Netflix’s unique docuseries focuses on the role of clothing in memories and personal anecdotes.
After eight years of itchy, bland Catholic School uniforms, I was ready for a change. When I entered high school, I switched to one of the only public schools in the state of Louisiana that didn’t require a uniform. Now that I could dress how I wanted, I needed to make a splash. I wanted to show everyone exactly who I was and what I brought to the table. My 13 year old brain decided the best way to do that was wearing this t-shirt featuring the logo of Mr. Sparkle, the Japanese laundry detergent that uses Homer’s head as inspiration in the Season 8 episode of The Simpsons, “In Marge We Trust.”
It did not make a splash. Maybe the Bieber haircut didn’t help, but I hung onto that shirt for years. It reminded me of the excitement I felt running away from Catholic education and becoming my own person. It made me feel like who I thought I was, a comedy nerd seeking other comedy nerds.
These kinds of memories and feelings we associate with clothing are at the heart of Worn Stories, the latest Netflix documentary series. Produced by Orange is the New Black creator, Jenji Kohan, and based on the book by Emily Spivack, Worn Stories feels like a live action This American Life episode.
Each half hour episode weaves together sit-down interviews, quirky animated sequences (ranging from trippy Yellow Submarine-style to Claymation depending on the segment) and mini documentary shorts to tell inspirational and heartbreaking vignettes about people who have been impacted on a profound level by the clothes they wear, or in the case of the residents of a Kissimmee Florida nudist colony we meet in the first episode, what they don’t wear.
Worn Stories feels like a live action This American Life episode.
Across eight episodes, each with their own loose theme, the series focuses on individuals, but also serves as an anthropological look at various communities and characters we rarely see in pop culture, like Mrs. Park, a Korean immigrant who loves to wear her yellow sweatshirt, gifted to her by a monk, when she goes to her dance class with other Korean women who love to get down to “Gloria.” There’s also Ramadhan, a Muslim teenager who uses his beloved first pair of football pants to tell the story of being the starting quarterback for his high school football team in Nashville, Tennessee, dreaming of becoming the first Kurdish player in the NFL.
The theme for most of the stories is how a single piece of clothing can not only help us discover who we are, but also help us heal. In one of the show’s most emotional vignettes, we follow Maxan, a Philly woman who gets a memorial t-shirt honoring her son who was recently killed by gun violence. The joy and sense of peace on Maxan’s face when she looks at the finished product makes it clear why these kinds of shirts are essential.
The best stories don’t even have that much to do with specific clothing. It’s almost like how HBO’s High Maintenance uses the MacGuffin of a weed dealer to show us the fascinating lives that wind up in New York City. The third episode of Worn Stories, titled “Beginnings,” is the best of the season because of how it uses the idea of clothing as a way to talk about perseverance and redemption.
There’s the story of Carlos who helps people just released from prison find clothes that fit them and give them a sense of pride before they return to society. The scene where he helps the newly released Rudy, free after being locked away for 40 years, pick out a shirt that fits him after decades of baggy prison clothes is one of the most moving of the series. It shows that even a nicely fitted thrift store shirt can go a long way towards making someone feel human.
There’s also Mike in the same episode, who uses a Columbia University sweatshirt to talk about his lifelong goal of becoming an astronaut. It may be inspiration porn overload, but it’s beautifully told thanks to the use of collage style animation and will hopefully get people to check out The Right Stuff.
The one downside, and this a critique for much of Netflix’s longform documentary series, is the show doesn’t need to be eight episodes long. Later episodes that focus on Las Vegas have interesting segments (there needs to be more shows about Vegas wedding chapels) but they suffer in comparison to the stronger early episodes.
The themes for each episode are also so loosely tied together that they become irrelevant. The second episode (which includes an incredible story about the oiled up sax player who inspired the Sergio SNL sketch) has the theme “Lost and Found,” which could also easily apply to a tragic segment in episode seven about a man trying to connect with his deceased son via ghost hunting.
While the premise runs thin after a few episodes, the idea that clothes can be a gateway to so many memories and new experiences is powerful. Looking at a wrinkled t-shirt in the back of a closet can be the equivalent of scrolling through photos from college on Facebook, or wearing a pair of lucky underwear can remind you why you got your life together. Choosing what to wear (or not wear) is one of the most personal decisions you get to make. Worn Stories shows what that means across the spectrum of humanity with a vibrant and delicate touch.
Worn Stories premieres on Netflix April 1st.