The art of distress

The art of distress isn’t hard to master;

so many clothes seem filled with the intent

to be slashed that their ruin is no disaster.

Rip something every day. Accept the fluster

of a shredded hem, the collar badly torn.

The art of distress isn’t hard to master.

Then practice tearing further, torching faster:

pockets, sleeves, and where it was you placed

the fly. None of these will bring disaster.


As I start working on a stack of pants and t-shirts in need of distressing, Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” somehow keeps bouncing around in my head. Then, within minutes, my own riff on this poem bubbles up. And as hackneyed as it may seem, I think it’s fitting.

To a costumer, distressing a wardrobe is a welcome relief after the countless hours of trying to create outfits that’ll make the actors and actresses look opulent, imposing, romantic, dignified, or Napoleonic.  Paradoxically, it’s an easy way to release stress and produces a costume that never fails to impress.

For Valjean’s tattered outfit in the opening scene, I decide to go beyond the tame look of “done by seamstress trying out new scissors.” Even though opening night is only two days away, it’s important to do some research. To get the distress just right. Because there are all kinds of reasons why clothes wear. An attack by rabid badgers is one. Being thrown alive in a fiery barbecue pit is another. Being homeless and living close to open sewers is yet another one.

I discover that the place where Valjean was performing slave labor in Hugo’s novel is based on a real prison, named “Bagne de Toulon.” At this notorious prison, convicts were used for digging earth and doing construction work, both in the military harbor and in the town.

Knowing that Valjean had to perform demanding manual labor outdoors, with the scorching Mediterranean sun overhead, sometimes knee-deep in salt water, I start attacking the pants and shirt Julie and I selected the night before. First with a serrated knife, scraping the cotton in every direction until the first thin patches appear.


a seamstress best tool
Time for my buddy Mikey Machete to come out and play

Then I use a wire brush to rough up the fabric some more. Knees, hems and side seams (all the places where pants show their first signs of wear) get particular attention. I’m staying away from the side seams when I rip tears in the fabric though, because that’ll change the whole fit of the pants. And “trendy” is not my goal here. I’m just aiming for “destitute man in sun-bleached tatters.”

Yeah….definitely NOT this.

As much as using a wire brush can be therapeutic, any good distresser will tell you: “You’ve never truly lived unless you went to town on khakis with a blow torch!” I use a small one, of course. Just a dainty silver kitchen tool that only looks like the perfect size hairdryer for a toy poodle. I think you’re supposed to caramelize sugar on Crème Brûlée with it, but sorry Santa, I never was the Crème Brûlée-torching kind of girl.

distress pants torched hole
Look Santa: no hands!

Next, I want to create some natural looking blood stains around the rips and tears. Since the emphasis is on “natural,” I forgo fake blood. Anyone who has ever been in charge of laundry knows that blood stains don’t dry up in bright red. Instead, they turn a rusty brown. So I reach for my gloves and knead some dark polyurethane stain around the holes. It looks realistic enough that I want to use more blood stains and waste a good half hour online googling “the blood splatter patterns caused by whips and shackles.” Then I remember that I still have a shirt to do with only fifteen more minutes to spare before I have to leave for the theater.

Luckily I think of bringing my distress kit along. Charlie comes rushing in a couple of minutes after I toss the chain gang outfit into the mens’ dressing room. He wants the torn shirt to show even more of the “24601” Olivia has henna-painted on his chest. So I dive for my knife, and with the shirt still on him, tear through the last bit of the collar. The serrated blade lands dangerously close by his upper lip. This distressing has clearly not gotten rid of all of the stress. Thankfully, Charlie’s a trooper. Doesn’t even flinch. He must be just too thrilled with the now clearly visible number on his chest that he didn’t even notice he came very close to spending the evening in the E.R.


01 distress
Distressed yet still legible







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