A new book about old clothes by this Brandywine High grad is a hit
At graduation ceremonies for the Brandywine High School class of 1996, girls were required to wear white shoes. Emily Spivack, the class valedictorian, chose to don white go-go boots for the occasion. For anyone who knew her then or knows her now, the iconic, calf-high ‘60s footwear were the perfect fit for Emily—in every sense of that term.
Though still in her 30s, Spivack is an old soul. She has always shown an appreciation for the symbolism and meaning inherent in pieces of clothing—and people—who have seen a few years of wear. That’s why, in high school and during her days at Brown University, thrift stores were a favorite destination for her and her friends. And that’s why she enjoyed joining her maternal grandmother, Pearl Bregman, for yoga classes at the Center for Lifelong Learning at UD.
Now, this veneration of clothing and people has culminated in a unique—and successful—book: Worn Stories. Published in September, it’s is a collection of personal tales about articles of clothing that hold sentimental value for their owners. Contributors include actress Greta Gerwig, The New York Times’ Jenna Worthman, writer Ariel Shrag, filmmaker Matt Wolf, and singer Rosanne Cash. Each piece of clothing is pictured draped on a hanger, on a stark background, with its “story” next to it. There are no photos of the people telling the stories.
While at Brown, Spivack’s area of concentration was the rather esoteric art semiotics—the study of signs and symbols. Since then, she has immersed herself in an exploration of culture, fashion, and social innovation. For the past 10 years, she has focused especially on how clothing affects us from historical and therapeutic perspectives.
Her mother’s multiple bouts with cancer helped prompt Spivack to begin Shop Well with You, a New York-based national not-for-profit organization that helps women with cancer improve their body image and quality of life by using their clothing as a wellness tool.
“Thankfully,” says Spivack, “my mother is in remission now.”
Worn Stories resulted from a website she curates, Sentimental Value (sentimental-value.com). Since 2007, she has collected on the website some 600 stories about clothing and memory from eBay posts. But the idea for the book really sprang from her own closet, which, she says, “was actually an archive of memories and experiences.”
She explains that, when she travels, she’s in the habit of going to flea markets or antique shops, “and I usually wind up with a garment from that place.”
“But in some ways I feel like the project started even earlier, when I was growing up in Delaware, and going thrift store-shopping and finding all sorts of one-of-a-kind pieces that were a way for me to express myself creatively through clothing, not just going to Concord Mall looking for clothes.”
When she began asking friends and family to share their stories about favorite pieces of clothing, she learned things about them that she had never heard before, even though she knew them well. “So it made me realize that clothing could be an overlooked but very accessible story-telling device. Then I started thinking what would happen if I asked people who I thought were interesting people about their favorite pieces of clothing.”
For the book—her first—she says she sought “a diverse assortment of people—different ages, occupations, different backgrounds. Mostly, what it came down to, I wanted people who could tell a good story.”
In 2012, she landed a book deal, with Princeton Architectural Press, and two years later, Worn Stories was published, to critical and popular success.
Spivack has lived in Brooklyn since 2002, but returns to Wilmington fairly often to visit her parents, who live in Windsor Hills. Her father, Dennis Spivack, an attorney, ran for Congress in 2006. Her mother, Marcia, works at Blue Streak Gallery in Trolley Square.
Emily gave a reading from Worn Stories at Blue Streak one weeknight last month. In the audience was another member of Brandywine High’s class of ’96, who brought up the white go-go boots. Says Spivack: “She told me it made sense that the book was the evolution of my work.”
For now. Another book may be in the making. “I’m figuring it out,” she says.