Friday, February 6, 2009

a tale of two sisters, part 1

Clothes Contact, on Valencia and 16th in San Francisco, is like an animal shelter for old clothes. The used clothing store prices its goods by the pound. In 1997, when I first moved to the Bay Area, it was $8 per pound; Tuesday, it was $10. A two-dollar inflation over 12 years? That is a blissfully rare inability—or unwillingness—to keep up with the rising costs of living.

I haven’t been to Clothes Contact in a while. I used to haunt the place almost weekly in the late 90s and early 00s, when I lived in San Francisco on a graduate student instructor’s slave wages, and wanted to find a fake rabbit jacket to look like Courtney Love at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, or old jeans from which to mercilessly amputate the waistband to look like Mariah Carey in her “Heartbreaker” video. Since then, I’d moved up a bit in the world and want even my old clothes stores to do my editing for me. In my thirties, I don’t feel like macheting through musty racks for two hours to find the perfect pussy-bow blouse to rip up for a night out.

Besides the black market-ish ticketing system, the clothes themselves at Clothes Contact are those rejected by the more upscale vintage boutiques of the Retro City conglomerate. Unlike its high-class sister La Rosa on Haight Street, there are no cashmeres or stiffly preserved 1950’s Levi’s 501’s at Clothes Contact. Completely uncleaned, the clothes feel caged and frightened-eyed, with the stink to match.

But this week, I adopted a pair of sad sisters there: two pairs of wasted (that’s not a typo—“wasted” as in tired, worn out) black jeans. They are Levi’s 550, whose “relaxed fit/ tapered leg” means that in “Juniors” Large size, which these sisters are, they are basically lady-jeans: fitted and relatively high waist, wide-hipped, teeny-ankled. Not my favorite silhouette, but I adopted the sisters because they were twins, and twins seem providential. They are exactly the same brand, same size, even, and more magically, with almost exactly the same destruction in a relatively rare spot for used jeans: around the waistband.

I fell in love with the sisters the moment I fingered the lovely fray and holes around the waistband and the pockets. Of course, I love torn and worn things of all species, but there was something about the worn-down waistband that made my heartbeat quicken as it hadn’t in a while. Old jeans are usually worn at the knees and butt. These sisters were faded and old for sure—the denim had given up its stiffness and blackness, gone a pliant grey. But the butt and knees were unusually hole-free. Why was the waistband so singularly beat-up? Did she never bend down, or sit down? Was the girl who wore them in the habit of regularly taking them on and off, more than the average person? Did she have a nervous habit of digging her fingernails into the pockets and around her waist? Fingering the waistband, with its holes and burst-open seams, I suddenly thought about a song I love but hadn’t listened to in a while: Saint Etienne’s “Like a Motorway,” released in 1994:

She wears sad jeans/ Torn at the waistband

These jeans were certainly torn at the waistband, and they seemed beautifully sad. I hovered over the jeans rack for a good 15 minutes trying to decide which sister I wanted. The staff tag the pants according to waist size, a fold of white paper stapled to the front pocket. On one of the sisters: “Distressed 28”.” On the other: “cooL AS KiM DEAL 28” W.” What an intuitive clerk. Perhaps these were performance jeans—a bassist who wore them only to stand on stage and press a hefty slung instrument against her hip. I ended up paying $10 for the jeans named after the indeed cool bassist who left the Pixies to create the Breeders with her twin sister. It seemed appropriate than one of the twin jeans was named Kim Deal; maybe the other should have been named Kelley Deal. After I left the store, all afternoon I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I had taken one sister and left the other one behind. That left-behind black jean was mewing at me from the distance, and I had to heed her call. I went back to Clothes Contact a few hours later and adopted “KeLLEY DEAL.”

So I brought both sisters home and gave them a bath in the coin laundromat in my sister’s condo-complex. When I tried them on (I bought them without trying them on, of course; by this time, I know just by looking at certain jeans whether they will fit) I found that the twins, like all twins, had idiosyncratic differences: KeLLEY was fatter than KiM. Which is fine, but she was unwearably fat. So I decided to cut her down into a less hippier kind of jean.

That night, I fitted the jeans on my little sister, since it is hard to pin myself, and besides, we wear the same jean size (except my sister has an inch or so on the hips, of course...estrogen). I liked fitting jeans I would eventally wear on my sister, because when I finally wear them, they will really be SISTER jEANS. I didn’t think about the impending sewing project as a liposuction, but more like a FTM (female-to-male) transsexual surgery: I’d remove the jeans’ female curves. But the pattern of that final streamlined body is not a boy but...a slim-hipped girl.

It took me about three hours to complete the reconstructive procedure the next day. About 45 minutes or so to make a good pattern out of the fitting, the rest for the actual sewing. Here is what KeLLEY looked like half-way through the surgery:

I had to channel my inner Korean sweat-shop lady and hand mattress-stitch the hems because my sewing machine is in storage in Providence. It was kind of scary but exciting to hand-stitch an entire length of pants, which I’d never done before. What if, without the overlock, the hand-sewn seams burst while I’m wearing them? If that happens, I’ll hopefully be as elegant as Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution when her singing “the Laziest Gal in Town” whips the GI’s into such a frenzy they rip her pant leg up to the thigh...

I sewed precisely but roughly. I tried to act like a puttering foot-cranked Singer sewing machine. I think that my stitches, while not perfect in straightness or stitch width, looked pretty elegant in its roughness, like the sketching lines of my favorite artist, Karen Kilimnik.

Since Kilimnik is one of the artists whose work I want to become, it makes me happy to think that wearing these jeans, I am wearing some precise but emotion-laden black crayon lines, rendered in red polyester thread.

Today, I am going to wear these jeans out. When I tried the FTM KeLLEY on, I found that she was, as Esther Greenwood says of her dress in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “cut so queerly.” They fit quite tight and snug on my hips and upper thighs, but a bit looser over my lower thighs. The result is that they fit like a hobbling pencil skirt. But I like that. They are Levi’s jeans in name only; I cannot run in them. They are as ground-in as a grunge bassist, but they make me feel like a fetish model out of Bizarre magazine. I gave KeLLEY some boy hips, but she keeps her lady-jeans ethos, and transfers them to me. Wearing them, it’s appropriate I come upon these lines in the novel I’m currently re-reading, E. M. Forster’s Howards End:

...ours is a female house...irrevocably feminine....So with our house—it must be feminine, and all we can do is see that it isn’t effeminate.

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