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Clothing as memoir: Writer Emily Spivack brings her ‘Worn Stories’ to Washington

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For as long as she can remember, Brooklyn-based artist and writer Emily Spivack has been compelled by clothing and the role it plays in our daily lives. As a teen, she used fashion as a form of creative expression, choosing outfits that made a statement; as an adult, she began to notice how the sweaters and pants and dresses in her closet told a deeper story about her life -- who she was, where she’d been, what she'd experienced.

She wondered if other people might have untold stories hanging in their own closets or tucked in dresser drawers.

And they did. Last fall, Spivack’s book, “Worn Stories,” a collection of 67 clothing-inspired stories from famous icons and ordinary lives, was published by Princeton Architectural Press and soon became a New York Times bestseller.

Spivack, 36 -- who is also the creator and writer of Threaded, the Smithsonian’s fashion history blog and the curator of a found-art project called Sentimental Value, an online collection of stories about clothing and memories from eBay posts -- will talk about her book and the philosophy behind her artistic projects Thursday at the District's Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, where audience members are also invited to bring an item of clothing and briefly share their own “worn story” with the crowd.

Spivack chatted with The Post about her fascination with fashion and the meaning of a single garment as a “memoir in miniature.”

Tell me about how you first decided to explore this particular corner of our culture -- the role that clothing plays in our personal histories?

Whenever I would travel somewhere, I would always come back with a piece of clothing from my travels. So I would look in my closet and see this archive of experiences and memories, and I started writing some of my own, just playing with the concept, back in 2009 or so. Then I was kind of like -- I’m kind of more interested in what other people have to say; I already know my stories. So I started just by asking friends or family… these were people I knew really well, and sometimes the stories they told me I’d never heard and were really surprising, and I realized that clothing could be a storytelling device -- an overlooked storytelling device and a way to get at stories and memories that are sometimes put to the side.

What kind of stories? Can you share one from your own closet?

My story in the book is about a pair of black rubber flip flops that my grandmother purchased for me about 16 years ago in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which is where I spent a lot of time growing up.  My flip flops had broken, we were walking to the beach and we stopped in this store. My grandmother was a very tanned, leathery woman, and I remember she was wearing this knitted cover up top, she was this bosomy lady... [laughs] and she suggested all these colorful options, and I just chose this very basic black pair. And somehow, those are still the flip flop that I wear. I’ve had them for years and years, and in the story I talk about how they are these things that I take for granted, but somehow they always find a way into my suitcase on every trip I’ve taken, they’ve lived with me in every city and every apartment I’ve had… there’s this concept of inadvertently preserving things, even things you take for granted, like grandmothers or shops on Rehoboth Avenue.

Clearly there’s something universally compelling about this idea -- all of us probably have items of clothing that are connected to a particular memory. What kind of responses have you seen from the people who shared their stories for your book and your online project?

[Performance artist] Marina Abramovic tells the story of the boots that she wore to walk the Great Wall of China during one of her most well-known performances, where she met her partner of many years in the middle and then they parted ways. There’s a story of someone who was going through heartbreak and felt like everything was colorless and dull, and she wound up finding a dress in a thrift store that she was finally excited about but she knew she could never afford it -- then she looked at the price tag, and it was free. [Musician] Rosanne Cash tells the story of a shirt that was her father’s, the purple shirt of a man who only wore black, and she puts it on from time to time. One man was kidnapped, and he talked about what he was wearing when he was kidnapped. There’s an incredible story from a Holocaust survivor, there’s a story that touches on the AIDS epidemic, there’s a story about meeting President Obama.

But not everything is extraordinary. Sometimes the extraordinary nature comes through in just the way the story is told. The clothes wind up being a launching point, a way to document a moment in time. When we buy or we’re given a piece of clothing, we don’t know what’s going to happen when we wear it. We walk through life wearing clothing and our experiences are kind of absorbed into them -- sometimes in a real way, there are stains, there are holes, things get worn out.

In addition to the other work you’ve done involving fashion and clothing, you created a nonprofit years ago called Shop Well With You, which specifically serves women who are cancer patients and survivors. How did that project shape your thoughts about what we wear and why?

My mom is a five-time cancer survivor, so that’s where the impetus to start that project came from, right when I was coming out of college. The nonprofit helps women with cancer deal with body image issues through clothing -- women who have had a mastectomy, or gone through radiation, or lost their hair. The idea was finding clothes that will make her feel comfortable, but also generally improve her quality of life and help her make that transition from being a patient to being a person. I started the nonprofit and ran it for about six years, and while I always try to think about clothing from cultural and anthropological and sociological angles, that added a new therapeutic perspective -- the idea of clothes as therapy.

As part of this week’s event, audience members have been invited to bring a special item of clothing and share a minute-long story about what the garment means to them. Have you done this sort of event before? What’s it like when people share these stories in person in front of a crowd?

I’ve been doing all different iterations of people sharing their stories -- I’ve done a show on the radio where people called in and shared their stories, I’ve done workshops, and obviously people can submit their stories on the Worn Stories Web site. But I don’t know if I’ve ever done something exactly like this, where it’s more of a big auditorium setting, so I’m really excited to see what kinds of stories people bring.

Emily Spivack, 7 p.m. Thursday at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown). $12; two tickets for $25 includes a copy of "Worn Stories." 

Correction: An earlier version of this story referenced a woman and the clothes she wore during her kidnapping; the kidnapping victim was a man.