What are you drawn to when you open up your closet? It’s a question at the center of artist and curator Emily Spivack’s work. In 2014, Spivack collected over 60 stories that celebrated the meaning that clothes bring into our lives in her book Worn Stories. The narratives inside featured a range of garments and the memories behind them to illuminate how clothes shape us in ways both big and small. Three years later, Spivack debuted her follow-up Worn in New York. Now, she continues her mission to inspire us to consider the role clothes play in our lives with the television adaptation of her first book.
Worn Stories, an eight-episode series arriving on Netflix on April 1, showcases a variety of storytellers and their relationship with clothes, from a man who goes shopping for clothes after being released from 40 years in prison to a non-binary teenager on the hunt for the perfect outfit for their B’Nai Mitzvah. While the books include stories from artists, musicians and others, the show is concerned primarily with everyday people and how they find a sense of identity through a uniform, t-shirt or pair of shoes. Spivack, who served as an executive producer alongside Morgan Neville and Jenji Kohan, spoke to TIME about the experience of adapting her work for television, how the pandemic changed our approach to getting dressed and why she believes we won’t all be wearing sweatpants forever.
TIME: What was the process of adapting the books for television? How much did you want to stay true to the source material?
Spivack: In the show, half of the stories come from the book, and then about half are new. I put those books together very deliberately. I wanted you to be able to feel like you could fill in the gaps when you saw the garment and read the words that the person spoke. But there were certainly moments where I wished you could see more of the visual aspect, like the texture of the clothing, or the person’s expression as they were sharing the story. Also, in the books there are themes that emerge and I felt like I could be more deliberate about organizing the show so that you could weave the stories together. A lot of my work is about gathering source material, then playing with it and recontextualizing it.
How did you choose which story fit into which episode?
I wanted to pick themes that felt universal. So much of the show and the book are about juxtaposition—two different subjects who you would never imagine being put in the same room, but they really work together. There are these moments of juxtaposition, like Mrs. Park who is wearing that yellow sweater that gives her the confidence to perform at her Korean dance troupe, and Timmy Capello who uses his codpiece given to him by Tina Turner to get onstage and perform. These are two stories you would never imagine would be together in a season and there they are—and they’re about building confidence.
What was the casting process like for the storytellers who didn’t come from the books?
The first and most important component was that it’d just be an amazing story. We also really wanted to make sure we had a diversity of voices represented. There was a lot of digging and one person connecting me to another, and it really came down to the strength of the story. For example, with the Met[ropolitan Museum of Art] guard Emily. I had interviewed a Met guard for Worn in New York, and I got on the phone with her and told her we were thinking about doing a uniform episode for the show, and she connected me with her former colleague.
How do you think about the meaning of uniforms, in the wake of this year when many uniformed workers were newly seen and valued for their contributions?
I’ve always seen the role of the uniform, for the folks who are in the show, as something that evokes respect. The Met guard, the crossing guard, the sanitation worker—those uniforms communicate so much so quickly. I think that people have greater respect for health care workers, essential workers, those who are putting on a uniform every day and going into places that are risky, and they’re recognizing the sacrifices that they’re making.
You’ve been working on this project for many years. What have you found has changed in the way people talk about clothes?
This might just be me projecting, but I do think people are being more thoughtful about what they’re wearing. Whether that’s because of more visibility of issues around sustainability, people are a bit more cognizant about the choices that they’re making. They’re taking a minute and saying: “What does this mean to me? Is this something I’m going to hold on to?” Certainly with the pandemic, we’re thinking about how we’re around our things all the time, and we want our things to feel like they have a reason to be around. Also, we’re seeing so much more openness to wear whatever you want, and to put on what feels good.
People seem to fall into two main camps about the idea of returning to “real clothes”—they can’t wait to wear their favorite going-out clothes again, or they dread the departure from sweatpants. How are you viewing this transition?
I’m going to be in both of those camps, but I’m excited to go out into the world. I have this feeling that that’s going to be represented in bright, rich colors and vibrant, lush textures and walking down the street in New York will be a sea of color. I have a little dream that at the next big blowout party, I’ll wear a beautiful tuxedo. That’s my vision of something that just fits perfectly, is structured and represents celebration. I’ll wear it to every party—until it’s threadbare, and then I’m sure I’ll have horror stories connected to it once that happens. But I think we’re going to get to an equilibrium. This is going to be a really interesting time because people are going to dip their toes back into what they used to wear. It may be that their sense of style and what they want to put on their bodies is very different, but it also may take a form that we haven’t even envisioned yet.
Do you think people will try to overcorrect and dress up to compensate for all of the dressing down?
I don’t think there’s correct or incorrect—it’s whatever you want to do. I hope that we come out of this and that people will look in their closets differently. When they’re deciding what they’re going to put on in the morning, maybe they will be drawn to putting on something that has a provenance—something that was given to them by their grandmother or their best friend, or reminds them of a specific moment in their life. I hope that will be the driving force as opposed to thinking about what’s the designer or what’s the season. There’s room for all of this, but it’ll be interesting to see if people are drawn to surrounding themselves with and putting on their bodies the things that have more meaning to them.
I’m curious what you think about what people will wear when they go back to the office.
I’m an artist and a writer, so I don’t typically go into an office. For me, I feel less productive if I’m just wearing my sweatpants all day. I really think that there’s going to be a transition period, but I don’t think we’re going to just see people walking around in their pajamas or sweats. I live in between New York and Los Angeles, and I’m in Los Angeles right now, but when I was back in New York last fall, people looked great. I didn’t get the sense that anyone was doing anything they didn’t want to be doing.
The third episode is about beginnings, and you appear soon after the birth of your daughter. How has your relationship with clothes evolved since then?
For the first couple months of my daughter’s life, she was just wearing pajamas all the time. I was recovering and adjusting to motherhood and then there was a certain moment, two to three months in, where I was like, I’m going to put her in this fun, bright colored onesie and these pants. I started experimenting with putting her in other clothes, and that actually made me feel like I was returning to the world in a way. I was adapting to motherhood and my life with her, and starting to have fun with the clothes. It made me feel like I had moved past the stage of just survival mode, and that I was regaining a little bit of balance.
Now, I have fun putting my daughter in all kinds of clothes—mixing and matching with clothes that she just gets immediately filthy when she’s crawling around on the playground. While I still in many ways feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m more comfortable putting clothes on her. At this point she can say “shirt.” She’ll actually help slide her arm through a sleeve. There’s something that’s collaborative about the experience of putting clothes on her now.
Are there any clothes that have taken on special meaning in your own life over the past year?
There are a couple of jumpsuits that I have just lived in because I’ve been nursing and I like how they look. One garment that has been shape-shifting with me for so many years is this very basic heather grey sweatshirt that I got in the sixth grade. It went with grey sweatpants and was completely nondescript. It must have been huge on me when I first got it. My mom would take me to the ice skating rink for lessons and I’d wear that sweatshirt and sweatpants. Somehow, years later, I rediscovered it and started wearing it again. In the past handful of years, it represented my style again. I’ll wear it with heels and leather pants and maybe an Oxford underneath it. It’s a little inside joke with myself. I know that it’s this old sweater that I’ve had for decades, but I’ll dress it up and no one knows. I’ve continued to wear it throughout this past year of the pandemic, so it’s now taken on a bit more of a comfortable role.
Do you have any advice for people turning to their closets now looking to make a better relationship with their clothes?
Keep the things that make you feel good. There are times where we feel like we have to hold on to something because of the memory attached to it. Sometimes writing down the story, and taking a photo of it frees us from feeling like we have to hold on to the thing. And not everything has a story. There may be a t-shirt that you just love and feels good when you wear it, and that’s great, too.
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Write to Annabel Gutterman at firstname.lastname@example.org