Sentimental Value: New Exhibit Explores the Stories Behind Used Clothing

by , 05/20/13   filed under: Fashion Artifacts, Features

Sentimental Value, Threaded, Emily Spivack, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, secondhand clothes, secondhand clothing, eBay, vintage clothes, vintage fashion, vintage clothing, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, fashion artifacts

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Do you care about connecting with your clothing or would you rather wear it without a second thought?  Most people would say the latter. In fact, when it comes to most modern day shoppers, the idea of bonding with a shirt seems about as comfortable as slipping into a power crystal room to clean one’s chakras. Yet with all the knowledge we continue to accrue of garment factory disasters from fast fashion, deforestation from luxury houses and worldwide water pollution, getting closer to one’s clothing might be the exact prescription for bettering the planet.

Sentimental Value, Threaded, Emily Spivack, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, secondhand clothes, secondhand clothing, eBay, vintage clothes, vintage fashion, vintage clothing, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, fashion artifacts

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Emily Spivack, founder of Smithsonian’s fashion history blog Threaded recently launched an exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Alliance based on her connection to clothing project, Sentimental Value. What first started as a web-based art project, Spivack says that Sentimental Value now serves as a multi-platformed way to connect “the age-old desire to tell stories through special objects with the easily accessible platform of the internet.”

Spivack says in terms of the internet, she recognized through venues like eBay, a new “vernacular mode of expression” that was coming through clothing up for sale.

Just before she started Sentimental Value in 2007, she noticed some people, not all, were sharing stories about the clothing they were selling that varied from being funny to sad and historical. She’s tapped into those stories from many angles throughout her professional career from hosting creative writing workshops at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art and The First Person Arts Festival using clothing as a trigger for personal narratives.

“It’s not common for people to share stories but when they do, it’s really personal,” Spivack says, commenting that some of the pieces she’s bought off eBay have ranged from being levitated in, to symbols of relationships gone bad and celebrity tie-ins.

“People post stories from all over the world because clothing tends to be universal. I do also think that with Sentimental Value, I’m also as intrigued why people want to share some of these personal stories. How being part of social media helps them and why people need to share so much,” says Spivack.

Sentimental Value, Threaded, Emily Spivack, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, secondhand clothes, secondhand clothing, eBay, vintage clothes, vintage fashion, vintage clothing, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, fashion artifacts

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Although it’s meant to be an online marketplace for financial transactions, Spivack says that eBay has “unintentionally become a repository of millions of anecdotes and fleeting memories that are surprisingly personal” and she has been collecting and documenting these stories online, while acquiring the objects in the process.

The installation at the Philadelphia Art Alliance is Spivack’s first solo exhibition of Sentimental Value and which highlights many of these garments and their stories. The exhibition, running until August 18 mirrors the powerful relationships we have with our own clothing, and challenges us to consider why we consume, what we hold onto, and how we share.

Spivack says her exhibit and site are an ongoing look into connections to clothing and calls Sentimental Value more of a conceptual art project with an “anthropological detailing of what’s also happening in pop and internet culture.”

“With Threaded, I bring stories into contemporary culture and make them resonate with a wide range of ages…I make pop culture and history have a tie in,” she says. “And I would almost say understanding the context of how clothes came to be is even more important than anything. Once we have an understanding of the context, we can take a more anthropological approach to how they’ve evolved.”

Sentimental Value, Threaded, Emily Spivack, Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, secondhand clothes, secondhand clothing, eBay, vintage clothes, vintage fashion, vintage clothing, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, fashion artifacts

Photo by Shutterstock

Spivack cites past stories on Threaded, including a series on stockings and their cultural history and issues around etiquette and covering legs.

“History is not necessarily what we think of today when we buy clothes,” she says. “Very few people know that sequins have been around forever, that they were sewn in King Tut’s tomb as he went into the afterlife. Leonardo da Vinci had a sequin making machine that made gelatin sequins,” says Spivack.

Still the question begs an answer, that even with the stories we will read online and in print about a wasteful fashion industry, and even after we see that working conditions, and the planet are clamoring for notice, can exhibits and sites like Spivack’s have an impact on the way we connect to our clothing?

Spivack is hopeful.

“I do think it’s something growing in significance and something men and women are engaging in. They are being just a little more responsible holding onto things because of the economy and being more thoughtful about purchases,” she says.

“Clothing is a too often overlooked storytelling device so I think we should start looking at it more that way in terms of making change.”

+ Sentimental Value at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

+ Emily Spivack

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