Speak, Clothing: One Question for Emily Spivack

Fashion can be a useful glimpse into the lives of others.

By Jennifer Bleyer, published January 2, 2018 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

Photo by Bon Jane

To artist and writer Emily Spivack, the most compelling thing about a garment is the meaning it carries for its owner. Spivack is the author of the best-selling Worn Stories and, most recently, Worn in New York: 68 Sartorial Memories of the City. Her current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "An archive of everything worn to MoMA from November 1, 2017, to January 28, 2018," asks museum visitors to send a text message describing the clothing they're wearing that day, then projects a running stream of the anonymous messages on the museum's wall.

We tend to think of clothes in terms of style or function. What's the value in thinking about them more deeply?

It's true that clothing is something we usually put in the realm of the superficial or trivial, but I think it can give a sense of a person's evolution. When I started asking people about their clothes, I found that almost all of us have something we just can't get rid of but we never really articulated why. It's not about hoarding or sickly sweet nostalgia. It's about meaning. It's about: "This reminds me of this time in my life. I've changed, I am a different person now, but there is some part of me from that time that remains." Clothes help paint a picture of who the person wearing them was at that moment. 

I love Andre Royo's story—he played Bubbles in The Wire. He talks about growing up in the Bronx and first discovering lower Manhattan through a job he had in a retail store. His first big purchase from there was this very bold jacket that helped give him the confidence to be an actor. Then there's Ben Bostic's story. He was on the plane that landed on the Hudson River. The shoes he was wearing that day got completely soaked as he was getting off the plane, the water rising to his knees. It had been his first time in New York, and he's held onto the shoes because of that experience. 

I think there's value in general in slowing down and pausing and thinking about your life. It just so happens that clothing is the point of entry that I use to do that. We all walk out the door in the morning with something on our body. We're all just living our lives, and our experiences get mapped onto our clothes.