Brooklyn artist Emily Spivack fuses fashion and semiotics to document the yarns our clothes spin about us.
Clothing is a conduit for telling stories. Every day, we put something on and walk through life while experiences get mapped onto the clothing we wear. Talk to anyone and they’ll tell you, “I have this T-shirt [or] this jacket that I can’t get rid of because this happened while I was wearing it, or I wore it to this event.” It can be the most ordinary garment, but this incredible thing may have happened while they were wearing it.
There’s something about clothing that’s different from jewelry or furniture—it eventually disintegrates. I want to preserve its story.
I wanted to collect these stories, so I started a website called Worn Stories—now it’s a book. I’m still collecting these stories. When I’m reaching out to someone, the prompt is usually, “Would you be willing to share a story based on a piece of clothing you wore while something significant happened to you?”
Fashion expert Simon Doonan tells a story that’s funny and melancholy. It’s about a pair of biker shorts he wore in the ’80s when he lived in L.A. and was doing aerobics to cope with his friends getting diagnosed with AIDS. The clothes end up being this historical marker. Designer Dapper Dan talks about the coat that’s taken him through the evolution of who he’s become. It shows what it was like to grow up in Harlem in the ’60s and ’70s.
People would entrust me with their prized garment so it could be photographed. Everything everyone sent me was ripe, stained—you could tell it was well-loved and well-worn.
I also collect stories I find on eBay for another project called Sentimental Value. When people are selling clothing, they explain why they’re getting rid of it. I was fascinated by how these stories slipped onto a platform not meant for storytelling.
One is about Nike Air Maxes. A guy and his girlfriend broke up, and she slit the air pockets on his Nikes. He said, “I was embarrassed to wear them to school, but they’re still really comfortable.”
Growing up, I would always poke at the world of fashion and then jump back. There’s something I’m drawn to, but thinking about it in traditional ways never felt quite right. I didn’t study fashion.
I got a degree in art semiotics. I studied art and the signs and symbols associated with making it.
I thrive on having multiple projects. I make lists and lists of lists for different projects! I write them on paper instead of typing them, and I cross them off. It’s this very analog way that helps me stay organized and focused. If one project feels like it’s not moving ahead, there’s something else I can make progress with.
A lot of the work is just collecting and archiving—I don’t always know where it’s going to go. Every time I would talk to someone and gather the thread of an incredible story or go on eBay and find a wild story someone has decided to share, that creates momentum to keep going. People reading their stories together is so exciting to me.