Sartorial Neuroses: on “Purity” and “Stolen Valor”

The lovely Marenna Boutilier on Instagram requested I write about “panic over impurity” when it comes to clothing. I recently wrote a post for Thinking Autism about how to dress in such a way that minimizes potential triggers of hypersensitivity or anxiety, two facets of autism that I regularly experience if what I’m wearing is not physically comfortable. However, my entire life has been haunted by a specter that has caused just as many, if not more, clothing-related breakdowns as too-tight shoes or itchy wool: the cursed stain. I don’t have many distinct memories from before age 17, but one of the few that remains is of me at 10 years old or so, after a glob of chocolate ice cream landed on my light green t-shirt, turning the tee inside-out and backwards and wearing it with the tag jutting out under my chin instead of undergoing the ordeal of just bearing with the stain.

I don’t know what exactly it is about stains that makes a lump spontaneously emerge in my throat when I notice yesterday’s pizza marked its territory on my shirt collar or a park bench I sat on wasn’t *entirely* dry of paint. The most obvious explanation for an aversion to stains is socioeconomic: to always appear “clean” is a class signifier, signaling one has the means to buy brand-new clothing, wash it frequently, and avoid labor that might involve dirtying one’s outfit.

This underscores the recently frenetic discourse over “stolen valor” in clothing: the idea that wearing clothes with stains or rips that the wearer themself did not make is illegitimately appropriating an experience they did not undergo. I’ve seen this phrase lobbed at people wearing thrifted clothes with frayed hems, brand-new “distressed” jeans, Depop painter’s pants that sold for $100+ with paint already splattered on them… Opponents of “stolen valor” may either stand by the argument I think is pretty facile and arbitrary that one must “earn” these markings and it is somehow “inauthentic” to wear clothes that suggest a history that the wearer wasn’t a part of. The more salient argument, in my opinion, is that since stains and rips have historically been signifiers of a working class life, to aestheticize them and then sell garments designed with this aesthetic in mind for exorbitant prices is mawkish at best and truly insidious at worst (i.e. when done by a huge corporation like Urb*n O*tfitters).

This is simply another facet of the inescapable fashion world proclivity for looking to marginalized people for “style inspiration” that is then whitewashed, repackaged, and upsold to the wealthy as if it has no roots in the oppression the same wealthy customers’ existence necessitates. None of this is new or particularly interesting information, I just felt the need to put it in writing before I continued with the more speculative and nebulous aspects of this topic.

Lat month, I purchased an off-white jumpsuit in a holiday sale, and posted on Instagram that I would need to get over my fear of stains now that I added this garment to my repertoire, to which my good friend Erin responded “stains make it better.” As I sit and type this in said jumpsuit, my eyes can’t help but scan down to my lap, over the twin stains that have already made their presence known on my thighs.

The way the classist aversion to stains manifests in me is not as a disdain for stained items on other people or a feeling of superiority when I’m in a stainless outfit, but as insecurity when I see people who look “put together” and I feel “sloppy.” I see people with perfectly coiffed hair, gorgeous cuticles, and nary a stain to be found on their white trousers and feel viscerally gross in my blemished outfit, hiding my gnarled fingertips in my pockets. There are obviously intersecting insecurities at play in these cases (gender insecurity also conflates this Perfection with the Feminine Ideal which as a nb person is both enticing and repulsive to me) but on the flip side of them there is a longing to subvert this neurosis, to eschew the value of “purity” in clothing, to live the “Life Well Lived” Lifestyle, as the folks over at Blackbird Spyplane would say, to see each stain as a footnote on a moment of my life in which I worked or ate or partied or bled. Even deeper is the urge to just escape this fixation on stains/rips altogether and, instead of spewing effusive platitudes on “living well” or “footnotes,” just simply not give a shit about stains, stop thinking about them aesthetically and politically, period. The way my brain works, it might take a lobotomy to get to the complete loss of shit-giving, so I suppose the first mode of thinking will have to do for now.

In their LWL post, Jonah of BBSP doesn’t get deep into the idea of stolen valor (maybe because not everyone has as deeply emotional a reaction to stains as I do? If you do too, let me know!) but in another post discusses it in the context of workwear:

“…an “appropriated jawn” MIGHT become an aperture to think our way through meaningful questions about, e.g., how we distribute labor and its rewards, but it can VERY EASILY become the opposite: a decoy / lightning rod, easy to fixate on, hand-wring about, and dunk on in a way that ultimately obscures and distracts from the harder job of actually militating against injustices!!”

I think this is true of stained/ripped clothing as well. My fixation on stains, the impetus to write this post at all, and the fact that I felt the need to read into it as a classist anxiety (which it totally is, partially) is evidence that whatever appropriation wearing “pre-distressed” clothing entails is more likely to found empty neuroses than fruitful discourse. Ha, I tricked you into reading this whole post and completely undermined it at the very end! Very Nietzschean of me. Just kidding, I think there is some fruit to be borne from this knotted ol’ tree. Here are my takeaways:

1. If you’re gonna aestheticize, do it well

In the aforementioned piece about stolen valor, BBSP quotes Walter Pearce in saying “‘Do you look like an idiot’ is a more worthwhile question than whether or not you’re appropriating your look from a working-class person.” Far be it from me to accuse anyone, ever, of “looking like an idiot” (I was wailed on by my Bio lab partners in 9th grade for wearing Keens water shoes with socks, little did they know the Gorp reckoning was nigh), but I do have certain aesthetic boundaries that I can modify via #2 on this list, exposure therapy, to allow for pencil marks on my white jumpsuit, or a not-yet-fixed ripping back pocket on my jeans, or some unaddressed fuzz on a black sweater. I can totally appreciate the objective coolness of paint-splattered pants or jeans with aggressive sun-fading. I think it is cool to buy these “imperfect” items secondhand and on the relatively cheap, and to add your own markings to the markings someone else made. Something very beautiful about that.

Outside of these boundaries lie the land upon which I will not tread, but it has less to do with socioeconomic considerations than purely aesthetic ones: brand-new jeans with painstakingly applied fake paint splatters that you can tell are fake just by looking at them? Not going near em. A controversial opinion I have is that I really hate the way pre-distressed jeans look, the whiskery slits look like gaping maws to me and there’s something ominous about them, I don’t know. I steer clear of pre-distressed denim. On the other hand, I think that patched-up/embroidered jeans look super cool, even if they were patched in their creation, so I wouldn’t avoid those on principle. There is definitely an *aura* in the W. Benjamin sense that is missing from those items that you can imbue your pieces with if you or a loved one hand-mends your clothes, and I definitely try to go that route, but in the end, a good look is a good look. If you ever want the official HR opinion on a piece of clothing, feel free to send me a pic and I will judge it for you! Do this BEFORE you drop $$$ on it though.

2. Exposure therapy

Choose some good-looking pieces that have or are prone to stains (I have chosen the white jumpsuit and some white Levi’s) and wear them as much as humanly possible to get used to the way it feels and looks to garner blemishes on your clothing. I have a few garments that I’ve done this with and successfully melded any stains into the garments’ designs in my mind’s eye, so they don’t bother me anymore. Look at photos of Kurt Cobain or Lizzy Mercier Descloux or your favorite rock star in kinda fucked-up clothing, looking sexy and well-dressed.

3. If all else fails…

You can always draw or embroider over a stain with fabric marker (though sometimes this can backfire and make your clothes even less wearable if you are frustrated with your artistic abilities), pay an artist friend or IG-buddy to do it for you, slap a patch over it or take it to a tailor with the patch you want if you’re truly terrible at sewing (I have done this, shamelessly), or tie-dye the whole damn thing with a jumble of colors so weird that stains become simply part of the wallpaper (I have done this too, to great success).

Let me know if any of this neuroticism or any of the lessons I learned resonate with you either in the comments below or on IG @humanrepeller! These thoughts didn’t even touch on the religious implications of purity/all-white clothing, and I’m definitely interested in going that route in further exploration. Let me know if you’re interested.

<3 HR

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