80 percent of criminal defendants, I could afford to hire a lawyer, and I was lucky that he was a very good and experienced one. He had advocated long and hard with the prosecutor on my behalf, and then the day came where his work and my case would be decided by the judge, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.
Most criminal defendants wear whatever they are given by their attorney or family to their sentencing ; a lot of people are too poor to afford bail, and so they have been wearing jailhouse orange for many months before ever getting their day in court. I was much more fortunate; when I flew to Chicago to be sentenced to prison, I had three choices of court attire in my suitcase. A cadet-blue pantsuit, a very severe navy coatdress, and a wild card I had packed at the last minute: a vintage fifties pencil-skirt suit I had bought on eBay, in a coffee and cream tweed with a subtle sky blue check. It looked like something a Hitchcock heroine would have worn.
“That’s the one,” said my lawyer, pointing to the skirt suit. “We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbor when he looks at you.”
For someone standing for judgment, the importance of being seen as a complete human being, someone who is more than just the contents of the file folders that rest on the bench in front of His or Her Honor, cannot be overstated.
Despite the dramatic circumstances, Kerman’s experience captures something central to Spivack’s project — something fundamental about how we use clothing as this paradoxical combination of camouflage and self-revelation, a shield for and a stripping to our basic humanity.
Simon Doonan selects a pair of decidedly eighties Lycra cycle tights with orange-and-black graffiti writing and shares the touching story behind the seemingly silly garment:
One by one my roommates, friends, and boyfriends in Los Angeles started getting sick from AIDS. It was very early on in the epidemic and when you went to the doctor, they couldn’t refer you to an expert. They asked you if you were religious, meaning, you were going to die.
I decided to join a gym with a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At least we could be healthy, we thought… I went every day. In an attempt to do “healthy” things, I became addicted to the lights, the music, the endorphins. It was a very showbiz-y way to keep in shape, and many actresses would go to the class, like Madonna when she was starting to become well known.
The cult of aerobics was waning by the time I moved to New York in 1985, but with so many people getting sick, for a couple of years it was an antidote to this incredible malaise of melancholy that had been blanketing L.A.
Debbie Millman recounts the story of a peculiar yellow coat from the era in her life when she was standing on the precipice of her creative journey, long before she was a successful artist, prolific author, and award-winning interviewer. She recounts one July afternoon in her late twenties when she, broke and lusting after a glamorous life, ended up at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue after a months-long quest to track down the mysterious, enchanting perfume she had smelled on an exceptionally elegant woman. A uniformed man opened the gates to an unfamiliar world, “the most elegantly expensive environment” she had ever entered, where people very much unlike her — people “very, very rich” — were browsing $200 scarves.
Just then, a kindly saleslady — one imagines a character like Cinderella’s fairy godmother — took pity on Millman and whispered in her ear a thrilling secret: they were having a sale upstairs. Millman was thrilled, but it didn’t take her long to realize that, even with the markdowns, she couldn’t afford anything — until she spotted “the softest, most luxurious, ultra-bright lemony-yellow cashmere coat ever made.” Certain it would cost thousands of dollars, she apprehensively searched for the price, which revealed itself like a miracle — the original $2,200 was crossed out, and a hopeful $400 was written in its place.
I calculated what the expense would mean to my budget. Undeterred, I tried the coat on. It was at least one size too big. None of this mattered to me. I felt glamorous and beautiful. As the clerk wrapped up the coat in the biggest orange box I had ever seen, I knew this wasn’t a mistake. I would wear this coat forever.
And wear it I did! I wore it every day from September until March. I wore it to work, I wore it every weekend, I wore it on vacation in Vermont, and I wore it traveling to the West Coast. The only time I wished for a warmer coat was en route to a client’s office on Fifth Avenue one blustery subzero February afternoon. I was chewing a large piece of purple bubble gum and realized I’d have to get rid of it before my meeting. It was so cold I didn’t want to take my gloves off to take the gum out of my mouth. Perhaps the temperature affected my judgment, or perhaps I was lazy, but suddenly I did something I had never, ever done before: I raised my chin, puckered up my lips, and let my gum fly. As it descended onto the sidewalk, I saw that a man walking toward me was about to collide with the arc of its fall. I made eye contact with him as the sticky mass fell at his feet. Horrified, I instantly realized I was face-to-face with Woody Allen. Mercifully, he sidestepped the gum. But his outrage was palpable. He shook his head in disgust and passed me by. I was too embarrassed and frightened to even say I was sorry.
Two days later I went out with my friend Ellen. She had snagged a reservation at the newly reopened Le Cirque and we got all dolled up for the occasion. I, of course, wore my yellow coat. We were seated between the coat check and the front door, and since New York City was still in a deep freeze, I decided to keep my coat wrapped around me.
Then I saw him. He was approaching the coat check with his wife, fumbling for his ticket. Wildly, I looked around for a place to hide. Ellen asked me if I was okay and I hissed, no. I motioned with my eyes. Ellen squealed in delight, and he looked over at us. Once again, in the span of forty-eight hours, I was face-to-face with Woody Allen.
Our eyes locked and I saw him recognize my unmistakable ultra-bright yellow coat and the same frightened face. He grimaced. “You!” he said, as his wife pulled on his arm. I felt myself turn white and then red, as everyone turned to stare.
Two and a half decades later, I still have my beloved coat. It’s lost its belt and much of its lemony sheen, and it hasn’t left its special place in my closet in a long time. Maybe I’ll wear it again one day. As Woody Allen famously said, “Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.” I’ll remind him of that if I ever bump into him again.
MoMA curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli selects a pair of aviator glasses that capture the strange blend of terror and optimism of growing up amidst Milan’s political unrest in the 1970s. Class was often interrupted by bomb threats. Her daily morning walk to school took her, always scared, through a contentious urban borderland that divided the peacoat-clad, anti-authoritarian leftists and the Sanbabilini — the “gun-toting neo-fascists from wealthy Milanese families who shared responsibility for much of the violence around Italy at that time” — whose distinctive look included fitted shirts, trench coats, and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. She tells Spivack:
Sometime in the late 1970s, during this time of upheaval, my father came home from his first trip to the United States with a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators he’d bought for me. He had not thought of the political implications; he had just wanted a gift that embodied “America.” Even though it was only a pair of sunglasses, it was like holding a bomb in my hands. I couldn’t wear them.
Along the way, the first pair of Aviators disappeared, and I decided to buy myself another pair. They never looked good on me, but it was a sort of exorcism. Even then, years later, it felt almost like they were burning in my hands; they transport me to a moment that was formative, but one that I also want to forget.
I compare notes with friends who grew up in Israel or Beirut, for example, and I realize we all went through something similar — living despite the bombs going off, despite the fact that it was almost a war zone. Little details, like scents or sounds or a piece of clothing, bring back the violence, and that’s what these Aviators do for me.
It is my lucky sweater because I always need luck. And the feeling of being lucky, which is ridiculous and elusive, is still a pleasant one.
Then there are the bunny ears, which turn out to belong not to a Playmate but to Harvard Ph.D. Margaret D. Stetz — a self-described “middle-aged professor of women’s studies and literature” and a Beatrix Potter scholar, who wears the ears while lecturing about Potter’s iconic Peter Rabbit character. Stetz writes:
The notion of dressing women as “Bunnies” was, of course, the invention of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs. When she was a young journalist, Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Bunny in 1963 to expose the harassment and miserable working conditions of women who wore the Clubs’ uniforms. Today, there’s something satisfying about taking these symbols of sexual availability and servility and flipping their meaning. By combining bunny ears with a tailored jacket and skirt on the lecture platform at a university, museum, or other cultural institution, I’m doing something subversive. No longer do they signify that women are merely “Playmates.” Conversely, this is also my way of suggesting that women don’t have to be wholly serious to be feminists.
Tucked midway through the book is Spivack’s own story about a pair of cheap black flip-flops her grandmother bought for her nearly twenty years ago off the Delaware boardwalk. In a way, these unassuming essentials capture the essence of the project — a seemingly ordinary object of clothing imbued with immeasurable sentimental value, amplified over a lifetime. Spivack writes:
Over time, these flip-flops — plain, pulled from a rack without a thought, manufactured to be disposable but apparently indestructible — have become such a lasting fixture in my life. Precisely, perhaps, because they are so ordinary: you don’t even notice them casually accumulating the years, like the shops along Rehoboth Avenue, like grandmothers, like everything.
Susan Orlean, sage of the written word, recounts her “uniform fixation” — the lifelong quest to find the ideal, and as it turns out mythic, outfit that would capture her personality perfectly and be therefore bought in multiples to be worn forever. She captures this cyclical infatuation elegantly:
It’s a temporary delusion that comes over me with regularity — a belief that by wearing this perfect thing, I will look right and feel good no matter what. Like, “How did I not know that I’m an agnes b. T-shirt and denim skirt kind of person? Now, I’m going to order ten of each and I never have to buy clothes again.” When I’m in it, I totally believe I have found my look, my personal style.
It’s cultish and my own particular mania. Each time I start over again, I think, “those were false gods — I have now found the true God.” I even observe myself doing it. I understand that fashion, by definition, is a changing thing, and so is one’s body. I try to talk myself out of my own crazy conviction that I’ve finally solved the puzzle — and yet I can’t do it.
I guess it’s probably safer to be this way about clothing than men or religion or something that could be really dangerous.
Ross Intelisano picks a tie once made by his beloved immigrant grandmother, Anna, who tailored all of his clothes growing up, worked until she was 78, and lived to be 95. Two weeks after her death, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways, where Intelisano’s family lived. The house was condemned and all access was denied, but a family friend bravely ventured in to retrieve a few surviving valuables, including Anna’s ties. Intelisano writes:
That day, my father came over to my house, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the storm. He proudly presented me with two of Anna’s ties. I wear them all the time. I like handling the silk as I knot the ties.
Kenneth Goldsmith turns his penchant for subverting literature to fashion and recounts wearing an over-the-top paisley suit by avant-garde designer Thom Browne to the White House, where Goldsmith was invited to read some of his poetry to President Obama. Browne had designed the suit under his Brooks Brothers-owned Black Fleece label, taking Brooks Brothers’ signature patterns to an intentional extreme. Goldsmith recounts his exchange with the President that night, who was, coincidentally, wearing a conventional Brooks Brothers suit himself:
Upon our introduction, the first thing the President said to me was, “That’s a great suit! You know? I’d wear a suit like that. But my staff would never let me.” To which I replied, “Mr. President, this is one instance where it’s better being an artist than being the President of the United States: artists can wear anything they want.” And then he glanced down at my saddle shoes and exclaimed, “You’re wearing golf shoes!” Which in part was true, that being the genius of Thom Browne, to take something familiar and recontextualize it to the point of it being “wrong.” And that is exactly what I aimed to do with my performance: to straddle tradition and radicality, being both and, at the same time, being neither; to embrace contradiction, keep people guessing.
The New York Times’ David Carr reminisces about searching for a cheap t-shirt in a classic New York moment of sweltering need, when you’re forced to choose between suffering your wholly indiscreet sweat stains or buying one of those ubiquitous “I♥NY” touristy shirts. (“You can’t wear a shirt like that ironically,” Carr notes, “unless, say, you hate New York, which I do not.”) Instead, he chanced upon a miraculous find at one of Manhattan’s myriad souvenir shops — a defective t-shirt, with the “New York” script printed upside-down. Noting the kink, Carr offered the shopkeeper $3 for the oddball shirt and gleefully walked off with his find. Except for the occasional compliment from a hipster on the subway, people notice the shirt but say nothing, of which Carr remarks:
I like that about my shirt: it is something that is intuitively understood in the City, as we insufferable locals call it, and is baffling to others, akin to many other aspects of living or working in New York.
Some of the stories remind us that the assumptions we make — in this case, assumptions about what people seek to signal with their clothing choices — are often lightyears away from the truth. Take, for instance, the flesh-colored American Apparel nylon shorts selected by LCD Soundsystem founding member and drummer Pat Mahoney. One might write them off as a hipster or counter-hipster joke, but they actually represent a curious combination of extreme practicality and creative ritualization. Mahoney, who admits to sweating a great deal during his “epic sets” on stage, would regularly end up “drenched to the bone” after a show, his jeans left to dry in the tour bus until they smelled, much to his fellow bandmates’ dismay, “like rotten cotton.” He needed something quick-drying and light to wear onstage, so he bought the shorts on the road, fully aware of their laughable connotations. But over time, they came to serve a deeper psychological function — like a number of famous creators known for maintaining various odd habits and rituals to keep their creative flow flowing, Mahoney overcomes his chronic stage fright by employing “elaborate juju” — a compulsion to have everything just right, from the way he ties his sneakers to how he positions his drums on the rug — to get himself in a more secure mindset. Wearing the shorts became part of that creative ritual — part of the behavioral and environmental cues that psychology suggests help put us in a state of creative flow.
“I have a dress and I have worn it many times,” comedian John Hodgman opens with a bang. That dress, it turns out, got its start when Hodgman was invited to impersonate Ayn Rand on the Dead Authors podcast. He writes:
I’d been fascinated with Rand since I’d written a story in the New York Times magazine about a competitive championship tournament bridge player who was also an active objectivist and Rand devotee. I had read half of Atlas Shrugged before I got the gist of my role. I really enjoyed the book because of its absurdly reductive philosophy that inadvertently plays on adolescent male narcissism like a jazz saxophone — to draw a connection to the famous Randian saxophonist and economist Alan Greenspan — but it also spoke directly to the adolescent male fantasy of “I’m the only smart one. Everyone is leeching off of me and I’d rather destroy my work than compromise my integrity by being nice to others.” Her moral severity came as a tonic to my cultural relativist upbringing.
The Rand impersonation eventually became a part of his stand-up routine and the dress was worn many times. Hodgman reflects on its allure:
Even though I’m imitating, in a ridiculous fashion, an exaggerated version of Ayn Rand, what precedes the moment of putting on the dress is an utter nudity of self, about as close as I’ll ever get.
But undoubtedly the most moving story comes from Holocaust survivor Dorothy Finger, who was a child when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Her family went into hiding, but inevitably succumbed to the tragic fate of so many Jews at the time. Her father was the first one killed, “almost beaten to death and then sent to an extermination camp.” Soon, her mother was shot. Dorothy herself was sent to a labor camp, where she was subjected to grueling toil and regularly beaten by the Nazis. On July 27, 1943, she escaped into the nearby forest with her aunt and two cousins as machine guns shot after them. They survived for a few months, into the middle of winter, huddling together to keep from freezing. But the Nazis eventually went looking for them, killing Dorothy’s aunt and her 17-year-old male cousin. Finger writes:
I was shot in the ear and I fainted. It just grazed my ear, but the impact of the explosion threw me on the earth and I was unconscious. I swear I saw my soul go to heaven, white angels and things like that. I thought I was dead and that when you’re dead you see yourself go to heaven. Of course, I understand now that I was not conscious. When I came to, I was even more upset. “God, why didn’t you finish me off, why didn’t you kill me, rather than slowly starve me to death? I have nobody. No parents.” I just had my second cousin in the forest with me.
The Nazis came back a second time. We heard shots coming from one side and we ran the other way. I fell through some ice into a body of water that wasn’t very deep. My instinct to live was so great that I could still think about how to survive.
I covered myself up with branches. I could hear the Ukrainians saying to the Nazis, “Somebody must have been running through there. I can see footprints.” And the Nazis said, “I don’t want to go that way or we’ll fall into the ice too. We’ll catch him the next time.” My heart stopped beating. I stopped breathing. I waited until I couldn’t hear their boots on the ice. I came out of the water with everything frozen on me, including the little dress that I wore until the day we were liberated from the forest.
In the forest, Finger got typhus and sank into a delirious fever. She lost all her hair and was so sick that she stayed in the fetal position until she was unable to walk, let alone run. At that point, she knew that if the Nazis came back, she’d be killed. She writes:
I don’t know what was worse — the fear, the hunger, the lice, or the humiliation.
Springtime came, and then summer, and it was warmer—although to this day, I am still cold.
I have not overcome it. The shooting started and it was coming from both sides. I still couldn’t run because I hadn’t completely recovered from the typhus. “I do not want to see the face of the Nazis that will shoot me,” I thought. I slowly moved from my back to my stomach. “Let them just shoot me in my back or my head and then it’ll be over.” The shooting stopped and I heard tanks coming into the forest, and I didn’t know if they were German or Russian. They were Russian tanks and they had come to liberate us, exactly one year from the day I entered the forest, July 27, 1944.
Young Dorothy eventually made it back to her hometown, but her few surviving neighbors had assumed she, like her parents, was dead, so they had discarded the family’s remaining possessions. The only thing she could recover was a piece of wool fabric from her family’s department store. She saved that, then wrote to an aunt and uncle in Delaware, who were eventually able to bring her to the United States. When she moved, her entire luggage — all her earthly possessions — consisted of two dresses, including the one she had worn that gruesome year in the forest, and the wool fabric. She made it to America, enrolled in high school, and graduated a year and a half later. Upon graduation, another uncle gave her $25 — a fortune in 1949 and in the context of her life — which she used to have a suit made from the wool fabric that was her only link to her family and her past life. Finger, now in her eighties, writes:
I always figured I’d be buried in it. But if people can learn from this suit and its history, what difference does it make what I’m buried in?
Worn Stories is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true labor of love that weaves this common thread of intensely personal, courageously vulnerable sartorial memories into a colorful tapestry of the human experience.
Photographs by Ally Lindsay; courtesy of Emily Spivack / Princeton Architectural Press
Published August 26, 2014