In 2007, while shopping on eBay for a pair of vintage heels, New York-based writer Emily Spivack stumbled on a 1967 Playboy Bunny costume for sale. It came with the ID badge of its original owner. "There was a very mundane black-and-white photo of her," Spivack tells Co.Design. She started imagining who this puff-tailed woman could be. "I always knew there were stories connected to pieces of clothing. This made me wonder what I could find."
Spivack began mining eBay for more pieces instilled with personal histories and posting them to her website, sentimental-value.com, along with users’ original descriptions—public confessions that range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking. One seller wrote of her outgrown ruby-sequined gown, "I hate to let it go … I was once levitated in it in a magic act." What did you wear the first time you levitated?
In 2010, Spivack began actually bidding on the objects, amassing a collection of 60 storied pieces. Now her Internet-based project has been converted into an exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, with 23 items of clothing and their original tales on display until August 23.
"The garments have become art objects," Spivack says. "Viewers are provided with a stripped-down set of details, which they use to construct their own narratives." Favorites of hers include a green chiffon dress splattered with the blood of a murdered mobster; sunglasses blessed by Michael Jackson’s holy hands; Nikes with slashed air bubbles, courtesy of an angry ex-girlfriend; and a black minidress unintentionally purchased during a bout of drugged "sleep shopping."
"The beat-up T-shirts often tend to have richer stories than the fancier, designer-centric pieces," says Spivack. "The project runs counter to the consumer impulse to buy, buy, buy. It asks viewers to reconfigure the value of an object, to look in their closets, pause, and see the stories attached to what they already have." It’s an antidote to the culture of mass-manufactured attire, where fashion labels tend to define and divide. (Think of the creepy Abercrombie CEO saying "I don’t want our core customers seeing people who aren’t as hot as them wearing our clothing.")
Considering the sentimental value of short sartorial memoirs brings to mind Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn." Spivack is also collecting essays for a book titled Worn Stories, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014.