Worn Stories review – a well spun yarn about the clothes that define us

This Netflix doc, based on Emily Spivak’s bestseller, weaves insightful narratives around different items of clothing

A yellow sweater given by a Buddhist monk to a member of his temple. The work shirt a man was wearing when he first met the woman he would end up living with in a nudist community in Florida. A one-of-a-kind coat that its owner and her cousin pursued all over Manhattan when it went awol from a restaurant. A T-shirt with an airbrush picture montage of a young murdered man for his mother to wear. A tie made from scraps of material a man’s immigrant seamstress grandmother had left over when the her long day’s work was done. The first item of masculine clothing bought by a non-binary teenager. The leather codpiece given by Tina Turner to her saxophonist that eventually made him famous. All of human life is here in the new Netflix documentary series Worn Stories.

It’s a simple, charming idea simply and charmingly executed, first in Emily Spivack’s 2014 bestselling book of the same name and now in this adaptation for television by Jenji Kohan (whose gift for coaxing stories out of tiny moments has most famously been showcased by Orange Is the New Black, her addictively hilarious – and heartbreaking – adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir).

In a series of half-hour episodes – a length that allows the conceit, like each of the stories comprising the instalments, never to outstay its welcome – we hear what different pieces of clothing mean to different people. We hear, too, the tale behind the acquisition, perhaps, or the memories an item has come to hold, the epiphany it provoked, or any one of the hundreds more functions a garment can perform beyond merely protecting our fragile flesh from the elements.

Watch the trailer for Worn Stories

Each episode has a general theme – “Community”, “Beginnings”, “Survival”, and so on. The shows contain brief talking-head interludes (a teenager holding up a pair of trousers that were her grandmother’s, for example, that she never dreamed of wearing – until her grandmother died and they became a way of literally keeping her close). These are mixed with a longer, more substantial tale or two, told by the protagonists and supplemented with animated sequences, woven in and out of them.

Sometimes the stories are gentle to the point of soporific. South Korean restaurateur Mrs Park, owner of the yellow sweater, lost everything in the Asian financial crisis and emigrated to New York. Her culinary contributions to the life of her local Buddhist temple resulted in the monk’s gift and she wears it to the dance class that gradually banishes her loneliness and wraps her in a warmth of its own.

Others are daft, all but shaggy dog stories, like the cousins and their coat that is eventually found in the apartment of a very stoned man who can hardly be made to understand what is happening, although he is enough on the ball to try for a threesome before they depart.

At their best, however, the stories illuminate forgotten or unknown corners of the world and make it that much more known to us. Spivack’s book was noted for concentrating quite heavily on the fairly homogeneous world of bo-ho New York that she knew, and the series has made efforts to address that. Former prisoner Carlos shows us his “dress-outs” – the outfit supplied by the family for the day you leave jail. If you don’t have family, you make do with what the prison finds in its rag-bag for you. He now works for an organisation that supports leavers who have nobody and therefore nothing when they come out. It includes providing them with clothes fit for their new lives.

Airbrush artist Mutt began plying his trade in the 80s, when it mostly involved the exuberant spraying of film and cartoon characters on to jackets. “Now,” he says, “the reason people are coming to me, in the city of Philadelphia, is usually murder.” Usually the murder of young black men. Their mothers and friends come to him to have T-shirts made up for after the funeral – a kind of grim equivalent of party favours. Something to wear after you’ve taken your funeral clothes off at home “but are still feeling this loss”, explains one bereaved woman.

Maxayn, whose son Jah-san was celebrating his college acceptances when he was shot and killed by a man he had never met before, says: “Getting shirts made allows me to talk about him more. I definitely tell other moms that. ‘Speak their names.’ Because it keeps them here with you. Helps you remember who they were and not what happened to them.” The artists call the T-shirts “urban memorials”.

“Never thought I would be doing this,” says Mutt. But he is, and now we know. The loss is literally written across every grieving breast.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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