Whether you realize it or not, you probably have thoughts on fashion. You don’t have to have written your thesis on the history of the pocket square to have an emotional response to an item of clothing or a piece of jewelry.
Avery Trufelman has hosted two seasons of the podcast series “Articles of Interest.” A project of the design-centered show “99% Invisible,” it focuses on the things we wear that are so much more than simple items. Trufelman didn’t consider herself a fashion expert at the outset of the project. Then again, in her experience, underestimating your own knowledge about these things seems to be pretty common.
“So many people feel that way. I can’t tell you how many people I reached out for. And they’re like, ‘I don’t have anything to say about fashion. I don’t know about fashion.’ And they all do. We’ve all got thoughts on it. Just not everyone wants to admit it,” Trufelman told IndieWire.
Season 1 of “Articles of Interest,” which crested with a closing chapter on the rise and growth of punk culture, was a learning experience for Trufelman, not just in what constitutes various perceptions and truths about items of clothing we take for granted, but how exactly to talk about them. The second group of episodes originally started as a collection of stories about things from this corner of culture that can be intimidating.
“I started thinking about this a lot when I was looking at an episode about bathing suits, because so much of it was about showing off that you had a tan, showing off that you could travel. It was always about hinting and signifying something larger,” Trufelman said. “Things that we’re scared of started to include wedding dresses, started to include diamonds. I was like, ‘You know what? I think this is a season about luxury.’ It’s kind of hard to wrap our minds around it. Why do we want this shit? No one needs a diamond. No one needs to smell like crushed roses. These are not necessities, and yet they’re marketed to all of us and we all harbor these strange desires.”
Making “Articles of Interest” should be a near-impossible task. It’s not uncommon for a podcast to have to translate certain ideas for audience listening, but there’s something fundamental to these episodes that are rooted in completely different sensory experiences. How can you hear a sturdy pair of blue jeans or the jasmine in a perfume? Trufelman had plenty of experience as a producer on “99% Invisible,” unpacking philosophies behind different architectural trends and movements. “Articles of Interest” draws on the same principle that you can always search for a photo of a building or a painting or a designer handbag. There are emotional experiences that have the ability to dig deeper.
“I found that was especially true with fashion because this stuff can be kind of alienating. Fashion magazines are intimidating. So I think there’s a lot of power in being like, ‘Listen, you don’t have to know the differences between silhouettes. You don’t have to touch any material. We’re just going to tell you the raw story,'” Trufelman said. “In a weird way, it’s less about learning how to describe things on the radio, and more about how to just make peace with not describing things. The story is more important than the object itself. The object is just a stand-in and it’s an inroad to learn about the people behind it.”
It’s one thing to have that as a guiding principle and another thing to pull off the tricky task of putting it into practice. There’s a comfort in the rhythm of “Articles of Interest,” a kind of momentum that comes from the fact that these are not stories told with extreme scholarly remove. In Trufelman’s narration, there’s an enthusiasm and an attachment to each of these subjects that, even if you as a listener don’t share it in the same way, still serves as each episode’s guiding engine.
“I loved to go to parties and tell people these stories. I must have practiced the Théâtre de la Mode story a dozen times on different people, just telling them what I was working on. That, to me, is the best practice,” Trufelman said. “It’s almost like how a comedian practices their sets in smaller clubs before they can bring it to a Netflix special. I just find it really useful to watch where people lose interest, watch where people are confused. And noticing the way I tell them, what descriptions work best in my mouth, in my mind, and translate the best. It’s the litmus test for me. If I’m not excited to tell them at a party to my friends, why should I tell them on the show? If I’m not telling these stories to my friends and family, then that’s a warning sign.”
Of course, any discussion of art is going to mingle somewhat with myth. “Articles of Interest” acknowledges the points where legend may not completely line up with the reality of centuries past. Those two forces are nearly impossible to separate cleanly, especially in the fashion world, where movements can start organically without one clear, indisputable inciting incident.
“These changes don’t happen instantaneously. They’re not so easily explainable. And yet, when we look back at it with the benefit of hindsight, we make everything so causal and so neat. Of course, that’s not how anything happens, so I try the best I can to introduce a little bit of nuance,” Trufelman said. “It’s hard with fashion because these are slow changes that are affected by a thousand different things, and especially because you’re talking about things that go on individuals’ bodies, everyone has their own reasons to dress the way they do. We’re not automatons just receiving updates from some central location.”
There’s also a simmering throughline in “Articles” that examines how we acquire what we wear. The Season 1 story on blue jeans and the more recent installment on diamonds each address issues of sustainability. If clothes are something worth celebrating, it follows that we should try to give them as long a life as we can.
“I think that is also what I wanted to get at very subtly at the end of the wedding dress episode, that there is tremendous power in saving the clothes and keeping something and looking back at it and holding the memory that’s inside of it,” Trufelman said. “It has to do less with buying designer clothes and more just treasuring the clothes you have. Appreciate them, think about them, think about where they come from. My clothes have become so precious to me, rather than this ‘Stockpile all your clothes until you Konmari them all in some giant bum rush.'”
With episodes released throughout the spring and early summer, finalizing this season happened during quarantine. The last episode came with an announcement that Trufelman was leaving “99% Invisible.” Working on her next project, she’s encountered something facing many podcast creators in recent months: Even with the relative nimbleness of audio production, getting tape with the same pre-March quality has been a challenge. From Trufelman’s perspective, seeing people adjust to different expectations and standards might end up helping ease some of the industry’s long-held preconceptions.
“Honestly, I love in this moment that we’re not snobs about audio quality. For so long there was this idea in podcasting, and I think we’re going to look back at that as an era where everyone had to be in studio in these immaculate settings with no wind and no sound. These bodies floating in space communicating with each other, these literal brains in jars, volleying information back and forth over the transom. I just think that is so over. That is done, and I love it,” Trufelman said. “I’m moving on to make more work in quarantine and I love hearing people’s apartments. I love hearing the traffic outside. And I think that was something I always tried to do with ‘Articles.’ I really like traveling to people. I like feeling like you’re in a place and having a bouquet of textures in the piece. Space matters. Space affects how we communicate. So I really hope that as soon as we’re allowed to send people back into the studios, we don’t start defaulting to that again.”
That appreciation lines up so well with another elemental idea in “Articles of Interest.” A deeper understanding of what we wear inevitably leads to the idea that this is an undeniable artistic history and tradition that plays out in our everyday choices. One way to express that, an idea that she got from the illustrator Maira Kalman, is something that Trufelman has incorporated into her own life.
“One of my favorite things that I’ve started to do is hang my garments on the wall. I loved that idea of treating them like art, like they’re a painting,” Trufelman said. “I just want to see that sort of appreciation for clothes that, sure, make you look cool. But also, even if you’re not wearing them out in the world, just gives you a lot of pleasure.”
For more of the best podcast episodes of 2020, check out our full mid-year list (including an episode of “Articles of Interest”) here.