It’s Not Destroyed, It’s Wabi-Sabi

April 10, 2014 • Fashion

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When I was a sophomore in college, I was gifted a pair of Coach riding boots by a friend of my mother. I think her daughter hated her calves and had all kinds of knee-high shoes to hide them. They were crisp caramel leather with heavy heels, and they slid on like kid gloves. I wore them everywhere for some months.

I made the mistake of wearing them to my college’s volatile printmaking studio. I wasn’t working, only picking up finished pieces from the drying rack. But someone still managed to spill the acid meant for etching copper all over my favorite shoes. I looked like I had strolled by an oil spill. The toes were splashed with blackened brown. They were ruined.

My mother was horrified. “What were you thinking?” My classmates apologized, like I had lost a child in labor. My friend Gabrielle took a long drag of her Marlboro Menthol Blue while she assessed the damage. “It’s artistic,” she announced. “They have character now.”

It took me a long time to think about clothes this way. As I first began collecting fine, expensive fashion I treated every item like a museum piece. Each was preserved in plastic for my eyes only, cloth masterpieces lining the edges of my bedroom closet. No day was ever “good enough” to wear them out. I was plagued by nightmares of what could happen if I ever exposed my only Vivienne Westwood shirt to the light of day, or lost a heirloom rose gold earring.

But this quickly became impossible. I made more money, and I spent it on carefully hunted dresses from my favorite labels. My wardrobe became less and less disposable fast fashion, almost entirely consumed by delicate vintage or designer garments. Every piece was “too special,” and so none of them were. I had enough cash to buy expensive clothes, but not enough to wear them only once. And as I began to expose them to the outside world, shit happened. The tips of my shoes were accidentally scuffed and my knits began to pill. I’d find coffee stains on my sleeves from the morning as I disrobed before bed.

I had no choice but to swallow my initial horror and find my clothes beautiful for what they became, not what they once were. And to go a step further, to find the flaws themselves beautiful. To make the ugly accidents my favorite parts.

This is no novel idea. The Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi has been hacked at by all sorts of Western scholars, but it boils down to perfect imperfection. It’s a philosophy, a lifestyle, and an aesthetic. Leonard Koren crafted the best English book on the topic. It’s a slim volume filled with vague metaphors and abstract conclusions, all the more fitting for a concept so fluid and unpinnable. “The closest English word to Wabi-Sabi is probably ‘rustic,’” Koren says. Probably.  The Oxford English Dictionary describes “rustic” as “Having a simplicity and charm that is considered typical of the countryside” and “Often derogatory; Lacking the sophistication of the city; backward and provincial.”

But, Koren continues, “’rustic’ represents only a limited dimension of the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic.” Wabi-Sabi began as a reaction to elite, lavish tea ceremonies by a Zen monk named Murata Shuko. Instead of using ornate china imported from further east, Shuko chose to use unpretentious Japanese tea sets. Shuko is the originator of the art of Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today, its slow bows and thatched roofs, its quiet elegance.

Zen practice follows the theory that everything begins from nothing and will return to nothing. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Wabi-Sabi encourages that natural erosion of all things. The cracks that crawl the necks of clay vases, the sinews of a sweater as it unravels, all of it is beautiful as it returns to its natural state. It is the most beautiful. It isn’t artifacts kept in glass boxes to preserve a state of newness. That newness, being untouched or untouchable, is undesirable. All things are impermanent, and all things are imperfect.

“Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness,” Koren writes. “The beauty of Wabi-Sabi is, in one respect, coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-Sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment… an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.”  Its materials are “visibly vulnerable to the effects of human treatment… Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeling… are a testament to histories.”

Punk-Rock and Vivienne Westwood destroying t-shirts for The Sex Pistols is Wabi-Sabi. The undulating, frayed, deconstructed creations of Rei Kawakubo are Wabi-Sabi. The concept borders on minimalism, but minimalism as we know it today in glossy magazines and glossier tumblogs is unattainable. Perfectly starched white shirts in Egyptian cotton and too-polished silver cuffs are the stuff of dreams… or unordinary wealth.

In the real world things break and discolor and shrivel and die. Why fight it? Embrace it. Those dirt marks and beer stains prove those things are yours, that they are used, that they are loved. That they will eventually go away, and that’s okay.

I kept wearing those Coach boots. Eventually the sole began peeling away from the foot. They became harder and harder to put on and take off, my heel would get stuck in the worn out lining. I was coming home from a drunken bacchanal of Carlo Rossi and truth games and I was too wasted to spend hours tugging my leg out of a boot. So I took out an Xacto blade and cut myself free. The shoes were destroyed. I wasn’t. They were beautiful while they lasted.

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