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‘Worn Stories’ Review: Netflix Doc Series Celebrates the All-Encompassing Power of What We Wear

Spanning everything from dry cleaning to outer space, this eight-part look at people's most treasured clothing items captures an expansive variety of life's experiences.

Worn Stories. Zelda in Worn Stories. Cr. NETFLIX © 2021 Worn Stories.

“Worn Stories”

Netflix

Early on in the last episode of “Worn Stories,” a number of unrelated people of all ages and backgrounds offer their ideas about love. For a show ostensibly about clothing, that may seem like a bit of a leap. But after watching the seven episodes prior, “love” seems like the only place to end a season-long look at our collective relationship to the clothes we wear.

The series, adapted from writer Emily Spivack’s book of the same name, offers a kaleidoscopic view of human experience, a collection of stories all gathered around people’s most treasured items of clothing. Each episode revolves around a thematic connection, drawing together a handful of first-person accounts of life experiences inextricably linked to whatever the storyteller wore during a particularly fateful time. These range from split-second, life-changing surprises to gradual and persistent periods where one specific item became an irreplaceable constant.

If “Worn Stories” were simply a The Moth-style collection of narrated life events in front of a series of single-toned pastel backgrounds, that would probably be enough. What “Worn Stories” adds to supplement each tale is an appropriately eclectic mix of animation and recreations that help give life to stories without the usual archival material that would normally help illustrate. These interludes reach across media, spanning collage and cutouts, felt and clay, 2-D and tactile.

Worn Stories. Cr. NETFLIX © 2021 Worn Stories.

“Worn Stories”

Netflix

When the people themselves are showcased, it’s not always narration from a closed-off set. There’s also time in “Worn Stories” to see people connecting over some common bond, be it a location (Las Vegas gets an entire episode under this gentle microscope) or shared passion (the opening chapter includes people who have found fulfillment from a life lived nude). In each, “Worn Stories” presents these stories as part of a much larger tapestry, recognizing that clothing sizes and styles are not the only things that distinguish each successive wearer.

In many ways, “Worn Stories” is a perfect complement to “Articles of Interest,” the Avery Trufelman-hosted podcast series under the “99% Invisible” banner. Both projects position clothes as an idea that we present to the world. They can serve an aspiration, a reinvention, a confirmation, or a rejection. Though there are plenty of connections to be found in how some of the people in “Worn Stories” draw strength and resilience from what they have, the show is rarely repetitive. Certain stories cluster around major coastal cities, but there’s an attempt here for a cross-sectional blend of experiences that don’t just hew around a single sartorial tradition.

If there’s an overarching theme to the series, it’s how much a simple change in attire can unlock something buried deep within. People look for opportunities and acceptance in a big city. They track the evolution of an idea as it moves through greater media attention. In these individual items, there’s also a chance to connect with some deeper, fundamental part of an identity. Those anecdotes carry much of the series’ weight — what directors Dara Horenblas, Claudia Woloshin, and Ted Passon (also a co-director on “Philly D.A.,” due on PBS later this month) also manage to capture are the tinier everyday joys and celebrations of life that come from something treasured. “Worn Stories” is a show that recognizes the value in having as many of those stories as possible, even if it only lasts a sentence or two. (Case in point: “I contributed to the ugly sweater movement.”)

Worn Stories. Debbie Africa and family in Worn Stories. NETFLIX © 2021 in Worn Stories.

“Worn Stories”

Netflix

The more central the clothing is to the story, even if it goes in different directions, the more effective the overall series becomes. There are a smattering of segments where clothes are more tangential, which takes away some of the potency of what’s being relayed. The most affecting ones have an item (or lack thereof) as the anchor as well as a gateway to something more. By season’s end, the show has found its way to talking about a number of faith traditions, occupations, hobbies, and eras of American life.

Morgan Neville, along with Jenji Kohan and Spivack, is an executive producer on “Worn Stories,” which has the same polished feel as the other Netflix doc series in the Tremolo productions creative family. There’s the sleekness and attention to detail of “Abstract: The Art of Design” without the need or pull to burnish the subject’s credentials. It has the biographical specificity and care of “Song Exploder” while taking advantage of the fact that it’s capturing ideas that are already visual.

Each participant in “Worn Stories” is introduced by a first name and their prized item. Aside from the handful of public figures taking part (among them a member of Congress, an entertainer, an activist, Spivack herself), there’s a certain kind of conversational anonymity here that comes with that kind of introduction. As a result, “Worn Stories” becomes an ideal gathering of sorts, a party where everyone comes equipped with something to share. For some, it’s a highly emotional retelling with a gravity that the show respects. Others’ are more outrageous chance encounters with a physical remnant to carry around years or even decades later. That “Worn Stories” manages to find a spiritual link between them all is a recognition of both their inherent appeal and the universal draw of a distinct wardrobe choice.

Grade: A-

“Worn Stories” is now available to stream on Netflix. 

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