Author Interviews
5:31 am
Sat August 30, 2014

If These Shorts Could Talk ... New Book Tells 'Worn Stories'

Originally published on Thu September 4, 2014 2:00 pm

Clothes may not necessarily make the man, but they sure make memories. In her new book, Worn Stories, Emily Spivack compiles reflections from Rosanne Cash, Piper Kerman, Marcus Samuelsson and others about the meaningful articles of clothing stored in their closets.

"I asked them to look for something that they couldn't part with," she tells NPR's Scott Simon. "Something that held some memory, whether it was something spectacular, momentous, wonderful, unusual that happened to them while they were wearing that piece of clothing."

Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large for Barney's, and one of the contributors to the book, also joined the conversation.


Interview Highlights

On Doonan's shorts

Doonan: When Emily called me it wasn't hard for me to figure out which garment I might choose because I'd actually only kept one thing: these strange, mirror-printed, fluorescent Lycra bicycle shorts from the early '80s. And I've been unable to part with them for a variety of reasons, which I spelled out to Emily. ... These shorts, I used to wear them to Jane Fonda's aerobics classes during a time when the AIDS epidemic was just really gathering terrifying momentum, where there was no solutions, no cure. And so this piece of clothing holds both frivolity — superficiality, aerobics — and also an incredible reminder of this horrible dark period in the '80s before there were any kind of options for people that were HIV positive.

On deciding what to keep when you're feeling sentimental about a loved one's clothes

Doonan: I always say, 'Well, pick one thing that somehow epitomizes that person.' And I think that's — the spirit of what Emily's done is really great, 'cause one thing can really epitomize a person, you don't need to keep their entire inventory of stuff.

Spivack: And that's been, actually, one of the interesting things about this project, having all the garments sent to me and then having them photographed. They all have some sense of wear: the rips, the tears, the love that's gone into wearing them. You could really just get the sense that there was a human touch.

On Spivack's flip-flops

Spivack: That story is really about the mundane in our wardrobe that actually comes to mean something over time. So, they're a pair of completely nondescript black, rubber flip-flops that I've had for almost 17 years at this point and so there's just something about the comfort that comes along with having a few things that just have kind of been with you for a long time.

On how she'd feel if something were to happen to her favorite garments

Spivack: What I've found is that by actually documenting it, by writing the story, by collecting the story, I think I would feel like, 'OK, at least I've got this story. At least I've documented this garment and the anecdotes that went along with it.' And I think that that's a lot of what people experienced when they were telling me their stories, that at least the story has been documented.

On the suit Piper Kerman, author of the book Orange is the New Black, wore in court the day she was sentenced.

Spivack: Her attorney said, "You want to wear something that a judge is going to look at you and he can see his daughter, his niece, his cousin; he can relate to the person who's wearing that."

On how we use clothes to express ourselves

Doonan: I think clothing is nonverbal communication, so you can use that in any way, you can use it to repel people, attract them, seduce them, appall them or delight them. ... Today I'm wearing a very, very flamboyant flowery shirt and a pair of groovy jeans, a little narrow '60s tie and fluorescent, cerise pink New Balance sneakers. ... But this book is just a reminder that as superficial and noisy and crazy as this huge landscape of fashion has become, people's actual relationship to clothes is really nuanced and subtle and poetic and strange and I think it's a really good lesson.

Spivack: And I think also when you flip through the book you see these just very basic garments — a T-shirt, a pair of shorts — and yet they have such rich stories attached to them.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I don't know if clothes make the man, but they sure make memories. A jacket that no longer fits, but you can't give it away because you wore it in high school or the Army or had it on when your daughter was born. The shoes you wouldn't wear outside now, but did have on at your prom, or the day you got divorced or the night you met someone new. Emily Spivak, the artist, writer and teacher, has put together a book for the Princeton Architectural Press in which people that include Rosanne Cash, Piper Kerman, Marcus Samuelsson and many more play show and tell as they talk about an article of clothing that they have hanging in a closet or stored in their memories - what it reminds them about or tells them today. The book is called "Worn Stories." Emily Spivak joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

EMILY SPIVAK: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Along with another contributor in the book, Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large for Barney's and a best-selling author in his own right. Thanks so much for being with us, Simon.

SIMON DOONAN: My pleasure.

SIMON: Emily Spivak, what did you ask people to look for in their closets?

SPIVAK: I asked to look for something that they couldn't part with, something that held some memory, whether it was something spectacular, momentous, wonderful, unusual that happened to them while they were wearing that piece of clothing.

SIMON: Simon, if I may that brings us to your shorts, doesn't it?

DOONAN: (Laughter) Very much so. Well, when Emily called me, it wasn't hard for me to figure out which garment I might choose because I'd actually only kept one thing - these mirror-printed, fluorescent Lycra bicycle shorts from the early '80s. And I've been unable to part with them for a variety of reasons.

SIMON: Well, I'm afraid they - those reasons begin with the fact that you were losing a lot of friends to the AIDS epidemic.

DOONAN: Yeah, these shorts - I used to wear them to Jane Fonda's aerobics classes. But it was during a time when people were getting sick and the AIDS epidemic was just really gathering terrifying momentum where there was no solutions, no cure. And so this piece of clothing holds both frivolity, superficiality and also an incredible reminder of this horrible dark period in the '80s before there were any of kinds of options for people that were HIV positive.

SIMON: But it does sound, at the same time, that you don't hold onto a lot out of sentiment.

DOONAN: No, but I think when people are having troubled de-accessioning and...

SIMON: That's the phrase, OK.

DOONAN: Yeah, when they have trouble de-accessioning, I always say, well, pick one thing that somehow epitomizes that person. And I think that's - the spirit of what Emily's done is really great because one thing can really epitomize a person, you don't need to keep their entire inventory of stuff.

SIMON: I happened to look at myself in the mirror as I was prepping for this interview yesterday. And I noticed that the pocket square I was wearing was an old handkerchief that I got out of my mother's purse in the hospital where she died.

DOONAN: See? Don't get rid of that.

SPIVAK: Right, and that's...

SIMON: I won't get rid of that, but I'm warmed by the thought that I have half a dozen others if you see what I mean.

SPIVAK: And that's been actually one of the interesting things about this project. Having all the garments sent to me and then having them photographed, they all have some sense of wear. The rips, the tears, the love that's gone into wearing them. You could really just get the sense that there was a human touch.

SIMON: Yeah. Emily, could you tell us about your flip-flops?

SPIVAK: That story is really about the mundane in our wardrobe that actually comes to mean something over time. So they're a pair of completely nondescript black, rubber flip-flops that I've had for almost 17 years at this point. And so there's just something about the comfort that comes along with having a few things that just have kind of been with you for a long time.

SIMON: But I mean, I wonder if anything were to happen to them, would it now be more significant than just a pair of old flip-flops because they've come to mean so much to you?

SPIVAK: It would. But, you know, what I've found is that by writing this story, I think I would feel like, OK, at least I've got this story, at least I've documented this garment and the anecdotes that went along with it. And I think that that's a lot of what people experienced when they were telling me their stories that at least the story has been documented.

SIMON: Emily Spivak, Piper Kerman, best known as the former prisoner who wrote the book "Orange Is The New Black," has an article of clothing in here. It's the suit she wore in court the day she was sentenced.

SPIVAK: Yes. Her attorney said you want to wear something that a judge is going to look at you and he can see his daughter, his niece, his cousin - he can relate to the person who's wearing that.

SIMON: Which raises the question, Simon, to what degree do we use clothes to reveal ourselves or do we use them as protective coloration?

DOONAN: Well, I think clothing is nonverbal communication. So you can use that in any way. You can use it to repel people, attract them, seduce them, appall them or delight them.

SIMON: Simon Doonan, I hope you won't find this inquiry impudent, but what are you wearing today?

DOONAN: Today, I'm wearing a very, very flamboyant flowery shirt and a pair of groovy jeans, a little narrow '60s tie and fluorescent, cerise pink New Balance sneakers.

SIMON: I just didn't want any of our listeners to miss out.

DOONAN: Well, the thing is...

SPIVAK: He looks fantastic.

DOONAN: But this book is just a reminder that as superficial and noisy and crazy as this huge landscape of fashion has become, people's actual relationship to clothes is really nuanced and subtle and poetic and strange. And I think it's a really good lesson.

SPIVAK: And I think also, you know, you see these just very basic garments - a T-shirt, a pair of shorts - and yet they have such rich stories attached to them.

SIMON: Emily Spivak and Simon Doonan. Emily Spivak has edited - and an old pair of Simon's shorts appear - in her new book "Worn stories." Thank you both very much for being with us.

SPIVAK: Thank you so much, Scott.

DOONAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.