Emily Spivack Loves a Good eBay Story
A natural-born archivist, Emily Spivack loves to dig for narratives with soul. In addition to blogging for Threaded, the Smithsonian’s fashion history blog, she documents personal clothing stories through her two other digital babies, Worn Stories and Sentimental Value, the latter being an experimental journey into the emotional tales found on eBay. Inspired by the purest curiosity to troll through the e-commerce platform naturally (we swear we didn’t put her up to it!), we were thrilled to discover this blog organically.
Last Friday, I took a trip to Philadelphia to attend her first-ever installation of Sentimental Value in its corporeal form, with original items presented beside the unedited text from eBay’s listing. The result? A fascinating study in human emotion. As guests surrounded her with praise all night, I managed to squeeze in some personal time with Emily to ask a few questions on her anthropological sojourn online.
Jauretsi: Most of your blogs revolve around clothing, yet you are not a “Miss Fashionista” type. What is it about clothes that draws your attention?
Emily Spivack: I approach fashion with a reluctant fascination. I’m curious about what informs how people dress — decisions they make consciously or unconsciously about what to wear, what to buy, what to hold onto. I’m less curious about new trends, upscale designers, and must-have items. I see clothing as a reflection of culture, values, and history. What you see in my various projects is an attempt to figure out what the garments we cover our bodies with every day mean. For me, it’s an ever-evolving process.
J: For the Smithsonian blog, I imagine there is an incredible responsibility to writing about the history of clothes. What was one of your favorite historical posts that surprised and pushed your curiosity?
ES: This past winter, I was looking at an ad for sequin-covered Ugg boots on the subway platform, and I wondered how sequins had gone from formal occasions to something so mundane and ubiquitous. I decided to look into it, and figured that Threaded readers would share my curiosity and enthusiasm (which they did since it’s been one of the most popular posts).
In the process of researching those shiny discs, I uncovered details that practically made me giddy. For example, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a sequin-making machine! King Tut was buried with sequins! (Sequins were more functional than decorative then.) And when sequins were made with gelatin in the 1930s, the sweaty hand of a dance partner could melt them right off the back of your dress.
J: Your upcoming show, Sentimental Value, opened May 17th where you displayed items found on eBay (we’re flattered!). Tell us how you came to gravitate towards eBay tales versus any other marketplace, and how this art project came to life on its own.
ES: I’d been buying from eBay for years, mainly vintage clothes and tchotchkes, when, in 2007, I came upon a garment with a really detailed provenance. Instead of just describing the garment’s size, condition, and other basics, the post included information about who had owned it, when, and why. A photo of the former owner was even included in the auction’s documentation. Something clicked at that moment and I began looking around eBay for more stories associated with clothes people were selling. They weren’t so easy to find, but if I looked long enough, I’d find them. I became fascinated with people’s desire to share stories — often quite personal ones — about things they were parting with, and on an online platform that wasn’t really meant for storytelling. I was particularly drawn to eBay’s marketplace for stories because all kinds of people sell all kinds of stuff on eBay. I’ve collected over 600 stories at this point and I can pretty quickly get a sense of the person by the way s/he tells the story (emoticons, ALL CAPS, detailed anecdotes) and photographs the garment (on the bed, over a closet door, on a mannequin). I never know what I’m going to find and that’s what has kept this project interesting, what’s prompted me, in 2010, to start bidding on the garments I was posting on Sentimental Value, and what’s helped this project evolve into an exhibition.
J: What is the one eBay item’s personal story that moved you the most?
ES: I don’t know if there’s one personal story that’s moved me the most. Some are funny, others are sad, and then there are those that are simply mystifying. I did reread this one post recently, about a high school-aged girl who made a homemade anime costume for a boy she had a crush on, and I was struck by the story’s open, and bittersweet, tone.
(Photo: Curator/Blogger Emily Spivack with exhibition item “Victoria Bronze Brocade Silk 2pc Brides Travel Dress.” On eBay, the caption reads: “The sad story of this dress is that it was made as part of a young woman’s bridal trousseau. This was her ‘going away’ dress. She was married, but the hapless bridegroom was killed in a horse & buggy accident on the honeymoon. She returned home, placed the dress in a chest and it’s been there ever since, until the home was finally emptied for an auction sale of all the contents over a hundred years later.” — eBay seller vintageaffairedamour, August 16, 2010. Photo & Text by Jauretsi)