Clothing as Artifact and Narrative: “Sentimental Value” Exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

Clothing and accessories have a tendency to become enmeshed with our lives and stories, and then become imbued with stories of their own. Emily Spivack, a fashion historian and the creator/editor of the Smithsonian’s fashion history blog, Threaded, began exploring other people’s clothes on eBay in approximately 2000. In 2007, she started formally collecting various items of clothing from the auction site—ones with particular stories attached to them—and created an online archive of the images along with the original text written by the eBay seller.

cutoffshortsThe pieces range from speculative rock and roll memorabilia (a snakeskin print dress supposedly custom made for Whitney Houston); to the antectodal (shoes worn by Mary Kay’s longtime personal assistant in Dallas, Texas); but all in all, most have obscure and deeply personal stories from the everyday people who wore them.

For instance, the vintage fur jacket a woman’s mother owned, found when she passed away; anonymous, blood-stained Civil War-era shirts; the jean shorts a woman wore the night she met her future husband at a Grateful Dead concert. On the more mythological side of things, there is a hat listed as “Women’s Red Velvet Gold Brocade Tribal Altar Cap VOODOO” which the lister explains was found at the estate sale of granddaughter of Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau. The Web-based project documented some 600 garments and their stories, and keeps the descriptions of the garments as written by the eBay posters themselves.

Now the Philadelphia Art Alliance presents the original objects along with the text, entitled “Emily Spivack: Sentimental Value,” is open through August 18, 2013.  The PAA, if you haven’t heard of it before, seeks to present innovative contemporary art with a focus on craft and design. This innovative look at the archive and narrative behind historic and everyday clothes exemplifies why how we dress matters so much to us, and how memories are wrapped with what we put on our bodies.