DANCERS DO IT. Punk rockers do it. Fashion houses do it. And I do it too. Rip clothes. Not out of anger. Not because they’re bulging at the seams. We do it because it makes our clothes our own.
For many years, I studied ballet under Bolshoi’s last surviving student. She taught me many lessons I’ll never forget, one of which was how to turn tights into a shirt. It’s simple: Cut out the crotch, insert head. Cut off the feet, insert arms. Then cut off the elastic waistband: Voilà, a shirt is born.
Ever since, I’ve taken clothes and turned them inside out, upside down and backward. (Occasionally, I even wear them forward.) Sometimes they’re men’s clothes, sometimes women’s, but I always try to make them my own.
Last summer, I was in Los Angeles visiting friends who had recently traveled to the Pacific Northwest. When we met in Santa Monica, they offered me what the French call a “wink”: a small gift, a gesture conveying thought. The wink was a T-shirt promoting a restaurant in the San Juan Islands. OK, I thought, they had been there, and I might even have had some influence over their choice to go, but I had no particular connection to it. I wanted to feel such a connection, and I wanted to wear the shirt while we were all together. At the end of the day, I returned to my hotel room and called the front desk in search of a pair of scissors. Within minutes I had a handy pair of Fiskars. You better get this right, I thought.
The back of the shirt was emblazoned with the words eat where you live. That’s something we can all embrace — so I decided I’d make that the front of the shirt. I wanted a V-neck in front and a slight scoop in the back, to remove the stiffness from the arms and add darts at the sides. I cut carefully at first; it had been a long time since I had taken scissors to cloth. With each snip, though, I felt more confidence and comfort. After a couple careful cuts to fine-tune things, I was smiling.
The next day, I gleefully put it on, eager to show my friends how much I appreciated the wink. At first they didn’t realize it was the shirt they had given me. Once they did, they were surprised. “Why did you do this?” they asked. “To make it my own,” I replied.
I own no other printed T-shirts, and this one, now almost exactly a year old, is a very faded version of its original incarnation. I wear it all the time. I’ll say goodbye to it only after it gets new rips from being threadbare. Every time I wear it, I think of my friends. I think of summer. I think of Santa Monica. I think of the view overlooking Los Angeles from my hotel room nestled in the hills, and I wonder about life on the San Juan Islands.