Bright asymmetrical shapes can enliven a decorating theme, but when they unexpectedly and accidentally appear on your clothing, they only succeed in making you look like you barely escaped a melee with the enchanted kitchen objects from Beauty & the Beast. If you find yourself stained in public, you can try to shame people out of acknowledging reality by maintaining eye contact with them, daring them to glance down at the big coffee splatter across your bosoms. Or you can MacGyver your way out of your self-inflicted mess.
If you've just realized that you look like a child who can't hold on to her sippy cup and can't tear yourself away from the task at hand, you can try to cover the splotch. I could not more enthusiastically recommend always having a cardigan around; they are a wardrobe panacea that magically transform your Jackson Polluck'd top into a Mino Argento; if you ever see me wearing a cardigan, you can be almost totally sure that I have either spilled on myself or am wearing something wildly inappropriate, like a neon orange bra under a white dress shirt at a business function. Little button-down sweaters usually don't take up much space, so you can roll one up and carry it around with you in your purse.
No cardigan? Get creative! Any brooches around? How about giant stacks of books? Could you cross your arms like a sullen teen? Could you carry a giant fan or parasol? Get slapstick if you must. Try gluing a giant foam finger that says "WE'RE #1!" on it.
But in most cases, you won't have to cover the stain. You'll be able to retreat to the bathroom, the oasis of problem-solving in a world of embarrassing little disasters.
Before you dab your dirtied dress with a DIY detergent, determine what it's made out of. Synthetic fabrics like acrylic, nylon, and polyester require different treatment than natural fabrics, like wool, cotton, linen, and silk. Next, figure out what stained you, Clue-style. Was it Mr. Marinara, on the cotton shirt, five minutes ago? Or was it Miss Sherbet, on the linen skirt, an hour ago? And before you begin, remember to use cold water when attacking a fresh stain; warm water will set it into the fabric.
Coffee, tea, soda, wine, and some washable inks all fall into a category called "tannin stains," and they can all be removed from clothing using similar methods, which is great because it is a scientific fact that to-go coffee cup lids were designed by the stain-removal industry to vomit little geysers of coffee all over your boobs when you're in a hurry. (It's also a scientific fact that if you try to drink coffee on a cab or while on public transportation, at the exact moment you raise the cup to your lips, the vehicle will suddenly lurch forward. That's what the security systems are for, to tell the driver when to lurch.) If you've soiled yourself with a tannin type material, blot up the excess as soon as you can. Clothing made of artificial fibers can be cleaned of tannin stains with warm water and a little dishwashing detergent, followed by some rubbing alcohol. Cotton and linen fabrics require warm water and rubbing alcohol as well. Silk clothing can be cleaned with a little water and white vinegar.
When you get home, wash the befouled item in the hottest water the fabric can take. It should go without saying that if you're sloshing red wine all over yourself, now might be a good time to switch to water or call it a night, lest you show up at your ex boyfriend's place at 3 am, purple wine gums and all, telling him that he was lucky to have you. Go home, Grimace-face. Just go home.
Unless it's Halloween or you are Mark Wahlberg starring in his fifteenth consecutive film about getting into fistfights in Boston, the last thing you want to wear around in public is a visible bloodstain. While they often arise from completely benign circumstances — a particularly deep paper cut, a nerdy humidity related nosebleed, or period stuff — there's no better way to convince strangers that you've got a dead body in your trunk than by walking around garnished with biohazardous material. As soon as you notice the telltale spot, get thee some peroxide. If you can't find peroxide, cold salt water, as soon as possible. Or, if you're feeling antisocial, you could use the presence of a bloodstain as an excuse to go home and take off your pants.
Let's say you just got in a crowded elevator with Paula Deen and now your clothing is covered in butter and other household greases. Sorry, pardner, but you're shit out of luck until you find yourself some Murphy's Oil Soap or heavy duty stain remover (I've heard good things about engine degreaser, but I can't personally vouch for it. Murphy's Oil Soap diluted in water is the only thing I've ever used to remove greasy stains). Other "you're fucked for the time being unless you are magical" stains include most cosmetics, cooking oil, lotion, peanut butter, and wax.
Water-based stains — tomatoes in all of their evil, stainy iterations, jelly, beer, even grass stains — can be banished from clothing using dishwashing detergent, alcohol, or vinegar as well. A coworker of mine swears by baby wipes as stain removal must-haves. If you've got hairspray on you, you can use it to remove some ink stains, and if you're not sure what the stain is but you need to get it out pronto, club soda works wonders.
The primary lesson to be learned from finding oneself stained like someone who belongs at the kids' table at family functions is this: It's much shittier to have stained and washed, than to have never stained at all. Don't drink coffee on your way to a job interview unless you're wearing a coffee colored dress, for example. Don't wipe your hands on your pants after eating French Fries. If you're a vampire, don't wear your tennis whites while biting people. And don't get into it with Paula Deen or a motorcycle engine. Years of embarrassing yourself, or witnessing others embarrassing themselves, should have taught you to always carry stain remover sticks or wipes, bring a cardigan or emergency pants, and to never wear white, before or after Labor Day.
Image by Steve Dressler.