The ramshackle curiosity of the podcast Articles of Interest creates a charming and fascinating survey of what we wear. By Fiona Wright.
Articles of Interest
Articles of Interest describes itself briefly and simply. According to its tagline, it is “a show about what we wear”.
It’s a well-chosen phrase because of everything it doesn’t say. It doesn’t mention fashion, for example, because its interests are broader and more material – no pun intended – than that. Nor clothing, because it frequently steps beyond this too, telling stories about perfume or pockets or jewellery, individual designers or traditions or means of manufacture. Nor does it mention textiles or tailoring, dressing or design, though all of these are part of its remit to differing extents.
More importantly, the phrase is well chosen because it is unprepossessing. It’s unpretentious, even modest; most of all, it is direct. And all of these are qualities shared by the show itself, as well as features that are integral to its charm. There is so much about and around fashion that is hyperbolic or overblown, or predicated on exclusivity, whether of knowledge, connection, bodies or taste – to say nothing, of course, about money. And Articles of Interest stands apart from all of this, because of its ramshackle curiosity, its very human approach and its genuine love for its subject matter in all of its permutations – especially the strange, the common and the unspectacular.
In many ways this aesthetic and approach speaks to the show’s lineage. Articles of Interest began as a side project, or a passion project: its host and creator, Avery Trufelman, was working at the time of its inception on the long-running and much-loved podcast 99% Invisible. The first episodes were produced under this show’s auspices and published on its channel as something of a spinoff, and the positive reception to Articles of Interest encouraged Trufelman to set up on her own to make and produce the ensuing seasons.
Creator Roman Mars’s 99% Invisible is renowned for its interest in the design histories of everyday objects and places, and its fascination with the hidden and forgotten – everything that good design, according to the industry aphorism, renders impossible to see. The influence of this kind of storytelling on Articles of Interest is clear – the pilot episode even states that clothing, “like architecture”, is “a universal art that we all live in” – but what’s fascinating here is that Trufelman’s choice of subject inevitably complicates the relationship between object and user. What we wear isn’t just a matter of the items we put on our bodies but also everything we say about who and how we are, explicitly or implicitly, when we do so.
What this allows, in terms of story, is a greater scope for interweavings of approaches, perspectives, even ideas, as well as a deeper engagement with the very personal nature and histories of the objects in question. This is especially evident in the first two seasons – Articles of Interest is in its fourth – where most of the episodes focus on a single item or style: the aloha (or Hawaiian) shirt, blue jeans, children’s clothing, designer streetwear, punk. Trufelman builds her stories around the people who wear or used to wear these clothes, as well as those involved in their production or popularisation, with the expert voices – usually fashion and textile historians and curators – filling in the context but rarely taking centre stage.
The remarkable effect of this is that so many of these episodes are suffused with affection and joy, or with great humour: the episode about children’s clothing, for example, opens with the voice of a man with the rare bone growth disorder spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia – “I am literally little,” he says – who describes shopping as an adult in the children’s department as “a hellscape of ripped jeans … and fun slogans and crazy zippers”, the exaggerated disdain dripping from his voice. As a woman whose disability means I often shop in this department too, I am compelled to add glitter – so much glitter – and butterflies to this list. In another episode, about pointe shoes, a dancer describes her routine for breaking in her shoes for a performance, beating them vigorously against the wall and giggling as she speaks.
It’s always personality and personal stories at the heart of this podcast, and Trufelman’s charm – her genuine warmth and enthusiasm – has a way of bringing this out in her interview subjects. Her interest in clothing and fashion is based in the human too – in an early episode, she refers to clothes as “records of the bodies we’ve lived in” across our lives.
This is not to say that Articles of Interest is uninterested in the social and political implications of the fashion and clothing industries. Later seasons in particular focus on some of these more complex stories, often very directly. There are episodes about factories and factory workers, Black fashion and its exclusion from historical narratives, the environmental impact of denim. Another episode, a collaboration with Ear Hustle, a podcast made by and about incarcerated people in a California prison, looks at clothing – uniforms and otherwise – within prisons, and blends history and art with the lived experience central to Ear Hustle’s work. These episodes are all surprising in their approach and content, and never earnest or didactic.
Less successful, to an international listener at least, is the season of seven episodes, “American Ivy”, that Trufelman devotes to the development of “Ivy style”. This style is a kind of business-casual preppy look, common to brands such as Ralph Lauren and Uniqlo – both of which feature here in very surprising ways. The series is an experiment in longer-form storytelling, and it is fascinating, especially for the complex and international history it reveals – but it is also, inevitably, very specific in its cultural focus, and it lacks some of the energy of other episodes.
What I enjoy most about Articles of Interest is its willingness to experiment – to pursue different kinds of story and, occasionally, form, as well as strange fascinations and unlikely angles. For every “American Ivy”, there is an episode set in postwar France, or Soviet Hungary, or even the set of Clueless. Its approach to fashion is never precious or fawning, and does not require any prior knowledge from its listener – it is the fact that clothes are our objects, and all around us, that always guides Trufelman’s stories. Above all else, it is a podcast driven – and animated – by curiosity, and this is what makes it lively and compelling, and a pleasure to follow.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2023 as "Lightly worn".
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