In Worn Stories, Emily Spivack Tells Tales of Well-Loved Clothes

The artist’s Netflix series uses people’s favorite clothing items as surprisingly emotional narrative devices.

Courtesy of Netflix.

The artist Emily Spivack owns one piece of clothing that has stuck with her throughout her life. It may be somewhat unexpected as far as treasures go, but she’s grown to view it as essential.

“It's this totally nondescript Russell gray sweatshirt that I think I've had since sixth grade,” Spivack says over the phone on a recent afternoon. “It used to have gray sweatpants that went with it, and I wore it to go to ice skating lessons.” About 15 years ago, the Delaware native rediscovered the sweatshirt and was surprised to find that it had aged well—instead of being a “knock-around” crewneck for relaxing at home, it become something she would dress up, pairing it with leather pants and heels. “It's this little secret that I have with myself.”

Spivack has made a career out of illuminating the stories that live within the things people love. Her books, 2014’s Worn Stories, and Worn in New York, which came out in 2017, plus a column in the New York Times called Story of a Thing, explore our relationships to favorite pieces of clothing. The new Netflix series Worn Stories, which premieres on the streaming platform April 1, continues in that same vein. Adapted from Worn in New York, the show is produced by Orange Is the New Black and Weeds creator Jenji Kohan—who was featured in Worn in New York and, it turns out, was instrumental in the conception of the show.

“Jenji read her story at a book event I had at MoMA, and people loved it,” Spivack recalls. “There were a lot of conversations during the Q&A portion, with people sharing their stories afterwards. I think that she saw the richness of the stories and also their relatability. She and I had kind of been like, ‘What's next?’” When Spivack suggested they might be able to turn it into a TV show, Kohan was all in.

What resulted was a heartfelt, at times campy, hilarious, and touching miniseries. Each episode is split into four main stories, following the lives of people who have an entire narrative to share surrounding one item of clothing (or no clothing at all—the first episode centers a nudist colony in Florida). If you're under the impression that this is a typical docu-series, or even your run-of-the-mill show about fashion, think again. Each interview brings forth feelings of nostalgia and tenderness, whether it’s a complete stranger or a celebrity (Charo and Simon Doonan both share their stories on the show).

Take Queens, New York resident Mrs. Park, who appears in the first episode. She describes moving to the United States from her home in South Korea, feeling lost and stressed by the unfamiliar environment. But during a visit to a Buddhist temple, a monk gifted her a yellow sweater. It became her most beloved, prized possession. “I like the yellow color because it represents a warm heart,” Mrs. Park says. “I think the monk gave it to me to encourage me to keep helping others with that kind of heart.” After being gifted the sweater, Mrs. Park found friendship and community in dance classes she took at her local Korean senior center. She wears the sweater every time she dances. The story is a highly specific one, but the message of acceptance and overcoming strife is universal.

“When I was starting out, talking to people about their stories, I talked to my friends and family,” Spivak says. “What totally surprised me was that these were people who I knew in my whole life. And they were sharing stories with me that I had just never heard before. And I realized that clothing was this kind of overlooked storytelling device.”

Spivack began scouting out people on Craigslist, gathering their stories. In 2009, she did a clothing and storytelling workshop at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. “A woman came into the workshop, a total stranger,” Spivack says. “It was winter time. She unzipped her coat and she was wearing a jade green ball gown underneath. And she's like, I've been waiting to tell the story of this ball gown. And I was like, okay, I think I'm onto something here.”

The four main stories are peppered with shorter, bite-size interviews with other people discussing their favorite pair of high heels, or the story behind a coat. To lend context and color to certain narratives, Spivack and Kohan used animation, collage, and even puppets.

"We had this feeling that these stories are kind of fantastical and we wanted to bring that to life more, we wanted to accentuate that,” Spivack says. “It was all very collaborative and very deliberate... We wanted it to be playful, and we wanted it to have a sense of humor, not to take itself so seriously.”

During a time when sweatpants have never factored into our daily lives more, it can be difficult to watch someone wax poetic about their sparkly evening dress or the leather g-string (seriously, this is a real story) they used to wear during on-stage performances. But Spivack is hopeful that the show will bring up “a bunch of happy memories.” And that gray Russell sweatshirt? She's counting down the days until she can put it on with a pair of leather pants and heels.