Skip to main content
Culture

What Does Your Outfit Say About You?

For the past three months, an artist asked people to describe what they were wearing to MoMA. Here’s what the project is teaching us.

two panel illustration with outfit lays
Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

There’s a mink coat that hangs in my closet that I rarely wear but would never part with. It was passed down to me by my grandmother and has a message stitched inside from my grandfather. About two years ago, I started collecting soccer jerseys from each of the countries I’d visited because I wanted a souvenir that I could wear. And there are these Dior moon boots that I’ve been wearing religiously every winter since I asked for them for Christmas in 2006 because I had seen Mariah Carey wear them in a paparazzi shot in Aspen.

It’s not just me. Everyone has stories behind the clothing they own, whether they wear it or not.

For the past ten years, through various projects from Worn Stories to her most recent work, An archive of everything worn to MoMA, artist and writer Emily Spivack has been talking to people about their relationships with the garments they own. She deals with clothing in an anthropological way rather than spotting trends and strictly viewing garments through the lens of fashion.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

“[These are] the things that we put on our body every day and then go out into the world and live our lives in,” says Spivack. “Those choices are portrayed on the Internet or through photographs or archival material. We can learn a lot about culture and society and who we are through the clothes that we wear.”

Spivack’s investigation into clothing started in 2007, when she wanted to explore why people get rid of clothing. For this project, called Sentimental Value, she spoke to eBay users about the clothing and accessories they were selling and why. Eventually, she started bidding on the clothing and put together an exhibition that showed in Brooklyn, Portland, and Philadelphia.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

In 2010, Spivack introduced the world to Worn Stories, which was later turned into a New York Times best-selling book. She collected more than 60 stories on the memories people had about one specific garment. The book included entries from everyday people to luminaries like Thelma Golden, Greta Gerwig, David Carr, and Marina Abramovic. “The project emerged as this new way to use clothing, which is usually overlooked as a storytelling device,” Spivack says. This past October, she released the latest in her series, Worn in New York, a book that collects people’s memories of the city through their garments.

Now, for her project with MoMA, which is presented in conjunction with the museum’s first clothing-related exhibition in 70 years, Items: Is Fashion Modern, Spivack is taking a more broad approach. Her project asks MoMA visitors to submit descriptions of what they are wearing via text message—at the close of the exhibit, she’ll have a record of three months’ worth of outfits from thousands of visitors recorded from November to the end of January. “With Worn Stories, each story stands on its own, but what I’m hoping with this project is that we’ll be able to figure out who we are at this moment in time, whether it’s someone wearing a Future Is Female T-shirt or someone talking about their Steve Jobs–inspired turtleneck. There are a lot of different things that you can read from just someone inventorying what they’re wearing,” says Spivack.

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

The texts, which museum visitors can submit through January 28, will be archived to create an every-day log of the museum’s visitors. “I've heard that Andy Warhol would stand by [MoMA’s] coat check and just take pictures of people,” Spivack says. “I wanted to do some version of that.” Moving away from selfies or “outfit of the day” images, she’s asked MoMA visitors to tune in to something more considered: language.

Advertisement

Whether the participants are complimenting their own leopard readers (“very chic”) or professing that they “feel compressed. Like a panini” despite their “excessively large jeans,” we can ask ourselves Spivack’s key question: “What happens when we portray ourselves through our own words?”

Tahirah Hairston is an associate editor at Lenny who loves to ask strangers where they got their shoes.