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The Year of the Wearer
Books, series, even a festival: attention for the practice of wearing clothes is growing. Nora Veerman traces this development and wonders: why now?
If talking about, or even paying attention to what you’re wearing was ever considered superficial or unimportant, 2021 is probably the year that changed this forever. Conversing about clothes proved to be worthy of an eight-episode Netflix series, and what’s more, a full-fledged cultural festival.
Both arrived with the beginning of Spring and the gradual ending of lockdowns internationally. Worn Stories debuted on Netflix on the first of April. The series consists of eight half-hour episodes, each with a different theme, from ‘community’ to ‘survival’ and ‘growing up’ to ‘new beginnings’. In every episode, wearers from different backgrounds, genders and ages share stories about garments they hold dear. There is the tale of crossing guard Patrice and her cherished bright yellow uniform, Spirit and her genderless bar mitzvah clothes. There are Simon’s memories of the aerobics classes he took in the 1980s as he tried to cope with grief, told through a pair of lycra designer shorts.
Later that month, some forty people attended the first event organised by Wearers Festival, the only festival dedicated to the relationships between people and clothes. It was an online conversation between fashion scholar Marti Barroeta and Mexican cultural manager and activist Cristina Peregrina on the entanglements between dress and human rights. The conversation was both intellectual and identifiable, as became clear from the lively discussion with the audience that ensued. Since, Wearers Festival has produced multiple online and offline discussion sessions, book clubs, a creative writing workshop and a ‘menders trade café’ where participants could have their clothes mended in exchange for a good or a service, like home-made cookies or help with graphic design.
What these projects have in common is a focus not so much on fashion – even if the purchasing and wearing of clothes often has to do with fashion – but on the ways people wear their clothes, how they are affected by them, and how clothes acquire meaning in the process. Clothes are not just surface: they are a border area between the body and the world. They are substance, sense and signification.
The current preoccupation with everyday clothes and the practice of wearing is easily read as a consequence of the pandemic. Most of us spent the past two years in closer proximity to our possessions - including clothes - than ever before, causing our relationships with them to intensify. However, this partiuclar interest in wearers and wearing is not entirely new. In academia, there has been a longstanding anthropological interest in how and why people wear their clothes across the world. Over the last decades, the integration of anthropology into fashion studies has led to the development of research methods such as wardrobe studies, where academics study the closets of people and interview them about their everyday dressing behaviour.
At the same time, wearers have played a central role in makeover series such as What not to Wear or, more recently, Queer Eye. However, most of these series are based on the idea that something about the wearer must be changed, that the old and existing must be thrown out in order to make room for new and better clothes, and in tandem, a new and improved version of the self. As for books, wearers have been addressed within the genre of style guides, which usually adopt a similar narrative of self-improvement.
In 2014, two books appeared that took a completely different approach to clothes: Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, the book on which the 2021 series was based, and Women in Clothes by Leanne Shapton, Sheila Heti and Hedi Julavits. The latter is a 512-page book in which 642 different women answer a list of fifty questions about their appearances, such as ‘what does your wardrobe look like?’, ‘what was the biggest waste of money you ever made on an item of clothing?’, or ‘do you address anything political in the way you dress?’.
The answers to these questions are presented in the form of conversations, poems, images, interviews, anecdotes and essays. It turns out that even something as simple as an old shirt or a sock collection can spur reflections on culture, politics, age, bodies, desire, history, memories. By sharing these reflections, Women in Clothes demonstrated that it is not just okay to talk about the clothes you already own or the person you already are, but that it is even important to do so.
Wearers in Museums
Museums are also increasingly including wearers’ perspectives in their exhibitions. Probably the most telling example is the exhibition Fashion Unraveled, which ran from May to November 2018 at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Instead of impeccable designer pieces, the exhibition displayed clothing that was unfinished, deconstructed, or showed signs of wear and repair. In addition to the exhibition, the FIT launched the crowdsourced project Wearing Memories, which encouraged the public to share stories and photos of garments that held special meaning to them. Some of these pieces were included in the exhibition, other stories were shared online, on the museum’s Tumblr page.
A similar strategy was used one year later for the exhibition on Mary Quant at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum invited (previous) owners of Mary Quant items to send images and memories of their Quant garments. For the museum, this was a way to locate rare Quant designs, but also to bring the garments to life in the final exhibition. Another example from this year is the exhibition Maison Amsterdam, a collaboration between the Amsterdam Museum and De Nieuwe Kerk, which opened recently in the Dutch capital. The exhibition is a tour through the fashion history of Amsterdam, narrated through historical and contemporary garments and the people who created or wore them. Their voices can be heard in the audio tour.
From books to exhibitions to a series and even a festival: the question is not only why all of this is relevant, but also, why now. Haven’t people been wearing clothes for millennia? One reason might be the development of fashion studies over the past decades, which has proven that clothes are worthy as objects of ‘serious’ study. Yet even in this academic field, the interest in everyday people and clothes and the ethnographic methods for studying them are still emerging.
Another reason can be found in the increasing alienation from other people and objects brought on by the fast fashion industry, which requires that clothing is kept only briefly and is then thrown away, leaving no room for intimacy between people and garments. A revaluation of clothes, and the labour that goes into making them, presents itself as an antidote against the catastrophic effects of the industry.
If anything, 2021 has reminded us not only how much beauty, but also how much significance there is in the simple act of wearing - and why, in fact, we should talk and write about it. Not just on television, in books, or in a newsletter, but everywhere we go.
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