catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 2 :: 2013.01.18 — 2013.01.31


I am not my clothes

Five years ago, I embarked on a journey — rather an extreme “experiment” — to question my choices around clothing.  Why do I wear what I wear?  Why do I own as much clothing as I own?  How do I associate my identity to my clothes?  The interesting thing is, I was a fairly conscientious consumer with a strong desire for simplicity even before I did my social experiment. I cleaned out my closet regularly, I avoided high-priced department stores and shopped at Goodwill often, but, like many of us, my closet was still cluttered with enough pairs of shoes to last me at least two weeks without repeating and each changing season, I felt the pressure to purchase and sport the latest style-du-jour.  I still spent way too long getting ready in the morning and felt like I needed to coordinate my outfit to fit the social scene around me.  It was in a visceral moment that I realized I needed something tangible to shake me from my deeply rooted approach to clothing. 

That moment took place one morning on a bus in Chicago as I was heading to work.  It was 2007 and I was volunteering with the program Mission Year.  I remember looking out the window as we passed by some of my neighbors. I noticed their clothes.  Some of them were dressed neatly, but others wore clothes that didn’t quite fit.  Some even had on the same clothes they were wearing the day or two before.  I looked down at my own outfit, thinking about how I was able to choose what I wore that day, determining what “style” I was in the mood to wear, or what was best for the weather and the plans I had for the day ahead.  I thought about the purple scarf I around my neck that morning, the one I purchased in Italy when I studied abroad, and how it not only had sentimental value to me, but communicated something about me to others, that I was cultured or “well-traveled.”  When I compared my choices around clothing with the choices of some of my neighbors, I realized what a powerful role clothing plays in our lives.  This was something I wanted to examine deeply, not just think about.

Over the course of two years, fueled by several encouraging conversations, I developed a project called We Are Not Our Clothes.  The basic goal of the experiment was to see how long I could go without wearing any piece of my clothing more than once, thus wearing my entire wardrobe, one piece at a time (or two or three to avoid indecent exposure) until I got to the very end of my closet.  This selection included the hole-y pajama pants that I should have thrown out years ago; the baggy, highlighter-yellow t-shirt I wore for a Buy Nothing Day protest; that one pair of navy blue windbreaker pants from the 90s that I save for sledding in winter (I sense I may be alone on this one); and even that crazy expensive bridesmaid dress at the back of the closet that I’m saving for a fancy cruise someday.  I would wear each piece of clothing I owned for one whole day, then put it in the “worn” pile and not touch it again until I had worn every last thing. 

Before I go on, take a moment to think about this and consider your closet: could you — would you — do it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  

Some of the motivation behind this experiment was to assess how much clothing I owned versus how much I actually wanted, needed or needed to get rid of.  Other issues I hoped to evaluate were how clothing made me feel, how other people treated me based on my outfit as well as how I attached my identity to the clothes I wore.  I kept a journal documenting every item of clothing I wore from one day to the next, what country each piece of clothing was made in, along with basic reflections.  At the beginning of the experiment, a friend asked me how long I thought the project would take me.  Since I had made it a rule not to count my clothes ahead of time, I guessed that my wardrobe would last me two, maybe three months.  Over five months later, I had completed my experiment! To put this timeframe in perspective, it took me one hundred and fifty six days, several garbage bags full of clothes, and even an engagement ring (that’s a whole other story) to complete my experiment.  But that was just the beginning.  

I gained so much perspective during those five months.  For instance, on the day I wore my grungiest outfit — that pair of plaid, hole-y pajama pants and a paint-stained, over-sized sweatshirt along with a big book bag — I decided to go shopping in the nicest stores on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.  I was convinced that my apparel would draw the suspicious eyes of the retail clerks and a rude attitude.  But I noticed that when each sales clerk asked if I needed help with anything and in response I looked them in the eye and respectfully answered, they treated me just the same as if I were wearing the same outfit as one of their mannequins.  It was eye-opening.  My attitude and behavior trumped my apparel.  Another lesson I learned toward the end of the project was just how much clothing I hold on to for sentimental value that is truly a waste of space in my closet.  I noted how many outfits I had avoided wearing in the beginning and was forced to wear toward the end.   I had acquired many of those clotes on some special trip, for a college event or as a gift from someone special.   When I was forced to wear them, I felt pretty uncomfortable and less confident.  After experiencing those feelings, it was not hard to put those items in the donate pile.  But for some of them, it took me years of never wearing them to get to that point.  This also revealed how often my confidence stemmed directly from my appearance.

I realized throughout the course of my experiment how incredibly affecting it was for me to step out of my comfort zone and press into the realities surrounding my clothing — to really think about and experience the dynamic role of clothing in my life.  As I shed each outfit, a new layer of depth was revealed.  How much should I spend when I shop?  How much do I really need?  Why do I think I need it, or who/what is telling me I need it?  How does this old shirt make me feel, and is it true?  Why do I dress a certain way around this group of people, but not this other group?  Is it even possible to create my own style?  Who could better use this coat when I have four others?   How is the clothing industry good or bad for our economy and the global community?

It became clear that my biggest hope out in this experiment was not just to answer my own questions, but to create a platform for others to join me in applying a conscience-ness to our consumptive patterns, especially when purchasing clothes.  Because the thing is, I don’t think my questions and motives will be the same as my neighbor’s, or yours, or even my best friend’s.  And to be honest, I didn’t really come up with many hard and fast answers.  I am still processing many of those questions, examining my values, beliefs and convictions and constantly warding off cheap advertising lures.

I did, however, come up with some guidelines that have helped me re-shape my buying patterns and loosen the advertising world’s hold on my psyche.   These guidelines and others have helped me buy new about 70% less than before, and to shop about 50% less in general.  Here are a few general guidelines:

  • I will not look at fashion magazines anymore, not even when standing in the grocery line waiting to check out.  It’s too much of a temptation to see what’s hot and new and feel like I want or need it. 
  • I don’t buy new unless I can’t find it in a thrift store or borrow it from a friend.  Clothing swap parties with friends and thrift store adventures are way more fun than fighting off department store attendants luring you to buy $120 jeans that make your butt three sizes smaller.  (Ladies, in that moment, always channel Sir Mix-a-lot.)
  • If I have to buy new, before I ever go to Target or Macy’s, I try to locate boutiques or fair trade shops to support my local artisans and ensure my clothing is coming from workers that are paid a living wage and given respect.
  • For every new piece of clothing I buy, I get rid of another.  You choose how: consign it, donate, gift it.  One for one.
  • Get creative!  Simple doesn’t mean style-less.  Before I start lusting after the newest trend, I challenge myself to try creating my own variation with pieces I already own.  This practice not only helps me figure out my true style, but also ensures avoiding that awkward moment when I show up at a party to find my outfit twinsie.
  • Set a goal for how many TOTAL pieces of clothing I want to own.  I’m still working this one out, but hopefully some day I can get to 100…it’s still a process.

Like I said, those guidelines came from my experience.  I believe each person should come up with his or her own set of guidelines based on their own experience and interactions with clothing to guide them in making better choices.  The book More or Less by Jeff Shinabarger (set to release in this March) features my experiment, and ends the chapter on clothing with a challenge to create your own personal experiment.  You may need to start with one day: time how long it takes you to choose an outfit and ask yourself why it took so long.  Or go through your closet and count how many items you haven’t worn in a year…donate them!  Start a conversation with someone who has a different style from you and ask his or her thoughts about clothing.  Read the book Where Am I Wearing in which author Kelsey Timmerman takes it a step further by visiting some the countries and factories noted on the tags of his clothes. 

There are so many ways to examine your connection to clothing, so just start!  My hope is that we begin a revolution of awakening our consciousness (and our creative style) when it comes to clothes and that we feel confident in our choices, not victims to our culture.  Because, hey, in the end, we are not our clothes.  

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