Review: Worn Stories

What do an astronaut, Tina Turner’s former saxophonist, a former convict, and a congresswoman have in common? They all have a piece of clothing to which they connect a defining moment in their life – and they all feature in Worn Stories. The Netflix production based on Emily Spivack’s eponymous book launched on April 1st and was created by Jenji Kohan. If her name sounds familiar to you, you might remember it from the opening credits of Orange Is the New Black, which she produced.

Worn Stories’ general approach is simple: “A show about clothes and the people who wear them”. In eight 30-minute episodes, we are introduced to characters like Spirit, a 13-year-old non-binary Jewish teenager, who is on the hunt for their perfect B’nai Mitzvah outfit. We also meet Diana and Paul, who live in a nudist community in Florida and Maxayn, who has lost her son and now seeks out airbrush artist Mutt for a memorial shirt. Each episode is titled after its broad theme and while some titles, such as “Uniform”, are pretty straightforward, others like “Lost and Found” seem slightly constructed, which can make it hard to grasp the common thread of the episode. In talking-head clips, a diverse range of people introduce a piece of clothing, share how they obtained it, who they got it from, where they have worn it, or how it makes them feel. About four of these stories are explored in greater depth in each episode. If an item of clothing is connected to a character’s past, Kohan finds respectful ways to re-enact each of these stories in a personalised way. While Shoham’s adventure of losing and tracing back her favourite white coat is retold in a colourful comic style, puppet figures are used to tell the story of Ross’s grandmother, who emigrated to the US from Italy and was known for her silk ties.

As everybody wears or has at least worn clothes at some point in their lives, Kohan cleverly introduces them as the linking element of the show. And although it becomes clear that clothing is so much more than a piece of fabric, determining how you are perceived and whether you feel like you belong somewhere, Worn Stories feels more like “A show about people and the clothes they wear”. Their stories are heart-wrenching at times but filled with so much optimism and zest for life that it makes this programme feel-good content for a lazy Sunday morning. The show is not instrumentalising personal stories to become binge-watch material but wants the viewer to pause and reflect on this cross-section of America that proves and celebrates its diversity. By granting well-known figures like designer Simon Doonan and congresswoman Frederica Wilson the same speaking time and detailed exploration as immigrants, people of colour and members of marginalised communities, such as yoga teachers Niecey and Mrs Park, who moved from South Korea to New York late in life, Worn Stories does not privilege one narrative over another, highlighting the fact that the worth of each story is equal. In this way, it tackles stereotypes about societally marginalised groups and advocates a more open world view without seeming constrainedly educative. Clothes might make the man, but we should never forget that we are all naked underneath.

Anne Pechtold

Featured Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube

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