Labour Behind the Label is an organisation that has a campaign for clothes to be produced in a “cleaner” manner – not just ecologically sounder, but mainly demanding better conditions for workers in sweatshops around the world, who often work in atrocious conditions yet don’t even earn enough to live a dignified life. It’s a tragic situation and we, as consumers, are easily led to buy buy buy lots of cheap clothes with only the slightest regard to how they were produced. I am just as guilty of this as the next person.
Writing about minimalism isn’t something I’ve done before, though I’ve been interested in “simple” for a long long time, probably even since I was a child, if I’d only known what to call it. Like many others, I got caught up in the expanding consumer wave that was the 80s and 90s and life with a family only fuels that. Once I began to read more about consumerism, simplification and minimalism, it still took me a long time to really get on board, and it’s a work in progress, always.
Capsule wardrobes have always fascinated me, the concept of making x outfits from y number of garments captured my imagination young – for years I kept a magazine tear-out from 1975 of a “sample wardrobe” that involved a white trouser suit and a stripy turquoise skirt and lots of red and yellow and some enormous platform sandals (I was only 10 at the time and probably aspired to the platforms, which I would never ever have been allowed to wear!!). Anyway, it was the concept that appealed and magazines do like to bring this up at regular intervals! 1981…
In the past few years, interest in “challenges” of all kinds has spread across the internet, and of course, I was intrigued. Courtney Carver’s “Project 333” suggests wearing 33 wardrobe items (including shoes and jewellery…!) for 3 months and is more of an exercise in realising that we really don’t need as many clothes as we have – especially Americans with their big walk-in closets, who often have hundreds of items of clothing to fill and overfill the space. A statistic: “In 1991, the average American bought 34 items of clothing each year. By 2007, they were buying 67 items every year.” (quoted from “Stuffocation” by James Wallman, 2013 – oh, and the average British woman now buys 58 items of clothing each year…!) That often isn’t quite such a problem for us in Europe, where we’re used to smaller wardrobes and a tradition of “using up”, but these things tend to creep over the Atlantic (see above!), and a good declutter is probably a wise idea in most armoires these days – we have double the amount of clothing in our wardrobes as in 1980, when that capsule wardrobe above was printed!
The Six Items or Less challenge was set up in New York a few years ago and again, was an exercise to see how present-day Westerners would cope with an extremely limited wardrobe of only 6 items of clothing (outerwear, sportswear, shoes and undies/nightwear not included!) for a month. As you may imagine, it was considered pretty extreme but with the example of mini-wardrobes using a lot of black, the idea became quite popular and an awareness arose that most other people didn’t even notice when the participants wore the same clothes over and over – washed regularly, of course. Some braver women even managed to put together bright and quirky wardrobes of 6 items and to combine them in unusual ways, quite a challenge, I have to say!
The most extreme of these wardrobe challenges involves a single dress, and therefore is a women’s challenge (well, I imagine so for the most part, anyway!). The Uniform Project involved a single dress worn 365 different ways and with lots of outrageous accessories, but was an interesting idea. They even designed a dress especially for it, so that it could be worn backwards or forwards or as a jacket or as a tunic… endless possibilities. That was also a charity challenge to raise awareness of conditions in the garment-making industry, particularly in India, and sustainability in fashion. I know of two other women who took up this challenge for a whole year who documented their experience on the internet, one really only wore the above-mentioned dress for a year, with a few warm accessories for the colder months, while the other made herself a brown dress of her own design and wore that with other existing things in her wardrobe. I have to say, I’m not sure I’d manage a challenge quite as extreme as this! I take my hat off to them.
However, more recently, the 6 Items challenge was taken up by some girls in the UK who wanted to support Labour Behind the Label and this tipped me over the edge, because I could finally walk the walk as well as talking the talk and do something tangible for a cause at the same time, so I joined in. For 40 days (that’s 6 weeks), I wore the same 6 garments repeatedly. I tried to make good choices and occasionally had to add a little something, mainly for warmth as we transitioned from a mildish winter to a warmish spring (and the heating broke down and is being replaced as I type…!), but to my own surprise, I had no difficulty at all with this challenge, nor did I get bored with my choices, which is proved by the fact that I am wearing the same grey jeans today, the first “day after” the challenge! While I don’t go out to work, I do leave the house and several occasions (birthdays, meals out) arose which needed to be covered – including a funeral. On the other hand, there are some days where I am home all day or have a gym class, and if necessary, I could just stick with my sportsgear for the rest of the day, when I tend to carry on doing energetic stuff anyway and don’t shower till later!
For the curious, these are the garments I chose:
– grey jeans (mail order)
– a tunic dress in black/greys (Gudrun Sjöden eco label)
– a cream lace top (La Redoute)
– a jade green peasant-style T-shirt (local supermarket eco range)
– a cream peasant-style T-shirt with 3/4 sleeves and embroidery (supermarket eco range)
– a drapey grey cardigan (Asda)
When it was cold, I once wore a plain black jersey T-shirt dress under the tunic dress and on one occasion, I wore that alone with the cardigan, as everything else was in the wash and I had to leave the house, but otherwise, I managed fine with a petticoat and a thermal undershirt, various tights/leggings, a few pairs of boots/shoes (fewer than I thought I would, as it turns out!) and a couple of scarves and pieces of jewellery. I have to say, I rather surprised myself! Oh, and many of the garments sport an “eco” label of some kind, none was expensive (the cardigan is a £12 Asda/George purchase a couple of years ago, probably not an “eco” item) and all held up very well to being washed frequently – occasionally rinsed out by hand if I didn’t have a load of laundry to do.
I was pleased that I managed to keep away from black – the tunic dress is patterned on a black background but is quite thin cotton so doesn’t look funereal (although I did wear it to a funeral under a black mac…). I wore blue with the cream T-shirt and green with the jade T-shirt or other colours with the lace top, so didn’t feel too restricted at all. When it was cooler, I could layer the T-shirts and cardigan and when the sun came out and we had some very warm days, the tunic dress was very light and the tops varied in sleeve length, and so suited the weather. I didn’t go for any experiments like wearing my cardigan upside down or pinning it up or belting it, but for a younger thinner person, those would certainly be options to try!! I wasn’t trying to look different every day, but I think I rarely wore the exact combination of clothes/accessories/shoes twice, if ever.
And of course, nobody noticed. I didn’t really expect them to, having read others’ experiences. I was adequately dressed for all occasions and though I was never bored with what I had in the way of wardrobe options, I found the simplicity of not having to think about what to wear, which of a dozen T-shirt plus bottoms combination to choose, to be very refreshing. Probably, I wouldn’t choose to live like this all the time, but I do know that despite lots of culling, a few more things from my wardrobe will be going to charity, hopefully helping someone else whilst making my own life simpler by having less choice!