Don’t Throw It Away! It Tells A Story!

Hair, short, feathered and layered, with a high-collared pie-crust blouse, both just like Princess Diana wore. Monogrammed pendant and pleated wool skirt, straight from the pages of The Official Preppy Handbook. Meet the Betsy of 1984.

Lots of us looked like this back then. But there’s one very distinctive difference: My Illustrated London News sweater.

Hand-knit just for me, the sweater featured the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and other landmarks of the London skyline, as depicted in the masthead of The Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine, published from 1842 until 2003. Our trip to England the previous year included a visit to the editorial office of that marvelous magazine, where we learned how it was produced and bought back issues of its Royal commemorative publications. 

The magazine ran ads offering a free pattern to knit the sweater.  My mother got the pattern, found a knitter, and arranged to give me the best Christmas present ever.

I wore that sweater for years, constantly, until it literally fell apart and I did something dumb. I parted company with it.

“What was I thinking? Why didn’t I keep it anyway? I just have to find a copy of that pattern somewhere and make myself a new one!” 

Those were my thoughts as I chastised myself on March 6, sitting in the Canzani Center Screening Room at the Columbus College of Art & Design, listening to visiting artist Emily Spivack.  She was talking about the memorable stories we can derive from our clothes, and how important it is to capture those stories so the don’t disappear.

Curiousity about the histories of our garments — like who had worn the garment before and what they were like — made her want to create a place to record and preserve those stories. She began a project known as Worn Stories, which was published first as a website and then as a book in 2014.

Interviewing people she admired, from the famous to the obscure, Spivack recorded their experiences, adventures and memories made while wearing a piece of clothing that they haven’t worn in years, but just can’t part with. Fashion designer Cynthia Rowley shared how her Girl Scout sash, loaded with badges, still makes her feel proud of herself. English professor Catherine Pierce described how she wore an Ann Taylor pencil skirt during her first teaching days to convince her students – and herself – that she was an authority figure. And Debbie Millman recalled how a marked-down luxurious yellow cashmere Hermés coat made her feel glamorous and beautiful, even during two memorable meetings with the person who said, “Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.”

Worn in New York: 68 Sartorial Memoirs of the City, Spivack’s latest book, captures a cultural history of New York City — stories of significant moments or experiences in the city told through well-loved clothes by the people who wore them there. Here’s the ultimate conversation piece: Elizabeth Taylor’s yellow and hot pink Givenchy jumpsuit. Canadian model Coco Rocha bought it at Christie’s 2011 auction of the actress’s clothing and wore to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala the next year. “Even if it had extra space in the bust, even if it was cropped in the legs, even if it was cinched in at the waist, it was her body shape, and I wore it just the way it was,” Rocha recalled.

Spivack described other related projects, like her contributions to Threaded, the Smithsonian’s blog about the history of clothing, and howtodresslike.com, an online archive of nearly 1,000 step-by-step dressing instructions culled from WikiHow. She also collected stories about clothing from eBay posts through her Sentimental Value website and related exhibitions in Philadelphia, Portland and Brooklyn.

As Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of Modern Art, Spivack invited visitors to contribute to “An archive of everything worn to MoMA from November 1, 2017 to January 28, 2018,” a project that will become a permanent part of the museum’s archives. “Little black dress with my eyeglass print blouse underneath. I like to dress like a Japanese school girl. I’m 48,” one reads.

Sounds like my twin was at MoMA on November 14, 2017.

To hear more from Spivack, click here to listen to her March 5 All Sides with Ann Fisher interview.

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