You know how your mother always told you to wear clean underwear so that you won’t be ashamed if there’s a car accident and they have to cut away your pants? Well, my mother never imparted that nugget onto me so when my sister and I were rear-ended in her car on the Bay Bridge last week, the thought that flashed through my mind as my neck whiplashed was: “Shit my pantyhose is run!”
The thought was brief, but the feeling was definite: anticipation of shame. My sister and I were driving into San Francisco to see my dear friend Tara Jepsen perform in “Getting In On the Ground Floor and Staying There,” so we were in our theatre-going drag—SF style. My sister was in power-dyke mode in a white oxford shirt with asymmetrical darting paired with trousery Seven jeans and white basketball shoes. I was dressed like this:
This is a page from my diary, 8-1-08, at 3:18 pm. I had just gone for an invigorating 3-mile run and felt like Reneé Zellweger purportedly feels after pounding the pavement in running shoes. So while letting my hair dry, I acted like my own costumier and sketched up an outfit for me to go out in: Subversive "Sunken Treasure" necklace that weighs a ton, grey wool crewneck pull-over sweater that is slightly oversized, faded and worn Levi’s 501 cut-offs, and a pair of blue Cuban-seamed pantyhose.
Of course, I had ripped up the pantyhose when I bought it. Early this year, I started wearing, as an alternative to my usual uniform of leggingish jeans, the tag-team of denim cut-offs and ripped stockings. I don’t know why I suddenly thought of the combination, but it makes me feel like my idol Courtney Love. I’m not sure if Madame Love ever wore ripped stockings, but she must have. I love the way ripped stockings look: the smooth, contained femininity of silken gams that have been chewed and ravaged. I rip up my stockings with a pair of tiny but sharp scissors: put them on, pluck some holes, and stretch them out laterally and vertically to create those lovely ladders of runs around the torn up holes.
So I’d been using standard black opaque tights—a pair inherited from my sister, then for colder days, black Falke wool-blend—but last week, as I planned my evening ensemble, I wanted to use something more seductive, something a little less grunge diva and a little more Vargas Girl or Barbara Stanwyck in “The Lady Eve.” So I pulled out these sheer blue pantyhose I got from American Apparel, that has seams all up the back.
I’ve always wanted to ask someone (preferably a husband): “Are my seams straight?” The question is emblematic of the way in which femininity is a cyborgian achievement, in which the artificiality of textile is melded to the organic flesh. The seams of the stockings become “my seams,” as if lovely femmy legs were stitched up on a Singer. It speaks to maintenance, control, and a rigor which belies the traditional reception of femininity as fluffiness. So becoming the drawing in my diary and getting in my sister’s car, I felt pretty chippy.
Then, thirty minutes later, there I was, out on the Bay Bridge, waiting for the highway patrol, and the thought of state-ordained officials mixing with my run pantyhose suddenly seemed akin to paramedics looking at dirty panties. But as is usually the case with me, the feeling of shame didn’t take too long to dissipate. I remembered why I purposely ran my pantyhose in the first place: to wear feminine iconography on my body--but a renegade femininity. The run pantyhose is a sign of dissonance. It signals, like crooked Cuban seams, sloppy, unsuccessful femininity. A woman who keeps getting snagged on the corners of life, who can’t quite cut it being a perfectly maintained woman. But in true punkrock style, I want “dissonance” to mean not disability, failure, or wackness, but its pure form: broken sound. When thrashing becomes dance, shouting becomes singing, amelodic sounds become music—that is dissonance as a medium of rebellious creativity.
The run pantyhose may find visual expression in punkrock chicks, but its discourse finds a pretty powerful elaboration from an unexpected source: Terry McMillan’s über-novel of black femininity, Waiting to Exhale. In the opening chapter, thirtysomething SBF Savannah Jackson goes to meet a blind date at a New Year’s Eve party. Once there, she discovers that she has a run in her pantyhose: "I felt a wide run in my panty hose zip down my thigh." As the party drags on, Savannah keeps time to her processing of the situation by noting the incremental spread of the stocking-run. Savannah is a successful career woman who desperately wants a man to complete her life. But when she discovers that her handsome blind date has brought his girlfriend to the party, Savannah tosses off the feeling of single female desperation with weary gusto:
I had reached into my purse and lit a cigarette and forced myself to look in the other direction, because I couldn’t stand this. When I went to uncross my legs and the run zipped down to my ankle and I felt my heel pop through the hole and stick to the lining of my shoe, that was my cue. I put out my cigarette, picked my purse up off the table, and headed for the coatroom.
The run in Savannah’s pantyhose acts as if it were a nerve ending, its zip a bodily reminder of enough's being enough. If a run pantyhose indicates that you are somehow unladylike, the image of Savannah’s lonely but self-possessed stride to the coatroom reminds us that to be unladylike, you must first be a lady.