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







Mr. Poofy

No, that’s not him.

But it IS true that I’m a little smitten. Okay, maybe even more than a little. Because that softness! That drape! That shine! Ah! A seamstress’s dream.

The Shirt a.k.a. The Poofy One


I can stare at it for hours and not get bored. Like the moon, it superbly catches the light and reflects it selflessly back. This Fabulous Pouffleman can be worn with the collar up or down. With the cuffs fastened or open for a more casual look. The full four yards of fabric make sure it never clings or restricts. Yet without the presence of any frills and fancies, it does nothing but radiate strength and virility. And after my faux pas with the embroidered taffeta vest and the velvet coat, I think even Charlie (that’s him featuring Poofles in the picture above) likes it. Somewhat. Okay, he doesn’t hate it. Too much.

Come on ladies, settle down. This is a factory, not a circus. Though my seamstress insists on dressing me as a ring master.
C’mon ladies, settle down. This is a factory not a circus. Although my seamstress has this weird predilection for dressing me as a flashy ringmaster.
Gorgeous in One Day More
Here, Poofleton simply serves to highlight a gorgeous One Day More stance
2 backdrop for all sorts of weaponry
On the barricades, it provides a cool framework for all sorts of deadly weaponry.
3 bloodstained and dirty it still oozes elegance
Even bloodstained and dirty, it continues to ooze nothing but elegant enchantment.

The downside of H.R.H. The Duke of Pooff? Yeah, it has one. Actually, I can think of a couple. Not only does it absorb light magnificently, but also everything else that it comes in contact with. I chose a high count Egyptian cotton because only that would be supple enough for the thousands of tiny accordion pleats I folded into the neck, the shoulders, the front, and around the wrists. Unfortunately, that same high count cotton fabric also tightly grabs hold of big globs of make up, fake blood, stage dirt, and whatever cold pizza is left during intermission. So after every performance, Mr. (call me Pirate) Poofy needs to be presoaked, hand-washed, drip-dried, cold-starched, and hot-ironed. There are no shortcuts. A buildup of oily stains will wear it away quickly and leave me and Valjean with nothing but a shredded shirt.

yikes the collar of the poofy shirt
Collar of Le Marquis de Pouffe after a performance.
is it lipstick or fake blood 2
Lipstick or fake blood? I leave you to judge.


poofy shirt silk blouse and Fantine nightgown in tub
His Lordship soaking in the tub with Fantine’s nightgown and a silk shirt

Who says a costumer’s job’s an easy one?

Here, a look of Pouffleonius Elegans behind the scenes (on my ironing board.)






There’s a dead bride in my tub

Because my time is extremely limited (how many more days? 13?) I know my best bet to produce ball gowns is to convert wedding dresses. Scrap the veil. Chop the train. Then dunk the dress in dye.

If you’re working (or, in my case, volunteering) for a regional theater company, there’s always a tight (or non-existent) budget to take into consideration. So my best bet to find a dress that’s mildly affordable and workable will be a thrift shop.

I find the dress at the Quakertown Goodwill. Without close inspection, I can already tell that the lace is very dirty. It smells of turpentine and cigarettes. The train looks like the lower end of a mermaid caught in a fish net: it’s tangled and greater parts of it are ripped. But there’s an unwritten rule known to sewers, costumers and seamstresses alike: if the price yells, “Take me home, for Pete’s sake!” she has to answer “Yes!” So I take it home to give it a good bath. Already after two minutes, my bathtub looks like a giant bowl of frothy latte. Granted, most used wedding  dresses are soiled, and I ‘ve seen most of them: dresses with cake stains and soiled hems and blood splatters and hot tears of regret, but never anything like this. I wonder what has happened to this poor woman. Did her fiancé force her to run a mud race in full bridal gear just so he could see what she was made of? Did he make her slither under barbed wire while he emptied his semi-automatic over her veiled head, just to measure her persistence? Did he consider only the toughest chick worthy marriage material?

01 dead bride in my tub
Looks like a dead bride to me

With some scrubbing, dying, and drying, the foul-reeking obstacle course dress undergoes an amazing transformation.


But a costume will only work if the person who wears it makes it work. On stage, Becky carries it with such grace and conviction in her role of a 19th century bridesmaid that the dress is positively glowing.

blue dress radiant on stage


Hats off. She’s getting married!

Yesterday I spent the afternoon and a good part of the evening at the luxurious Shannondell theater where Les Misérables is being rehearsed and will be performed later in July. I met with most of the cast and was thoroughly impressed. All of them are lovely, talented, down-to-earth, but super wired people.

A bunch of the guys walk with me to my car to help me unload. Where on earth will you find men who know not only what the purpose of a petticoat is, but who aren’t embarrassed to be seen carrying arm loads of them through a crowd of curious onlookers? Once back in the theater, the guys immediately try on all the hats and caps, while I bump into Olivia, the first person who introduces herself to me. She’s barely being able to contain her excitement when she giggles, “I play Cosette. And I’m getting married…!” Almost faster than I can unpack, she flits around like a little hummingbird in the girls’ dressing room, grabbing dresses out of my arms.

01 elated bride
She’s THIS happy

There’s really nothing like bridal gown fever. It’s super contagious. From the little girls who play the street urchins to the older teenagers, even Sophie, the lovely woman who’s making pinafores for the factory scene, everyone in the women’s dressing room is instantly infected. Everything that’s sensitive, soft, sweet and hormonal gathers around a growing mountain of satin and lace, squealing approval or loudly voicing criticism every time Olivia comes twirling out of the bathroom.

“Ooooh! That’s so pretty!”

“Nah! You look like a tea cozy on legs!”

“Gross! That thing’s like a thick bandage coming undone!”

“You’re a mummy escaping the crypt.”

Just to be safe, I have brought a lot of differently sized dresses, because bridal gowns are notoriously unreliable when it comes to fit. It turns out that the one this giddy bride-to-be tries on first is unanimously picked as the winner.

And both Julie and I agree: the dress has all of the hallmarks of the 19th century period: two poofy sleeves, a fitted bodice that only needs slightly altering, a full skirt with four different petticoats underneath, and a dream of a train that can easily be bustled so no drunken uncle will ever need to step on it. In addition, it’s also luxuriously beaded and definitely resembles the dress of a well-to-do young lady during the age of Romanticism. The added sequins, however, are definitely not appropriate for the period. They do add a lovely sparkle on stage, so we unanimously decide it isn’t something we’re not going to lose sleep over. People won’t to come to Les Mis with the sole intend to boo period-inappropriate attire. At least, we hope they don’t.

bridal gown front detail
The fitted bodice of Cosette’s wedding dress


01a Cosette in her wedding dress
The opening scene of the wedding
01b Cosette in her wedding dress
Olivia in her wedding dress on stage: she makes a endearingly joyful bride, even when pointing.

So it’s only 6 pm, and we’re able to take Cosette’s wedding dress as one of the first costumes off our “to do” list. Then everyone is so happy, they’re clapping and throwing confetti….

01 everyone is throwing confetti

and I’m like…

01 mother of the bride


…only without the spaceship hat and the granny-blue eyeshadow, and not for too long, because I’m well aware that the “to do” list is still a big one. Time to put the tissues away (they may come in handy later!) and focus.


A stressed seamstress reflects, Costumes

How I always saw the world a little bit differently

I guess you can say I’m a “romantic.” Don’t you just love that moment when you catch your partner’s eye and hold it for a second and you know, you just know, that the same wonderful thing is about to happen between you, but this moment of anticipation is so delicious and predictable that you want to savor it, and then you take a deep breath and slurp the last of your coffee  and wait for the question that’ll invariably come rolling out of his mouth any time now, three, two, one….and there it is: “Have you totally lost your mind?” and he points at the boxes of costumes and the bales of tulle you…I mean I just loaded in my car.

Every year he’ll ask me that same question. Maybe twice a year.  Make that an even six to cover all bases. Most of the time at least, my husband doesn’t question my sanity. We get along ok. If Guy Fieri would have to describe us in specific culinary terms, he’d likely define me and my husband as two very polite pieces of half-defrosted gluten-free lasagna sheets. Just as interesting. Foreign as well. My husband and I share 4 nationalities between us (he: Polish and Russian, me: Dutch and French) 5 different languages (he: English, me: Dutch, French, German, English, Russian,) and 1 very lethal military training (he: Navy Seals, me: none.) This might lead a person to believe that we’re very interesting. That belief would be entirely wrong.

Last year, when we attended the Christmas party at a neighbor’s, the hostess said, visibly disappointed watching us enter, “I thought you said you weren’t coming.” “I know, but then we decided that we wanted to see your tree,” I answered meekly, because who admits just coming for the free booze? “Okay, can you be not hogging the bean dip the whole time then? And talk to some people? You know, mingle?” my neighbor urged. So my husband and I started the mingle process, by which I mean we stood side-by-side next to the snack table, silently speed-drinking. We left early because a fly was doing the backstroke in the bean dip and also, ugh, who wants to talk to strangers from the suburbs?

“Every couple of months you do this,” my husband reminds me again, still pointing at my car stuffed with costume boxes. “It’ll make you feel creative. It might help you write again. But then you come home all worn out. And now to make it even worse…you want to dress teenagers?”

Well, yeah.

“And be reminded once more that they can do things you never could?”

Ouch. That one hit home.

I spent my formative years surrounded by a very large, artistic family, where some sisters were excellent at singing, other sisters were superb at dancing, and most were accomplished in both. Unfortunately, as a tone-deaf and noodle-bodied giraffe with zero musical rhythm who was traumatized by the mere thought of appearing on stage, neither of these qualities applied to me.

For some reason, I did not concede to these deficiencies in myself until, essentially, adulthood. Growing up I came to believe that a vital factor of womanhood was being an accomplished singer and dancer, and that I, as a budding woman, was entitled to be an accomplished singer and dancer. I was pretty sure that if I just worked hard and tried enough different types of music, I would at some point be magically transformed into someone who looked good in a leotard and had adequate rhythmic skills to carry a tune. I was also a pragmatist who had a crush on Leo Jansen. He played the violin miraculously (to someone who was tone deaf, anyhow) and I wanted him to notice me. None of it really worked out.

ginger Rodgers
Frizzy hair? Yes! Furry dress? Yes! Dance skills? Nope. Lovely singing voice? Ugh. Ginger Rogers has two up on me.