Netflix docuseries Worn Stories explores the meaning of clothes, besides their obvious functions of hiding people’s nakedness and protecting them from the elements.
The eight-parter, based on a 2014 best-selling book of the same name by Emily Spivack, is equal parts whimsical, poignant and chicken soup for the soul. Since its premiere on Netflix on April 1, it has become one of the most popular shows on the streaming website.
In each themed episode, people open up their closets and about their lives as they talk about their treasured items of clothing – be it a hot pink furry robe or a plain blue down jacket.
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Cute animation featuring felt and clay figurines brings alive the stories of people from all walks of life – from an artist who moonlights as a museum guard to an Elvis impersonator at a Las Vegas wedding chapel.
While there are far-out tales, such as that of a former astronaut who wore his Columbia University sweatshirt to space, stories of ordinary folk are what stand out – a lonely Korean immigrant, a hopeful widow, a plane crash survivor, a grieving father.
Woven together by directors Dara Horenblas, Claudia Woloshin and Ted Passon, these narratives, ostensibly about pieces of fabric, capture both big celebrations and the everyday joys of life.
Here is what we learnt about fashion and humanity from the series.
Bringing people together
In the case of naturalists Diane and Paul, the lack of clothes is what bonds them.
The sandal-clad couple go about their daily lives, without a stitch on, in a nudist community in Florida.
“There’s nothing I miss wearing,” says Diane, adding that they put on clothes only for church on Sundays. “But… you gotta wear footwear. I can’t imagine having my feet naked.”
Their unabashed pleasure in letting it all hang out, even while engaging in dangerous activities like woodworking, is infectious.
Equally contagious is the exuberance seen in the dance of a group of middle-aged Korean women at a neighbourhood senior centre in Queens, New York.
Dressed identically in silvery foil costumes, they prance along to Gloria, a 1982 disco hit by American singer Laura Branigan.
One of them, known as Mrs Park, says: “Before practising with this dance troupe, I just stayed at home, feeling depressed. But since joining, I see things differently. I’m feeling much better. I feel like these women are my family.”
Saxophonist Timmy Capello’s signature accessory onstage, besides his instrument, is his codpiece, a gift from legendary singer Tina Turner when they were touring in the 1980s and 1990s.
The raunchy item of clothing gave him a lift – physically and mentally – and he could put on a bad-boy persona and go wild onstage.
“Never do a gig without a codpiece. Gives you that little extra oomph,” he says. “I’m not even sure I can play the saxophone without this.”
After his rock ‘n’ roll days came to an end, the codpiece gave him confidence to go on performing.
And when his 12-second sax performance in 1987 movie The Lost Boys went viral some 30 years later, it gave his career – and codpiece – a second wind.
Making a fresh start
One of the most poignant stories about the transformative power of clothes comes from former convict Rudy, who was released after 41 years in prison.
As he shuffles towards Carlos Cervantes, who volunteers to pick up inmates released from jail, his baggy grey prison garb seems to weigh down his every hesitant step.
Cervantes says: “I think the first 24, 48 hours are the crucial moments to be in a person’s life. So I really want to be there and teach him about a new world that he’s gonna be released to.”
After Rudy’s first meal, they drive to a thrift store, where Cervantes asks him what size he wears. Unsurprisingly, after all those years behind bars, Rudy has no clue.
When he finally changes into a simple plaid shirt in size XL and work pants and looks at himself in the mirror, he can barely hold it together.
“Me, I looked in the mirror and I liked what I saw,” Rudy says, all choked up. “And that made all the difference in the world to me.”
These may be second-hand clothes, but they made him a new man.
Becoming an adult
Clothes can symbolise transitions from childhood to adulthood. For non-binary teen Spirit Avedon, turning 13 is a milestone they mark with picking the right outfit for their b’nai mitzvah.
A b’nai mitzvah is the gender-neutral version of a bar or bat mitzvah, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual for boys and girls respectively.
Avedon, who came out as nonbinary at 11, used to think they had to dress in an androgynous way. Now, they dress as they feel comfortable.
For their b’nai mitzvah, they picked a purple coat and long skirt, black shirt and black combat boots with neon green laces.
“It doesn’t really matter to me what other people think. It’s what makes me feel like myself.”
Rachael Baker bought an expensive black dress for her 21st birthday celebration in Vegas. “It made me feel very grown up,” she says.
“But that was also when the drinking started. I was always the drunkest, I was always the one everybody had to watch.
“Most of the drinking really came from a place of insecurity, the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t pretty, that I wasn’t funny, that I wasn’t smart. Drinking helped take that away.”
Over the years, the short sheath dress has seen its owner leaving her binge-drinking days behind and moving towards sobriety.
Rachael recalls wearing it to a work event in Vegas years later and worrying about a relapse after being sober for six months. But she did not touch a drop of alcohol that night.
She adds: “Now, when I look at (the dress), I smile remembering that girl, knowing that this dress represents a level of resilience and growth.”
Putting on a sense of purpose
For school crossing guard Patrice Jetter, who was born with a mild disability and walks with a cane, putting on a uniform for work gives her a sense of purpose.
“When I wear the uniform, I feel important,” she says. “I love it because I look professional and the public sees me as an authority figure.”
She had wanted to become a police officer like her brother, but as it was not within her physical capabilities, she decided to be a crossing guard. She was so determined, she applied 13 times before landing the job, where she has been guiding school kids safely across the road for 27 years.
She also acts in stage productions, produces her own public access television show, builds model trains and has taken part in the Special Olympics as an ice skater.
She says: “A lot of people were always telling me I couldn’t do stuff because of my disability and I would fix them by going and doing it anyway, just to prove a point.”
United States Congresswoman Frederica Wilson also dons her own distinctive uniform at work. She is often seen roaming the halls of the Capitol in her sequined cowboy hats and matching outfits.
“People know me because of the hat and especially the red hat, but I’m not a hat person, I’m an ensemble person,” she says.
In an interview with The Miami Times earlier this month, the flashy dresser says: “You have to find your own space and identity, and once you find it, you should use it to your best advantage to not only help yourself, but also to help your people. When people see me, they stop and say, ‘Who is that lady?'”
Sticking together as a family
For her success, Spanish singeractress Charo credits her sister Carmen, who had designed and sewn her costumes from the beginning.
“People always talk about the star,” says the larger-than-life celebrity, who was big in the 1960s and 1970s. “But what they don’t know is that the real star is what is behind the star.”
Her most precious item of clothing is a revealing, sequinned number that required her to exercise like a fiend and swear off tacos and pizza to fit in. Designed by her sister and embroidered by her mother and aunt, the outfit was a labour of love.
She says: “You can get broke, you can get homeless… but if you have family and love, that is priceless.”
Family, too, plays a huge role in Mike Africa Jr’s patchwork quilt, pieced together by his mother in prison with scraps of fabric from other women.
His story, and that of his parents Debbie Africa and Mike Africa Sr, is a heartrending one.
His parents, along with seven other members of their organisation for black liberation in Philadelphia, were sentenced to 100 years in prison after a bloody raid on their compound left a police officer dead.
His mother, who was eight months pregnant when she was arrested, gave birth to him in prison. He was raised by his grandmother and, for decades, saw his parents only through prison bars.
The only thing he had of his mum was his tattered security blanket.
“So while I didn’t have her, this was my way of remembering her and having her with me even when she wasn’t,” he recalls.
In 2018, his parents were paroled.
“Finally, for the first time after 40 years, we’re together,” he says. “People talk about Christmas and how Christmas feels – times that by 40. That’s what it felt like.”
Surviving and thriving
On the surface, Tom Turcich’s favourite item – a down jacket – seems unremarkable.
But considering that he is on a five-year, seven-continent walk around the world – in limbo at the moment due to the pandemic – the jacket becomes essential for survival in the wild.
He and his dog, Savannah, covered close to 40km on foot daily, with his sparse belongings in a trolley. Life was blissfully simple.
Then calamity struck in the Atacama Desert in Chile, when Savannah began bleeding profusely. Turcich hitched a ride to the nearest town with her but, en route, his trusty jacket flew off the speeding vehicle.
“It was like seeing a piece of my home flying away. Driver turns to me, ‘You want to turn around and get it?'” he recounts. “No, of course not, I have Savannah bleeding in my arms and I’m just thinking, ‘Just make it.’ And then I realised, I love this little bugger.”
The down jacket was lost. But Savannah survived.
Survival takes a different form for fashion commentator and writer Simon Doonan, a window dresser in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
What helped him through the tough times of the Aids epidemic was a pair of Lycra leggings.
Wearing those tights emblazoned with graffiti, Doonan threw himself into feverish aerobic workouts every day to take his mind off the deaths in his circle of friends.
Looking back now, he says: “I wouldn’t say I have survivor’s guilt. It’s more like a survivor’s bewilderment. I’m still processing it.
“And yet, life goes on in some horrible, inexorable way, and the human spirit just keeps chugging along.”
Love and loss
It was Valentine’s Day in New York and Aya Kanai was caught in a blizzard in weather-inappropriate boots.
She fell after slipping on a patch of black ice and had to call her ex-boyfriend Todd Bailey, whom she had recently broken up with, for help.
He was not over her and kept going over to check on her the week after her fall.
“I had hoped we would get back together,” he says with a laugh.
The rest, as they say, is history. They married in 2015 and now have a little girl.
However, she cautions: “I would never recommend anyone to make an accident happen to get back together with an ex.”
If Kanai’s boots got love to walk back into her life, Zelda Fassler is hoping her dress will do the same.
The classic black and navy dress was a gift from her partner Saulie, who was 89 when they began dating as senior citizens. He died 11 years later and she had not worn it since.
But the lonely senior is hopeful of finding love again and gamely dons the dress for a blind date.
“I was just getting pleasure wearing it, because I haven’t had an occasion to put it on for a while,” she says. “I feel wonderful.”
This article was first published in The Straits Times.