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27 AUGUST, 2014

Anne Truitt on Resisting the Label “Artist” and the Difference Between Doing Art and Being an Artist

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“Artists have no choice but to express their lives.”

At the age of fifty-three, the influential artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) confronted the existential discomfort any creative person feels in facing a major retrospective of his or her work — the Corcoran Gallery of Art had just staged one of Truitt’s. A retrospective, she felt, forces upon the artist a finite definition — this is what your work is, this who you are. It attempts to make visible and static those invisible, ever-fluid forces that compel an artist to make art.

To tease out her unease, Truitt set out to explore the dimensions of her personality and her creative impulse in a diary, in which she wrote diligently for a period of seven years. It was eventually published as Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — an extraordinary, soul-stretching collection of meditations on the trials, triumphs, and self-transcendence of the creative life.

Truitt once described her art as concerned “with the limen of consciousness, with the threshold at which experience becomes just perceptible,” but it is in the privacy of the diary that she ventures past that threshold and into the furthest frontiers of the psyche — her psyche, the artist’s psyche, the universal human psyche. Trained as a psychologist and with only one year of formal education in art, Truitt made a decision to “ride out the jeopardy of art with as much courage and faith” as possible. From this unusual standpoint, she reaches depths of insight and self-awareness inaccessible to most artists — to most human beings — and pulls out of them luminous wisdom on the love, labor, and life of art.

In one particularly poignant series of journal entries from the summer of 1974, Truitt exorcises the chronic resistance many artists have to the label of “artist” and the perils of letting others define you. On July 2 that year, she writes:

I do not understand why I seem able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don’t even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I’m an artist, being an artist isn’t so fancy because it’s just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems to be more to it than that. It isn’t “just me.” A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

The “just me” reaction was, I think, an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist. A life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories. The Renaissance focused this social attention on the artist’s individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists’ egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of the social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma. It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one’s self that is realistic.

This dilemma, Truitt cautions, is compounded by the contradictions of commercial art and the conflicting forces of authenticity and pragmatism that often force upon artists the choice between creative authenticity and commercial success:

The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze.

But Truitt soon sees another angle of this living-out of the artist — living out not one’s role of being an “artist,” a performance of sorts, but living out one’s immutable experience of doing art:

The terms of the experience and the terms of the work itself are totally different. But if the work is successful — I cannot ever know whether it is or not — the experience becomes the work and, through the work, is accessible to others with its original force.

For me, this process is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you’re going but knowing how to get there.

A few days later, in an entry reflecting on the work of the celebrated sculptor David Smith and, by extension, on all great art, Truitt writes:

He seemed never to forget that he was an artist. He just plain chose not to.

[...]

Artists have no choice but to express their lives. They have only, and that not always, a choice of process. This process does not change the essential content of their work in art, which can only be their life.

A month after her original resistant contemplation of the label “artist,” Truitt revisits the subject, exercising the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind with an acknowledgment that in order to unblock the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow, one must begin with a submission to the role of artist. On August 6, she writes:

In skirting the role of the artist, I now begin to think that I have made too wide a curve, that I have deprived myself of a certain strength. Indeed, I am not sure that I can grow as an artist until I can bring myself to accept that I am one.

Part of my intense discomfort this past year has been that I was pried out of my place there. I was attached to my secret burrow, which now begins to feel a little stale.

And also egotistic, confined, even imprisoning. I begin to see that by clinging to this position I was limiting what I had to handle in the world to what I could rationalize. As long as I stayed within my own definition of myself, I could control what I admitted into that definition. By insisting that I was “just me,” I held myself aloof. Let others claim to be artists, I said to myself, holding my life separate and unique, beyond all definition but my own.

[...]

The open being: I am an artist. Even to write it makes me feel deeply uneasy. I am, I feel, not good enough to be an artist. And this leads me to wonder whether my distaste for the inflated social definition of the artist is not an inverse reflection of secret pride. Have I haughtily rejected the inflation on the outside while entertaining it on the inside? In my passion for learning how to make true for others what I felt to be true for myself (and I cannot remember, except very, very early on, ever not having had this passion), I think I may have fallen into idolatry of those who were able to communicate this way. Artists.

So to think myself an artist was self-idolatry. In a clear wind of the company of artists this summer, I am gently disarmed. We are artists because we are ourselves.

Daybook is a spectacular read in its entirety, with wisdom on everything from the role of daily routine and environment to the relationship between mental health and creativity. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Anna Deavere Smith’s superb Letters to a Young Artist.

Thanks, Dani

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27 AUGUST, 2014

The Psychology of Our Willful Blindness and Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

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How to counter the gradual narrowing of our horizons.

“Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know,” pioneering investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote in a beautiful 1926 letter of life-advice to his baby son. And yet the folly of the human condition is precisely that we can’t know what we don’t know — as E.F. Schumacher elegantly put it in his guide for the perplexed, “everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see.” What obscures those transformative unknowns from view are the unconscious biases that even the best-intentioned of us succumb to.

In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (public library), serial entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan examines the intricate, pervasive cognitive and emotional mechanisms by which we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.” We do that, Heffernan argues and illustrates through a multitude of case studies ranging from dictatorships to disastrous love affairs to Bernie Madoff, because “the more tightly we focus, the more we leave out” — or, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz put it in her remarkable exploration of exactly what we leave out in our daily lives, because “attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”

The concept of “willful blindness,” Heffernan explains, comes from the law and originates from legislature passed in the 19th century — it’s the somewhat counterintuitive idea that you’re responsible “if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see.” What’s most uneasy-making about the concept is the implication that it doesn’t matter whether the avoidance of truth is conscious. This basic mechanism of keeping ourselves in the dark, Heffernan argues, plays out in just about every aspect of life, but there are things we can do — as individuals, organizations, and nations — to lift our blinders before we walk into perilous situations that later produce the inevitable exclamation: How could I have been so blind?

Heffernan explores the “friendly alibis” we manufacture for our own inertia — the same ones fueling the “backfire effect” that explains why it’s so hard for us to change our minds. She writes in the book:

Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there’s much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves.

Illustration from 'How To Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.

One of the subtlest yet most pervasive manifestations of our willful blindness is our choice of mates. Data from 25 million online dating site questionnaires reveal that “we mostly marry and live with people very like ourselves” — a finding that Heffernan points out always annoys people:

We all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren’t predictable, that we aren’t so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don’t like to feel that we’re blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don’t like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity.

[...]

We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us — or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.

And yet, she notes, our minds work much like the dating site algorithms — we scan life for matches and, when we find one, we relish the feel-good affirmation. It’s just one manifestation of our soft spot for “filter bubbles,” exploited by everything from Amazon’s book recommendation engines to the elaborate audience-tailoring of modern media. (Heffernan touches on the big-picture disservice in the media’s insidious practice of narrowing our horizons for profit, rather than expanding them in the public interest: “[Media companies] know that when we buy a newspaper or a magazine, we aren’t looking for a fight… The search for what is familiar and comfortable underlies our media consumption habits in just the same way as it makes us yearn for Mom’s mac ’n’ cheese.”) She captures the dark side:

The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.

Remarkably, these blind spots turn out to have a physical foundation in the brain. Heffernan quotes neurologist Robert Burton, who studies the biological basis of bias and why our brains tend to reject information that broadens our outlook:

Neural networks don’t give you a direct route from, say, a flash of light straight to your consciousness. There are all kinds of committees that vote along the way, whether that flash of light is going to go straight to your consciousness or not. And if there are enough ‘yes’ votes, then yes you can see it. If there aren’t, you could miss it.

But here’s the thing: What does your brain like? What gets the “yes” vote? It likes the stuff it already recognizes. It likes what is familiar. So you will see the familiar stuff right away. The other stuff may take longer, or it may never impinge on your consciousness. You just won’t see it.

Burton illustrates this with a beautiful, if unsettling, metaphor:

Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random — there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops.

Over the course of our lives, our accumulation of experiences, relationships, and ideas shapes the proverbial riverbed of the mind, and the water begins to flow with less and less resistance, which in turn produces a sense of certainty and ease that only deepens the riverbed. (In the excellent A General Theory of Love, these coteries of gradually encoded information patterns are elegantly described as “attractors”.) Heffernan contemplates the repercussions:

Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more — even as the landscape shrinks.

Hardly anywhere is our willful blindness more unrelenting than in love. The old adage that “love is blind,” it turns out, has strong psychological roots:

When we love someone, we see them as smarter, wittier, prettier, stronger than anyone else sees them. To us, a beloved parent, partner, or child has endlessly more talent, potential, and virtue than mere strangers can ever discern. Being loved, when we are born, keeps us alive; without love for her child, how could any new mother manage or any child survive? And if we grow up surrounded by love, we feel secure in the knowledge that others believe in us, will champion and defend us. That confidence — that we are loved and therefore lovable — is an essential building block of our identity and self-confidence. We believe in ourselves, at least in part, because others believe in us and we depend mightily on their belief. As human beings, we are highly driven to find and to protect the relationships that make us feel good about ourselves and that make us feel safe.. Those mirrors confirms our sense of self-worth. Love does the same thing … and that seems to be just as true even if our love is based on illusion. Indeed, there seems to be some evidence not only that all love is based on illusion — but that love positively requires illusion in order to endure.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox, and Me' by Fanny Britt, a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

Because of how integral love is to our sense of identity — lest we forget: “Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” — we are remarkably averse to seeing anything that threatens that sense by pulling the virtues of our loved ones into question.

The most harrowing example of this blindness, Heffernan points out, is in families damaged by child abuse. Some 700,000 cases of child abuse are reported each year — and this is one of the most underreported forms of violence in society for a variety of reasons — which makes it impossible to imagine how so many families can be blind to the tragedy within. And yet, Heffernan notes, imagining and acknowledging such a devastating idea requires of non-perpetrating parents and guardians to question their own reality to such a degree that many find unconscious escape in their “willful blindness.”

She returns to the broader phenomenon:

Nations, institutions, individuals can all be blinded by love, by the need to believe themselves good and worthy and valued. We simply could not function if we believed ourselves to be otherwise. But when we are blind to the flaws and failings of what we love, we aren’t effective either… We make ourselves powerless when we pretend we don’t know. That’s the paradox of blindness: We think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.

And yet willful blindness, Heffernan argues, isn’t a fatal diagnosis of the human condition — it may be our natural, evolutionarily cultivated tendency, but it is within our capability to diffuse it with the right combination of intention and attention. She reflects on the heartening evidence to which the various studies reviewed in the book point:

The most crucial learning that has emerged from this science is the recognition that we continue to change right up to the moment we die. Every experience and encounter, each piece of new learning, each relationship or reassessment alters how our minds work. And no two experiences are the same. In his work on the human genome, the Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner reminds us that even identical twins will have different experiences in different environments and that that makes them fundamentally different beings. Identical twins develop different immune systems. Mental practice alone can change how our brains operate. The plasticity and responsiveness of our minds is what makes each of us most remarkable… We aren’t automata serving the master computer in our heads, and our capacity for change can never be underestimated.

[...]

We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?

Willful Blindness is a provocative and necessary read from cover to cover. Complement it with NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain and Rebecca Solnit’s manifesto for welcoming the unknown.

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26 AUGUST, 2014

Worn Stories: Playful and Poignant Tales of Clothes That Encode Life’s Most Meaningful Memories

By:

Wearable emotional memories from John Hodgman, Marina Abramovic, Piper Kerman, Pat Mahoney, Debbie Millman, Paola Antonelli, Kenneth Goldsmith, Meghan O’Rourke, Rosanne Cash, and more.

One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.

For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.

The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.

Spivack writes in the introduction:

The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone — in all of these are encoded the stories of our lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.

Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman selects an outfit she wore at a key moment in the memoir-turned-TV-hit Orange Is the New Black — a vintage suit that was among the three outfits she packed for her final court appearance and sentencing after taking a plea deal (which, she explains, 95% of criminal defendants do):

As your case wends through the system, you barely speak in court; the prosecutor and defense attorney do most of the talking. Unlike 80 percent of criminal defendants, I could afford to hire a lawyer, and I was lucky that he was a very good and experienced one. He had advocated long and hard with the prosecutor on my behalf, and then the day came where his work and my case would be decided by the judge, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.

Most criminal defendants wear whatever they are given by their attorney or family to their sentencing ; a lot of people are too poor to afford bail, and so they have been wearing jailhouse orange for many months before ever getting their day in court. I was much more fortunate; when I flew to Chicago to be sentenced to prison, I had three choices of court attire in my suitcase. A cadet-blue pantsuit, a very severe navy coatdress, and a wild card I had packed at the last minute: a vintage fifties pencil-skirt suit I had bought on eBay, in a coffee and cream tweed with a subtle sky blue check. It looked like something a Hitchcock heroine would have worn.

“That’s the one,” said my lawyer, pointing to the skirt suit. “We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbor when he looks at you.”

For someone standing for judgment, the importance of being seen as a complete human being, someone who is more than just the contents of the file folders that rest on the bench in front of His or Her Honor, cannot be overstated.

Despite the dramatic circumstances, Kerman’s experience captures something central to Spivack’s project — something fundamental about how we use clothing as this paradoxical combination of camouflage and self-revelation, a shield for and a stripping to our basic humanity.

Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan selects a pair of decidedly eighties Lycra cycle tights with orange-and-black graffiti writing and shares the touching story behind the seemingly silly garment:

One by one my roommates, friends, and boyfriends in Los Angeles started getting sick from AIDS. It was very early on in the epidemic and when you went to the doctor, they couldn’t refer you to an expert. They asked you if you were religious, meaning, you were going to die.

I decided to join a gym with a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At least we could be healthy, we thought… I went every day. In an attempt to do “healthy” things, I became addicted to the lights, the music, the endorphins. It was a very showbiz-y way to keep in shape, and many actresses would go to the class, like Madonna when she was starting to become well known.

[...]

The cult of aerobics was waning by the time I moved to New York in 1985, but with so many people getting sick, for a couple of years it was an antidote to this incredible malaise of melancholy that had been blanketing L.A.

Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman recounts the story of a peculiar yellow coat from the era in her life when she was standing on the precipice of her creative journey, long before she was a successful artist, prolific author, and award-winning interviewer. She recounts one July afternoon in her late twenties when she, broke and lusting after a glamorous life, ended up at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue after a months-long quest to track down the mysterious, enchanting perfume she had smelled on an exceptionally elegant woman. A uniformed man opened the gates to an unfamiliar world, “the most elegantly expensive environment” she had ever entered, where people very much unlike her — people “very, very rich” — were browsing $200 scarves.

Just then, a kindly saleslady — one imagines a character like Cinderella’s fairy godmother — took pity on Millman and whispered in her ear a thrilling secret: they were having a sale upstairs. Millman was thrilled, but it didn’t take her long to realize that, even with the markdowns, she couldn’t afford anything — until she spotted “the softest, most luxurious, ultra-bright lemony-yellow cashmere coat ever made.” Certain it would cost thousands of dollars, she apprehensively searched for the price, which revealed itself like a miracle — the original $2,200 was crossed out, and a hopeful $400 was written in its place.

Millman writes:

I calculated what the expense would mean to my budget. Undeterred, I tried the coat on. It was at least one size too big. None of this mattered to me. I felt glamorous and beautiful. As the clerk wrapped up the coat in the biggest orange box I had ever seen, I knew this wasn’t a mistake. I would wear this coat forever.

And wear it I did! I wore it every day from September until March. I wore it to work, I wore it every weekend, I wore it on vacation in Vermont, and I wore it traveling to the West Coast. The only time I wished for a warmer coat was en route to a client’s office on Fifth Avenue one blustery subzero February afternoon. I was chewing a large piece of purple bubble gum and realized I’d have to get rid of it before my meeting. It was so cold I didn’t want to take my gloves off to take the gum out of my mouth. Perhaps the temperature affected my judgment, or perhaps I was lazy, but suddenly I did something I had never, ever done before: I raised my chin, puckered up my lips, and let my gum fly. As it descended onto the sidewalk, I saw that a man walking toward me was about to collide with the arc of its fall. I made eye contact with him as the sticky mass fell at his feet. Horrified, I instantly realized I was face-to-face with Woody Allen. Mercifully, he sidestepped the gum. But his outrage was palpable. He shook his head in disgust and passed me by. I was too embarrassed and frightened to even say I was sorry.

Two days later I went out with my friend Ellen. She had snagged a reservation at the newly reopened Le Cirque and we got all dolled up for the occasion. I, of course, wore my yellow coat. We were seated between the coat check and the front door, and since New York City was still in a deep freeze, I decided to keep my coat wrapped around me.

Then I saw him. He was approaching the coat check with his wife, fumbling for his ticket. Wildly, I looked around for a place to hide. Ellen asked me if I was okay and I hissed, no. I motioned with my eyes. Ellen squealed in delight, and he looked over at us. Once again, in the span of forty-eight hours, I was face-to-face with Woody Allen.

Our eyes locked and I saw him recognize my unmistakable ultra-bright yellow coat and the same frightened face. He grimaced. “You!” he said, as his wife pulled on his arm. I felt myself turn white and then red, as everyone turned to stare.

Two and a half decades later, I still have my beloved coat. It’s lost its belt and much of its lemony sheen, and it hasn’t left its special place in my closet in a long time. Maybe I’ll wear it again one day. As Woody Allen famously said, “Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.” I’ll remind him of that if I ever bump into him again.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli selects a pair of aviator glasses that capture the strange blend of terror and optimism of growing up amidst Milan’s political unrest in the 1970s. Class was often interrupted by bomb threats. Her daily morning walk to school took her, always scared, through a contentious urban borderland that divided the peacoat-clad, anti-authoritarian leftists and the Sanbabilini — the “gun-toting neo-fascists from wealthy Milanese families who shared responsibility for much of the violence around Italy at that time” — whose distinctive look included fitted shirts, trench coats, and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. She tells Spivack:

Sometime in the late 1970s, during this time of upheaval, my father came home from his first trip to the United States with a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators he’d bought for me. He had not thought of the political implications; he had just wanted a gift that embodied “America.” Even though it was only a pair of sunglasses, it was like holding a bomb in my hands. I couldn’t wear them.

Along the way, the first pair of Aviators disappeared, and I decided to buy myself another pair. They never looked good on me, but it was a sort of exorcism. Even then, years later, it felt almost like they were burning in my hands; they transport me to a moment that was formative, but one that I also want to forget.

I compare notes with friends who grew up in Israel or Beirut, for example, and I realize we all went through something similar — living despite the bombs going off, despite the fact that it was almost a war zone. Little details, like scents or sounds or a piece of clothing, bring back the violence, and that’s what these Aviators do for me.

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, a woman of unparalleled creative vision and extraordinary wisdom, selects an apple-green sweater that belonged to her mother. She writes:

It is my lucky sweater because I always need luck. And the feeling of being lucky, which is ridiculous and elusive, is still a pleasant one.

Margaret D. Stetz

Then there are the bunny ears, which turn out to belong not to a Playmate but to Harvard Ph.D. Margaret D. Stetz — a self-described “middle-aged professor of women’s studies and literature” and a Beatrix Potter scholar, who wears the ears while lecturing about Potter’s iconic Peter Rabbit character. Stetz writes:

The notion of dressing women as “Bunnies” was, of course, the invention of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs. When she was a young journalist, Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem famously went undercover as a Bunny in 1963 to expose the harassment and miserable working conditions of women who wore the Clubs’ uniforms. Today, there’s something satisfying about taking these symbols of sexual availability and servility and flipping their meaning. By combining bunny ears with a tailored jacket and skirt on the lecture platform at a university, museum, or other cultural institution, I’m doing something subversive. No longer do they signify that women are merely “Playmates.” Conversely, this is also my way of suggesting that women don’t have to be wholly serious to be feminists.

Emily Spivack

Tucked midway through the book is Spivack’s own story about a pair of cheap black flip-flops her grandmother bought for her nearly twenty years ago off the Delaware boardwalk. In a way, these unassuming essentials capture the essence of the project — a seemingly ordinary object of clothing imbued with immeasurable sentimental value, amplified over a lifetime. Spivack writes:

Over time, these flip-flops — plain, pulled from a rack without a thought, manufactured to be disposable but apparently indestructible — have become such a lasting fixture in my life. Precisely, perhaps, because they are so ordinary: you don’t even notice them casually accumulating the years, like the shops along Rehoboth Avenue, like grandmothers, like everything.

Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean, sage of the written word, recounts her “uniform fixation” — the lifelong quest to find the ideal, and as it turns out mythic, outfit that would capture her personality perfectly and be therefore bought in multiples to be worn forever. She captures this cyclical infatuation elegantly:

It’s a temporary delusion that comes over me with regularity — a belief that by wearing this perfect thing, I will look right and feel good no matter what. Like, “How did I not know that I’m an agnes b. T-shirt and denim skirt kind of person? Now, I’m going to order ten of each and I never have to buy clothes again.” When I’m in it, I totally believe I have found my look, my personal style.

It’s cultish and my own particular mania. Each time I start over again, I think, “those were false gods — I have now found the true God.” I even observe myself doing it. I understand that fashion, by definition, is a changing thing, and so is one’s body. I try to talk myself out of my own crazy conviction that I’ve finally solved the puzzle — and yet I can’t do it.

I guess it’s probably safer to be this way about clothing than men or religion or something that could be really dangerous.

Ross Intelisano

Ross Intelisano picks a tie once made by his beloved immigrant grandmother, Anna, who tailored all of his clothes growing up, worked until she was 78, and lived to be 95. Two weeks after her death, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways, where Intelisano’s family lived. The house was condemned and all access was denied, but a family friend bravely ventured in to retrieve a few surviving valuables, including Anna’s ties. Intelisano writes:

That day, my father came over to my house, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the storm. He proudly presented me with two of Anna’s ties. I wear them all the time. I like handling the silk as I knot the ties.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith turns his penchant for subverting literature to fashion and recounts wearing an over-the-top paisley suit by avant-garde designer Thom Browne to the White House, where Goldsmith was invited to read some of his poetry to President Obama. Browne had designed the suit under his Brooks Brothers-owned Black Fleece label, taking Brooks Brothers’ signature patterns to an intentional extreme. Goldsmith recounts his exchange with the President that night, who was, coincidentally, wearing a conventional Brooks Brothers suit himself:

Upon our introduction, the first thing the President said to me was, “That’s a great suit! You know? I’d wear a suit like that. But my staff would never let me.” To which I replied, “Mr. President, this is one instance where it’s better being an artist than being the President of the United States: artists can wear anything they want.” And then he glanced down at my saddle shoes and exclaimed, “You’re wearing golf shoes!” Which in part was true, that being the genius of Thom Browne, to take something familiar and recontextualize it to the point of it being “wrong.” And that is exactly what I aimed to do with my performance: to straddle tradition and radicality, being both and, at the same time, being neither; to embrace contradiction, keep people guessing.

David Carr

The New York Times’ David Carr reminisces about searching for a cheap t-shirt in a classic New York moment of sweltering need, when you’re forced to choose between suffering your wholly indiscreet sweat stains or buying one of those ubiquitous “I♥NY” touristy shirts. (“You can’t wear a shirt like that ironically,” Carr notes, “unless, say, you hate New York, which I do not.”) Instead, he chanced upon a miraculous find at one of Manhattan’s myriad souvenir shops — a defective t-shirt, with the “New York” script printed upside-down. Noting the kink, Carr offered the shopkeeper $3 for the oddball shirt and gleefully walked off with his find. Except for the occasional compliment from a hipster on the subway, people notice the shirt but say nothing, of which Carr remarks:

I like that about my shirt: it is something that is intuitively understood in the City, as we insufferable locals call it, and is baffling to others, akin to many other aspects of living or working in New York.

Pat Mahoney

Some of the stories remind us that the assumptions we make — in this case, assumptions about what people seek to signal with their clothing choices — are often lightyears away from the truth. Take, for instance, the flesh-colored American Apparel nylon shorts selected by LCD Soundsystem founding member and drummer Pat Mahoney. One might write them off as a hipster or counter-hipster joke, but they actually represent a curious combination of extreme practicality and creative ritualization. Mahoney, who admits to sweating a great deal during his “epic sets” on stage, would regularly end up “drenched to the bone” after a show, his jeans left to dry in the tour bus until they smelled, much to his fellow bandmates’ dismay, “like rotten cotton.” He needed something quick-drying and light to wear onstage, so he bought the shorts on the road, fully aware of their laughable connotations. But over time, they came to serve a deeper psychological function — like a number of famous creators known for maintaining various odd habits and rituals to keep their creative flow flowing, Mahoney overcomes his chronic stage fright by employing “elaborate juju” — a compulsion to have everything just right, from the way he ties his sneakers to how he positions his drums on the rug — to get himself in a more secure mindset. Wearing the shorts became part of that creative ritual — part of the behavioral and environmental cues that psychology suggests help put us in a state of creative flow.

John Hodgman

“I have a dress and I have worn it many times,” comedian John Hodgman opens with a bang. That dress, it turns out, got its start when Hodgman was invited to impersonate Ayn Rand on the Dead Authors podcast. He writes:

I’d been fascinated with Rand since I’d written a story in the New York Times magazine about a competitive championship tournament bridge player who was also an active objectivist and Rand devotee. I had read half of Atlas Shrugged before I got the gist of my role. I really enjoyed the book because of its absurdly reductive philosophy that inadvertently plays on adolescent male narcissism like a jazz saxophone — to draw a connection to the famous Randian saxophonist and economist Alan Greenspan — but it also spoke directly to the adolescent male fantasy of “I’m the only smart one. Everyone is leeching off of me and I’d rather destroy my work than compromise my integrity by being nice to others.” Her moral severity came as a tonic to my cultural relativist upbringing.

The Rand impersonation eventually became a part of his stand-up routine and the dress was worn many times. Hodgman reflects on its allure:

Even though I’m imitating, in a ridiculous fashion, an exaggerated version of Ayn Rand, what precedes the moment of putting on the dress is an utter nudity of self, about as close as I’ll ever get.

Dorthy Finger

But undoubtedly the most moving story comes from Holocaust survivor Dorothy Finger, who was a child when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Her family went into hiding, but inevitably succumbed to the tragic fate of so many Jews at the time. Her father was the first one killed, “almost beaten to death and then sent to an extermination camp.” Soon, her mother was shot. Dorothy herself was sent to a labor camp, where she was subjected to grueling toil and regularly beaten by the Nazis. On July 27, 1943, she escaped into the nearby forest with her aunt and two cousins as machine guns shot after them. They survived for a few months, into the middle of winter, huddling together to keep from freezing. But the Nazis eventually went looking for them, killing Dorothy’s aunt and her 17-year-old male cousin. Finger writes:

I was shot in the ear and I fainted. It just grazed my ear, but the impact of the explosion threw me on the earth and I was unconscious. I swear I saw my soul go to heaven, white angels and things like that. I thought I was dead and that when you’re dead you see yourself go to heaven. Of course, I understand now that I was not conscious. When I came to, I was even more upset. “God, why didn’t you finish me off, why didn’t you kill me, rather than slowly starve me to death? I have nobody. No parents.” I just had my second cousin in the forest with me.

The Nazis came back a second time. We heard shots coming from one side and we ran the other way. I fell through some ice into a body of water that wasn’t very deep. My instinct to live was so great that I could still think about how to survive.

I covered myself up with branches. I could hear the Ukrainians saying to the Nazis, “Somebody must have been running through there. I can see footprints.” And the Nazis said, “I don’t want to go that way or we’ll fall into the ice too. We’ll catch him the next time.” My heart stopped beating. I stopped breathing. I waited until I couldn’t hear their boots on the ice. I came out of the water with everything frozen on me, including the little dress that I wore until the day we were liberated from the forest.

In the forest, Finger got typhus and sank into a delirious fever. She lost all her hair and was so sick that she stayed in the fetal position until she was unable to walk, let alone run. At that point, she knew that if the Nazis came back, she’d be killed. She writes:

I don’t know what was worse — the fear, the hunger, the lice, or the humiliation.

Springtime came, and then summer, and it was warmer—although to this day, I am still cold.

I have not overcome it. The shooting started and it was coming from both sides. I still couldn’t run because I hadn’t completely recovered from the typhus. “I do not want to see the face of the Nazis that will shoot me,” I thought. I slowly moved from my back to my stomach. “Let them just shoot me in my back or my head and then it’ll be over.” The shooting stopped and I heard tanks coming into the forest, and I didn’t know if they were German or Russian. They were Russian tanks and they had come to liberate us, exactly one year from the day I entered the forest, July 27, 1944.

Young Dorothy eventually made it back to her hometown, but her few surviving neighbors had assumed she, like her parents, was dead, so they had discarded the family’s remaining possessions. The only thing she could recover was a piece of wool fabric from her family’s department store. She saved that, then wrote to an aunt and uncle in Delaware, who were eventually able to bring her to the United States. When she moved, her entire luggage — all her earthly possessions — consisted of two dresses, including the one she had worn that gruesome year in the forest, and the wool fabric. She made it to America, enrolled in high school, and graduated a year and a half later. Upon graduation, another uncle gave her $25 — a fortune in 1949 and in the context of her life — which she used to have a suit made from the wool fabric that was her only link to her family and her past life. Finger, now in her eighties, writes:

I always figured I’d be buried in it. But if people can learn from this suit and its history, what difference does it make what I’m buried in?

Worn Stories is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true labor of love that weaves this common thread of intensely personal, courageously vulnerable sartorial memories into a colorful tapestry of the human experience.

Photographs by Ally Lindsay; courtesy of Emily Spivack / Princeton Architectural Press

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