Film & Television

Worn Stories Wears Its Hearts on Sleeves
(And Other Places)

Someday, when historians and sociologists look back on the years 2020 and 2021, they’ll note toilet- paper and sourdough-starter shortages, the use of “social distance” as a verb, the mass adoption of digital solutions like Zoom, Webex, Amazon Next Day Delivery, and Grubhub. What they probably won’t pay much attention to is the period’s clothing. Most of us living and working through the (hopefully final months of the) pandemic haven’t paid much attention either. Sweat pants and pajama bottoms have become perfectly acceptable business attire. After all, what happens below your computer’s camera stays below your computer’s camera. What’s on top is decidedly casual too, because . . . why bother? It’s hard to look your best when you haven’t had a professional haircut for 14 months.

So, in some ways, it’s a strange time for the delightful new docuseries Worn Stories to launch. Eight half-hour episodes tell dozens of tales about first, favorite, or otherwise meaningful pieces of attire. It’s billed as “A show about clothes . . . and the people who wear them.”

Worn Stories is executive produced by Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black) and based on Emily Spivack’s New York Times bestseller. She was inspired to write it after accidentally finding a vintage Playboy bunny costume on eBay. “It had the puff of hair and it had the stockings and it had the headband, it had the heel, and then it was accompanied by a black-and-white headshot of the woman who had owned the costume in her street clothes, not dressed up. And there was a moment where I was like, ‘Who is this woman?’ And that was sort of where things clicked for me.” 

What followed were the books Worn Stories (2014) and Worn in New York (2017), which featured Kohan. She and Spivack decided to collaborate on a series after a particularly enthusiastic reading at the Museum of Modern Art.

 

Worn Stories is divided into eight half-hour episodes, each held together (more or less) with an emotional theme and showcasing four items and their wearers along with a dozen or so quick and quirky interviews. The clothing includes everything from fur coats and sequined dresses to workboots and workout wear to uniforms, onesies, family heirlooms, statement pieces, gender affirmations, and even a pocket hankie. Each inspires a story, whether it’s at the very center of it (a coat that left a restaurant with the wrong patron and triggered a wild late-night recovery mission) or something someone happened to be wearing at a pivotal moment (boots that were soaked when their owner survived U.S. Airways flight 1549’s emergency landing in the Hudson River). While the clothes are mildly interesting as items, it’s the people and their stories that keep you tuned in.

Episode one focuses on “Community,” and — oddly enough — the first people we meet are more notable for what they’re not wearing than for what they are. Diane and Paul are nudists residing in Kissimmee, Florida. Although they’re happy to let it all hang out (dining, dancing, woodworking, playing tennis), they do wear shoes because . . .  you know, “bugs, snakes, wet grass.” Another younger woman there, Niecy, loves mesh because it allows her to “free the nipple.” We also meet Mrs. Park, an immigrant who rediscovers dance and joy in a bright yellow sweater given to her by a monk. Tren’ness, granddaughter of Harlem’s Sylvia Woods, believes that her grandmother led her to the perfect white dress for the soul food legend’s funeral. 

The second episode is called “Lost and Found,” and besides the hunt for a missing coat mentioned earlier, we meet Timmy, a saxophonist who owes his initial success and unlikely comeback to a studded leather codpiece purchased for him in 1985 Berlin by Tina Turner. An airbrush artist makes a living designing memorial tee shirts celebrating the lives of gun violence victims. One mother, wiping a tear, explains that the shirt (which reads, “I got this, Mom”) allows her to “Remember him through joy and not sadness.” Another story links generations when a silk tie made by an Italian immigrant decades earlier is rescued from the family’s beach house after the house is destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. 

“Beginnings” features Spivack herself, several months pregnant, and both amazed and delighted when her mother pulls out the author’s own baby clothes. Astronaut Mike Massimo displays the Columbia University sweatshirt he took to space because it represented the day he realized that his future held possibility. Ex-con Carlos, a dedicated volunteer with California’s “Ride Home” program, picks up a released inmate and takes him shopping for his first civilian clothes in 41 years. (Have a hanky ready.)

In “Growing Up,” we meet Spirit, a non-binary teen celebrating their b’nai mitzvah; high school quarterback Ramadhan, hoping to be the first Kurdish NFL player; Matt, a gay teen who escapes Alaska and becomes a sex worker in New York; and Rachael, a recovered alcoholic proud of her “resiliency and growth.” In every case, an item of clothing (the perfect purple jacket, soiled football pants, a “nasty pig” jock strap, and a little black dress, respectively) has become a treasured coming-of-age talisman.

I found “Uniforms,” the series’s fifth episode, to be the most moving. Here we meet Patrice, a veteran crossing guard and Special Olympics athlete who hosts her own cable access show, and has built an elaborate model city that she calls “P-Town.” Another artist, Emilie, works as a guard at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum. “I get paid to think and look at art,” she boasts. A clothing designer remembers altering “thug”prison garb because otherwise it meant “wearing your worst mistake every day.” And Congresswoman Frederica Smith Wilson points out that “I am not a ‘hat person,’ I’m an ensemble person.” She defends her style because it enables her to stand out in a crowd of policymakers. “It helps you get shit done.”

The episode “Chance” centers, appropriately, on clothes (and their people) in Las Vegas. We meet Jojo, a driver for Tiffany Couture Cleaners, who puts on her fur coat for a night out and “I’m a gangster; I’m somebody else.” Daisy, a diminutive but by no means delicate wrestler, has created a persona around a  skimpy flight-attendant outfit. Skye, a brassy entertainer, rebels against those who told her to wear black to auditions (“It’s thinning”) by performing in a bubble gum–pink velvet and faux fur robe. And the legendary Spanish guitarist Charo gratefully remembers her sister, mother, and aunt embroidering her stage outfits “with energy and love and passion and hope to make me look pretty.”

“Survival” includes the boots a passenger wore when Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger miraculously prevented a tragedy in 2009. The boots were ruined, but Ben keeps them to remind himself, “I’m alive. I’m alive.” Meanwhile, Joe wears his son’s favorite hoodie and uses technology to try to commune with the dead boy’s spirit. Simon’s aerobics pants bring back the “cheesy but fun” part of the 1980s, when countless L.A. friends were dying from AIDS. And Tom’s down jacket is quite literally a lifesaver as he and his dog Savannah walk around the world.

The final episode of Worn Stories, appropriately enough, centers on “Love.” Aya reunites with an ex-boyfriend after her less than sensible boots cause her to slip and fall and land in the hospital with a concussion. Mike Jr. cherishes a patchwork quilt that his mother, an activist (wrongly) imprisoned for Mike’s first 40 years made for him. Seniors Zelda and Sal select meaningful clothing items for separate dates. And Ron, the owner and star performer of a Vegas wedding chapel, fondly wears his favorite tuxedo, but is happy to dress up as Elvis if that’s what a particular bride and groom want. 

Ron’s story, like Rachael’s and Shoham’s and Ross’s and (my favorite) Patrice’s, is warm and human and engaging. What they wear (or in the case of Niecy, Diane, and Paul, what they don’t) is precious but secondary, just a symbol or memento of what really matters in life.

Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “What a strange power there is in clothing.” Pandemic or not, Worn Stories will inspire you to hang up the sweatpants and revisit a special outfit or treasured accessory — and possibly a memory you treasure even more.

Eight episodes of Worn Stories are available on Netflix.

 

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