“Whether we like or not, we are all speaking with our clothes,” argues host Avery Trufelman in the closing moments of Articles of Interest, the well-named spinoff mini-series of 99% Invisible. “And we might as well give a good hard think about what we want to say.”
Sure, it’s a point that’s already obvious to many people, women and practiced sartorialists in particular. And the idea of fashion and personal composition as power has been elevated countless times in pop culture, from The Devil Wears Prada to RuPaul’s Drag Race. But sometimes you have to make the argument from the beginning all over again, lest we forget or leave behind those who don’t yet know. Articles of Interest is a picture-perfect starting point for those who need an introduction.
Tightly produced and briskly paced by editor Joe Rosenberg and the 99% Invisible team, the six-part mini-series is an excellent collection of studies looking at the things we wear. In neat packages that generally run under a half-hour, Trufelman stitches together stories of identity, history, capitalism, and aesthetics, and she does so with appealing verve and a vibrant point of view. The guest voices she finds are varied, textured, and consistently surprising. Their contributions and the ideas they’re meant to evoke are always interesting: Plaid isn’t just a pattern, but a symbol of rebellion way back in the day and a social signal in some contemporary communities. Pockets are sites of expression for the patriarchy. Hawaiian shirts are totally colonialist artifacts — but really, who is surprised about that?
If there’s a moment that succinctly captures what I appreciate about the spinoff, it’s this line from the fifth episode: “In examining jeans, you realize that it’s impossible to create a morally perfect piece of clothing … at least, one that’s affordable.” The line is a transition, one Trufelman deploys to set up the difficulty of imagining a contemporary world in which clothing production for the masses isn’t so wasteful, unethical, or harmful to the environment. Articles of Interest is a work of immense love and attention, and it is in that spirit that Trufelman weighs the virtues of her subjects alongside the conundrums and hypocrisies that anchor the terms of their existence. Trufelman appreciates, but she does not ignore.
The episodes, on pockets and plaid and blue jeans and other such things, crescendo up to a closing installment on punk fashion. It’s the spinoff’s highest point and, probably, its raison d’être. Here, Trufelman consolidates all the major themes that she’s been developing over the course of the series — that fashion is a product of power, that fashion is a tool for power — and uses the story of punk fashion to test the construct she’s built. Punk, with its transgressive motor and eye-catching sensibilities, is a political vehicle that pushes the boundaries of taste, convention, and what’s accepted. It forces reactions both for and against, instantiating moments of democratic power. In Trufelman’s telling, the spirit of punk also embodies a core truth about fashion more generally, which is its nature as an accessible tool for individual liberation: Why not look like a goddess? Why not make a statement? #WhyNot?
Trufelman is a staff producer on the 99% Invisible team, and this is perhaps the first time the podcast has given an extensive platform to one of its own to fully explore their curiosity. Articles of Interest is purely Trufelman’s show: Her voice defines its style, her vision defines its substance. These days, the eight-year-old design and architecture podcast is an institution, as is its founder and principal host Roman Mars, whose dulcet tones — along with that of fellow Radiotopia creator Nate DiMeo of the almost decade-old The Memory Palace — has spawned a veritable generation of similar-sounding podcast hosts. (Mars is a guest voice in the punk episode, but only briefly. Also, anyone surprised that Mars strongly identifies with punk subculture? Not me.) As with all successful long-running and subject-specific podcasts, the question lies with the future. How will 99% Invisible approach the next eight years while remaining interesting, curious, and evolving? A production that feels like both an extension of the mothership and something completely its own, Articles of Interest seems like an emphatic answer.