A distressing trend in the worlds of furniture and fashion

The “At Home” section in the May 29 News Tribune featured a furnishing trends article about “bringing the outdoors inside.” It quoted Resito Pecson, the owner of a charmingly named boutique, Twigs and Moss, saying, “The appeal of using salvaged material is in creating a unique custom look.”

Near the boldface sidebar emphasizing this thought is a photo of a derelict piece of furniture with the cutline, “Weathered pine and chipping paint bring texture to this coffee table.”

Imagining this table in my living room, my first thoughts were neither “texture” nor “custom look.”

They started with “pathetically poor graduate student” and segued into “splinters.”

Seeing the peeling, chipped paint on the side panels and legs did not rouse thoughts of “charming.” It screamed “lead poisoning.”

The photo brought to mind paint stripper fumes and an electric sander smoothing the corrugated table top to a point where it could host a couple of coats of polyurethane, offering a sterile and attractive surface on which to place canapés, napkins and martini glasses. It brought to mind my impoverished youth when I rescued similar castoffs from neighboring curbs and spent hours housebreaking them.

I can’t remember ever entertaining the thought that they were fit to be brought into the house without being subjected to an extensive DIY project. Why else did God invent carborundum?

But then I have never understood the concept of paying extra for “distressed” items. Or wearing them. My mother spent my youth patching dungarees whose knees had given out after vigorous use. She would not allow me out of the house wearing clothes that hinted at a lack of care or slovenliness. She regarded the loose ends of denim sticking out from shredded fabric as a pronouncement that you lacked a caring parent.

Mrs. Glucksman, the self-appointed fashion policewoman at Weequahic High School, N.J., marched anyone wearing torn clothes or with shirts untucked from their pants to the principal’s office, the equivalent of a spiritual death sentence. The assistant principal subjected the offender to a stern lecture, or offered financial support to buy a new pair of pants if he knew your parents couldn’t afford them. It was hard to say which was more humiliating.

Now the mall is filled with shelves of jeans (the term dungarees following the family farm and its reminders of why people wore these pants in the first place into oblivion) with ripped knees, seats, thighs and even more private areas. Outside the shops, pasty skin is on display through the openings, often bulging with small offerings of cellulite to the unwary eye.

My reaction tends toward a belief that the term “distressed” refers to the viewer, rather than the clothing.

Fashion has reversed meaning. Rather than indicating poverty, the choice of distressed clothing is a boast that the wearer can afford to have someone else pre-wear the clothes. The clothing arrives from countries where people actually perform physical labor, as opposed to spending their time preening. The arbiters of fashion allow the jeans to be cleaned, disinfected, pressed, repackaged and labeled. They repurpose cast-offs as haute couture. I prefer to wear clothes that keep out drafts.

Perhaps adults crave distressed furniture because we lack the courage to wear clothes that reveal our imperfections. Or perhaps we enjoy our ability to pay more for a piece of furniture that shows hard use, rather than going through the process of living with it for years or decades. It arrives at our doorstep already battered by age and ill use, by being left out in the rain or the summer sun that blisters the paint and cracks the wood.

Just as our lives are increasingly lived on a virtual plane, we want our possessions to speak of experience that we don’t have to suffer.

Stuart Grover lives in Tacoma, where he casts a jaundiced eye on modern life. He aspires to curmudgeonhood and hopes he eventually reaches the stature of cranky old guy.