When Our Clothes Misbehave

One half of a cast cooper alloy hooked clothing fastener from the 17th century, from the collection of the British Museum.

NOTHING SEEMED UNUSUAL ABOUT the wool tights I pulled on underneath my skirt that cold winter morning as I got dressed for a meeting around Penn Station in Manhattan. Already a few years old, those thick leggings were reserved for New York’s most blustery days. After bundling myself up – hat, scarf, gloves, and floor-length down coat – I left my apartment in the East Village and headed to the train. A couple of blocks from my apartment, something felt… uncomfortable. The elastic band that should have been around my waist had slipped down to my hips. By the time I got to the train platform, I knew something wasn’t right. With a kind of shimmy, ants-in-my-pants move, I awkwardly tugged at my tights through my coat. And by the time the train pulled into the Sixth Avenue station, the elastic waistband of my tights had officially given out.

If you’re familiar with New York City subways, you know that there’s a lengthy underground transfer between the L and 2 trains at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. You also know that there are no bathrooms to duck into. That’s where my slow-motion misadventure really began. As I walked through the tunnel, my tights slipped from the desperate grip I’d haphazardly attempted through my coat. When I got to the 2 train platform, the waistband was at my upper thighs. And when I arrived at Penn Station, the waistband was at my knees (thank goodness for the protective cocoon of my long winter coat). At that point, walking normally was impossible. I’d adapted a gait that combined slow-motion hula-hooping with the waddle of a penguin. What to do? I couldn’t go to the meeting like this. In fact, I couldn’t go anywhere, not with my tights bunched at my ankles like a modern day hobble skirt. I stood unmoving, mildly panicked, in the middle of Penn Station. Commuters whizzed by, annoyed by what must have seemed like an oblivious tourist during rush hour. I scanned my surroundings for a place to – what? I wasn’t sure. Take off my shoes and remove my tights? My gaze rested on a storefront in the underground Penn Station concourse with at least thirty mannequin legs in the window. Elegance, fortuitously enough, was a hosiery store selling hundreds, if not thousands, of tights, stockings, and fishnets in any pattern or colour and it was a mere fifty waddles away.

I fumbled my way to the shop. Upon crossing the threshold, I unabashedly pointed out my situation to the salesperson. Within seconds, she pulled a new pair of black tights off the rack while reassuringly recounting the varied hosiery malfunctions she saw each day. I paid and gratefully changed in the store. With a newfound appreciation for the word ‘tights,’ I was on my way.

Clothing is malleable. It rips, it loses its shape, it wears out. And while it protects and emboldens us, it can also fail us, often – humiliatingly – in public. When our clothes turn on us, it’s a humbling experience. And yet, once the flush of embarrassment fades, the mishap usually evokes amusement.

I have had my own collection of clothing mishaps over the years, and it made me wonder if other people would be willing to share their tales of misfortune. I posed the following query in forty American towns via Craigslist:


I’m interviewing a number of people for whom garments have ‘failed’ or where you’ve experienced a ‘wardrobe malfunction.’ Remember what happened to Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl in 2004? It could be clothing that misbehaves – dresses that split at the side, buttons that come off at inopportune moments, and stains that mark favourite sweaters. Or, perhaps it’s a moment when you feel out of context or wrong because of the clothes you wear (for instance wearing the wrong garments at a wedding/funeral/party or wearing the same as someone else). Do you have a story you’d like to share? If so, please respond to this post with a few sentences about your clothing mishap.


What follows are a selection of responses:

A post-Medieval clothing fastener from the collection of The British Museum.

Tiffany, Minneapolis, MN

So, in my heyday of being a self-proclaimed ‘dancing queen,’ my bestie and I were headed out to get our party on, like we normally did on Thursday nights. Well, I, of course, wore my favourite jeans that just so happened to make me look like I had an hourglass figure to die for. These jeans were the go-to item for any occasion – parties, work, baby showers, heck… even a wedding or two. Anyway, so my friend and I were known around the club scene because we knew how to turn it out. If there was a stage or a cage to dance on or in, we were there. All the partygoers wanted to be around us. We knew how to get down and turn it loose.

So, as we typically did, we entered the club and found the stage area where we knew we would spend most of our night, creating our own space, pushing non-rhythmic folks from around us, and being the ‘unofficial’ party promoters. Halfway through the night, after my fifth ‘droppin’ it low’ dance move, I was facing the window, which meant my back was facing the crowd. Lil’ Jon’s song ‘To the Window, To the Wall’ was bumping hard and I was in full-fledged ‘diva mode.’ Needless to say, I was feeling the music. The windows were dripping wet from all our sweat and everyone was feeling the music. Suddenly, I started to feel a little different. Like someone had put a fan on us or opened the emergency exit door. It felt cooler on my backside for some reason. At first, I didn’t question it as the breeze was much appreciated. However, when I started grooving to another beat, my pants felt a little ‘loose.’

I looked down to check to see if my belt had broken or my fly came undone, only to see that I had ripped the back of my pants through the entire butt area. You know those old school footie pajamas with the butt flap that comes undone? Well, that is what my pants looked like. My entire ass was hanging out WITHOUT UNDERWEAR. I was MORTIFIED!!! I turned quickly so my back was against the window, but I knew that I had already been spotted as people were looking intently at me. I tapped my friend on her shoulder to show her what happened. I had no clue how I could possibly get out of there without more people seeing, not to mention walking back to the car down a busy street full of college kids. Ugh, the embarrassment was unreal!

Luckily, my bestie (who was like a size 2, MAYBE) let me borrow her sweater to wrap around my waist. Well, like I said, she was a size 2 at best, so the arms of the sweater did not even wrap around my waist so I had to hold the ends together (that was a self esteem crusher – let me tell ya). Oh, not to mention the fact that the sweater only covered half a butt cheek! Lawd! Needless to say, I was able to make it out, get home, change my pants, and head back up there to party like a true rock star. After the night was over, I returned to say farewell to the Apple Bottoms that were no more.

R.I.P. to the jeans that got me through my 20s.

Hooked clothing fastener from the 16th and 17th century, from the collection of The British Museum.

John, Chicago, IL

In high school my friends and I made a bunch of jean shorts for the dodge ball tournament. We prided ourselves in having the shortest shorts possible. On the way to the tournament I decided to do some lunges, effectively ripping my shorts up to the top of my thigh on one leg. Luckily I was able to borrow a stapler to mend the very large tear and hide my boxers. Later in the evening while sitting down, I noticed that the tip of my dick was hanging out of the base of the shorts. I still wear the shorts for fun from time to time – they have a nice sentimental value to them – but I’m much more careful to wear tighter boxers.

Sonia, New York, NY

I went on a second date last year and wore a gray knit strapless dress. Our first date had been to yoga, so the pressure to look like something other than a sartorially-lazy person was on. Before leaving, I had taped the dress to my chest, hoping double-sided sticky tape would be enough to prevent it from slipping and revealing more than I normally would on a second date. But on my walk over, the tape betrayed me. I stopped in a coffee shop and asked if they had anything I could use. They only had the bulky adhesive used to hang things on walls. It was either that or nothing at all. So I cut two breast-wide strips and stuck them to the dress.

I thought I was in the clear.

Not so much.

Luckily, my date forgot his wallet and we had to make a detour at his apartment before going out for drinks. He kept apologising for the mistake, and if I remember correctly, I responded with something like, ‘That’s great because my dress is falling down and I need tape.’ He gave me packing tape and for the third time that evening, I attempted to MacGyver the situation. It got me all the way through three rounds of drinks and a cab ride to a club downtown.

It turns out that packing tape doesn’t work on skin quite as well as it does on cardboard – especially in a humid nightclub. If we had been sitting, I might have been able to maintain my dignity for the entire night. But he wanted to dance. The kind of dancing that involves holding hands and actually moving in unison. Not grinding, not twerking, not shimmying up and down each other’s bodies. But, like, actual dancing.

Once again, my dress proved reluctant to behave itself. For the entire time we were on the dance floor (or rather the little VIP platform his friend had reserved for her birthday party), I couldn’t fully enjoy myself because of that damn J.Crew dress. With every step or turn, I would anxiously glance down to make sure I wasn’t flashing anyone. Even with the five or six drinks already in me, I’m not one to publicly expose myself.

That was the last time I wore that dress. I still own it – for some reason I haven’t given it away or tried my luck at selling it to a thrift store – but I don’t intend to put it on anytime soon. At least until they make heavy duty, skin-friendly glue.

Aysha, Baltimore, MD

I’m Pakistani, and our traditional formalwear is incredibly elaborate, featuring beading, sequins, embroidery, you name it. The problem is that these designs are rarely thought through properly. Two holidays ago, I was wearing such a creation at an Eid party when I gave someone a requisite Pakistani hug.

The jewels on my dress ended up trapped in her equally bedazzled silk dress, and we spent a full three minutes trying to disentangle ourselves from one another. I was stuck in her bracelets, her sleeve was caught on the beading along my back – it was a mess, especially when you factor in that our families are in the midst of a decade-long dispute.

No eye contact was made that day, as you might imagine.

A post Medieval clothing fastener made from a single length of wire, from the collection of The British Museum.

Gregory, San Francisco Bay, CA

In the mid-Seventies I had a pair of chestnut-coloured leather pants with BIG bell-bottoms. So fashionable. I was wearing them to go to a Christmas party later, but since we had time to spare we went to Macy’s in downtown San Francisco. Coming down the crowded escalator, the right pant leg became entangled in the escalator and the leather began to rip. I’m 6’5” and managed to create quite a scene as the escalator chewed up my pants. I was going ‘Commando.’

Amy, Providence, RI

I grew up in Osseo, Minnesota. In the summertime, I played in our regionally famous (but still underdog) high school marching band. In the summer of 2006, the Osseo Marching Band took a field trip to New York City. I was 18, had never left state lines, and as nerdy and awkward as a farm girl who plays bass drum in a band can be. I turned 18 on the bus ride through Pennsylvania, and considered the trip a marker for my adulthood. I was a woman now, sophisticated and visiting New York.

My clothing mishap occurred when we got off the bus to see Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I had my skirt tucked into my underpants, little to my knowledge and much to my horror at the discovery after I had wandered the aisles, lit a prayer candle for my grandmother, and kneeled like a good Catholic girl before I approached the altar. I realise now that some creeps would probably sexualise this experience, but at the time it was hilariously mortifying and poetically just because I was trying with all my might to appear cool and worldly and stylish, unlike my Minnesotan peers who fell over themselves to buy the typical ‘I love NY’ souvenirs and dared to wear sneakers with jeans in the streets of this famed city. I was embarrassed to be around them. I got what I deserved, and the scandalised nuns and pious afternoon churchgoers got an eyeful of my backside.

A late Iron Age cast clothing fastener from the collection of The British Museum.

Emily, Minneapolis, MN

The first garment that I ever knitted was a beautiful cotton sweater dress. I designed and knitted it over the course of a year. I only wore it on the most special of occasions, so it spent most of its life in my closet. One summer night after coming home from my first year of college, I tried it on again for nostalgia’s sake. Having gained the fabled Freshman 15, I had great difficulty squeezing into the dress. While it was comfortable enough to wear, I could not, for the life of me, get it off. Given that all of my family was asleep, I had no one to help me pull it over my shoulders so I ended up going to sleep in the dress. The next day when I woke up, I was horrified to discover that my mom had already left for most of the day. With great dismay, I unravelled the top of the dress in order to finally take it off.

Nancy, Lincoln, NE

This happened approximately around 1988 or 1989. At the time I worked in an accounting office and was required to dress up each day. You know, skirts, dress tops, pantyhose – yes, pantyhose (this was the 80’s ya know!?!) – and various other dressy clothing. I lived in an apartment without a washer or dryer and the building did have laundry facilities, but I preferred lugging my baskets, potions, hangers, and all the crap to the local laundromat. Well, this one particular time I put my bottle of bleach in with my hangers and off to the laundromat I went. Can you guess what happened? Maybe, maybe not. So, I get to the laundromat and pull out the hangers and realise they are wet with the bleach that had spilled. I wiped the hangers off, cleaned up my bag of the bleach and proceeded to wash my clothes. After drying some of them, I hung them all up on the hangers and left to return home. The next morning I grabbed some clothes off the hangers to get dressed and AGHAST – there was a line through the pants where they were folded over the hangers! I quickly went through all the clothes and every last piece of clothing I had washed was ruined because of bleachy hangers!! There were bleach marks where the shirts hung on the hangers and all the slacks had a line through them right around where the knees were, where they were folded over the hanger. Apparently I had not wiped off or cleaned the hangers good enough, or the bleach I had was top strength!! I felt soooo stupid!! Back in the Eighties I was just starting out in Accounting after obtaining my degree and did not make much, somewhere around $7 – $8/hour, so I really could not afford to replace all the clothing. So depressing!

A post Medieval clothing fastener from the collection of The British Museum.

Carol, Dallas, TX

When I was pregnant with my son, my husband had to cut me out of a sundress because I swelled up and couldn’t get it off. I couldn’t get it over my boobs! LOL it was hilarious.

Linda, Austin, TX

I was dressed in a gorgeous short leather-suede skirt and top having a birthday dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant. When I was leaving my house, I was unaware that a lacy red thong was statically tucked underneath the back end of the skirt – or that it fell out in the middle of the restaurant floor. The maître d’ picked it up and came trotting after me, waving it as he’s announcing ‘Oh ma’am, ma’am, you dropped this,’ as everyone was pointing and snickering. I turned and horrified, I said, ‘Not mine, but you can keep it.’

Heather, Bangor, ME

One example of a clothing-related disaster involved me slipping and falling into a giant lake of manure while wearing a white sundress. I was eight years old and on a school field trip in Sterling, Massachusetts to see the inner workings of a farm. My mom thought I should be fancy (??) and dressed me in a white dress, lacy socks and patent leather shoes… hence the slippage. Everyone else wore sneakers or boots and stayed out of the manure pile.

Once the farmer dislodged me with a giant sucking sound from the manure, he blasted me full-throttle with the livestock hose. Its brutal force sent my body slamming and thrashing down the entire length of the barn.

This was witnessed by many adults and children.

I had to ride back thirty miles with everyone on a hot bus. My dress was sopping wet, manure was lodged inside of my friendship bracelet, and my shoes squelched manure-water for the rest of the day.

I did not keep the dress; it looked like a Rorschach test.

A decorative cast clothing fastener from 1700-1800 AD, from the collection of The British Museum.

Tia, Spokane, WA

About nine years ago, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I made the five-hour drive over the Cascade mountains after work one evening so that I could take her to a meeting with the oncologist. Her appointment was at some ungodly time of the morning (like 5 am or something) a half hour from their home. When I arrived at their house late the night before, I took off all my clothes and dumped them in a pile on the floor and dropped into the makeshift bed my dad had created for me on the living room floor.

The next morning, my alarm went off, I groggily got dressed and ushered my mom to the car, where we drove to the clinic. She was escorted straight in to see the doctor, I was guided to an empty waiting room. I sat down and the next thing I knew, I woke myself up snoring! When I finally wiped the drool off my face and noticed the number of people looking at me, (or trying NOT to look at me, whichever way you want to take it), I could feel my face turning red and stood up to leave the area so that I would not die of total embarrassment, but alas, that was not to happen. When I stood, collected all of my belongings, coat, purse, book and turned to leave, I tripped over the pair of pantyhose with socks and underwear entwined in them that were hanging out of the bottom of my pants – and not only were they hanging out, but I had stepped on with my other foot. Oh Gawd! So I reached down to pull them out, (what else was I going to do? Walk and let them drag like a dog on a leash?) The leg was apparently stuck up higher and would NOT come out! So I elegantly exited the waiting room holding the wad of pantyhose and underwear and tried desperately not to look anyone in the eye.

Brett, Eugene, OR

Moms shouldn’t wear white pants. I have four kids all under age seven. A week ago we had mom’s famous cho chip pancakes at about 8 am. My three year old helped me of course. Her job was to be in charge of the cho chips. She ate some, played with some, and the rest went in batter. After that it was off to doctor so three kids could get back-to-school check-ups. Then Costco, the mall for school shopping, and finally when 7 pm rolls around, I drag me and four beat kids to pick daddy up from work. I’d been in his office for about forty sec before he burst out laughing, tears streaming down his face. He takes the twins out of my arms and tells me, ‘Go to the bathroom, see for yourself.’ I look in the tall mirror and I look pretty damn great for being thirty with four kids under the age of seven. He’s lost his mind. I turn to walk out and BAM there it is on the ass of my white pants – two chocolate handprints and a large smear where I can only assume she wiped her face off. Almost twelve hours in public, saw family and friends, not one word. LOL. Needless to say I’m never wearing white pants again and I did some housekeeping on my Friends list.


Emily Spivack is an artist, writer, editor and lecturer. She is the author of the bestselling book Worn Stories, and the subsequent Worn in New York, as well as the executive producer of the Netflix series Worn Stories.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Failure.