For Joe, it’s the Air Jordan hoodie that belonged to his son, Jeremy, who was shot down by a fatal heroin overdose. For writer and stylist Simon Doonan, it’s a pair of Stephen Sprouse lycra leggings, worn during sweaty aerobics class to deal with one friend’s death after another from AIDS. For Michael, it’s the patchwork quilt sewn by his mom, Debbie, while she was in prison.
We tend to think of clothes as fashion or utility, something to show off or keep warm. But it’s so much more than that, as “Worn Stories,” the new Netflix series, which debuted last week, reminds us about the clothes we wear and the stories they tell. Based on the books “Worn Stories” and “Worn in New York”, both by Emily Spivack, the series presents a collection of clothing autobiographies, personal stories of chance, identity, survival, community and of life, all related to the tissue we put on our bodies every day.
“The clothes carry so much memory,” said Spivack, who is an executive producer of the series, in a phone interview last month. “It’s so tactile and it really absorbs the experiences. It plays an important role in reminding us of the people we care about. “
I understand. I have my own worn out stories, and they revolve around love, loss, grief and memory. The clothes that remain keep me close to someone who is no longer here, someone I loved dearly.
I was sort of a casual dress horse, an obsessive buyer of Adidas t-shirts, baseball caps, socks, and sneakers. Kate, a warm, earthy brunette and the love of my life, was well aware of my appetites. She laughed at me about the stacks of sneaker boxes, but she also liked to buy me little gifts. She knew that every vacation we took would at some point include a visit to any store that could feed my yen. And when she went out of town on her own, she always came back with something special.
She returned from a solo trip to San Francisco with a crown jewel: a blue and gold Adidas Golden State Warriors jacket. We found immense pleasure watching the Warriors laugh together whenever Stephen Curry sank another unlikely three-point shot. I often wore the jacket to my weekly pickup match, just to hear the oohs and aahs.
“It looks like what players wear,” a friend exclaimed. Yes of course. Kate bought it.
Few of our purchases were this luxurious. There was the “Repo Man” shirt I picked up at Trash and Vaudeville in the East Village, just before hopping in a cab to LaGuardia on the way back to Dallas on one of our many New York getaways. York. And a pair of brightly colored Ol ‘Dirty Bastard socks in Warhol colors, which she bought for me at Oaklandish, a killer shop in downtown Oakland. (I grew up next door in Berkeley).
We loved traveling and shopping on a budget. She loved to see me in these clothes, but most of all she loved to make me happy.
In 2018, Kate began to forget about words. She complained of numbness and weakness in her right arm. A series of MRI scans was inconclusive. In February 2019, we visited a neurologist, who delivered the diagnosis: corticobasal degeneration, a rare disease that affects the area of the brain that processes information and the brain structures that control movement. She was 38 years old.
The disease is terminal.
The following months were a whirlwind of trauma. Laid off from my job at the Dallas Morning News, I moved to Houston to work at The Chronicle. Kate moved to live with her parents in East Texas. Overwhelmed by grief, I suffered a severe emotional breakdown. I was briefly hospitalized. It was a very dark time.
During this time, my clothes were everywhere, mostly in a storage unit in Dallas. A friend had access, packed a few items, and sent them to me in Houston. There was the Warriors jacket. And the “Repo Man” shirt. And the ODB socks. Watching them flooded me with emotion – sadness, gratitude, regret. I longed, painfully, for times that would never return, times that didn’t hurt.
Maybe now is a good time to mention that “Worn Stories” isn’t all about sadness. There’s the nudist community in Kissimmee, Florida, where clothes usually mean sandals. “I can’t imagine being barefoot,” says community resident Diane in the show’s first episode. “When you go out and walk on the lawn, there are insects there.”
There is also inspiration: Carlos, of Blythe, Calif., Spent eight years behind bars. Today, working for the Ride Home Program, he picks up newly released inmates from prison – and takes them shopping for clothes to wear in their new lives.
Then there’s saxophonist Timmy Cappello, who received a studded leather codpiece from Tina Turner when they were on tour together. “I’m not even sure I can play the saxophone without it,” he says in the second episode. Worn stories can be fun and moving.
For Morgan Neville, documentary maker (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, “20 Feet from Stardom”) and executive producer of “Worn Stories”, the series has a personal resonance. He still keeps a jacket he first wore as a teenager, he said recently by phone, which helps him put him in touch with his mother, who died in 2016.
At the age of 13, he immersed himself in the English rock band The Who. He ordered a bunch of Union Jack flags and spent hours with his mother sewing the flags into a jacket. Today he hangs in his closet, reminding him of his mother every time he sees him.
“It’s one thing to look at a photo, but it’s another to hold something and wear something,” Neville said over the phone. “And wearing something that connects you to someone is imbued with all of those things. It can be spiritual and emotional. “
Clothes have a unique power to envelop us in the love of our loved ones. Kate passed away on July 2, 2020. I regularly kiss the socks she bought me (even if they are dirty). I stroke the Warriors jacket, sometimes thinking of the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” when Ennis cradles Jack’s shirts to his chest. I wear my Kate clothes regularly. They bring me closer to her and to what we had.
Even as Kate died, she was equipping me. Towards the end, her dad, Mike, sent me a pair of striped socks ordered by Kate with the words “Pretty Decent Boyfriend” on it. They show me that she never lost her sense of humor, nor her generosity of spirit.
Before our world fell apart, Mike also bought matching jackets for me and Lorenzo, who was dating Kate’s sister at the time. It’s just a basic brown leather jacket, but I took it. I like its simplicity and it keeps me warm. I wore it as I sat on the porch in a recent phone conversation with Mike, and told him so. He seemed really moved.
“When you wear it,” he told me, “I’m the one hugging you.”
It’s something else clothes can do. They can hold you tight when you are feeling lonely. They can make the world a little smaller.