Monday, 30 September 2013

The Planned Wardrobe: September Review

At the start of September I wrote about how I'd decided to give a simplified, relaxed version of Project 333 a go. I moved 33 items into my wardrobe, took everything else out, and planned to wear basically just those clothes for the month of September.

My experience of doing this basically fell into two halves: the first two weeks, I thought it was great. The second two weeks, I started to not enjoy it that much, and by the end of today, after getting dressed, I not-at-all-regretfully re-organized my wardrobe back into a cohesive whole. I'm really glad I tried the experiment, and I definitely learned a lot from it. However, I don't think the Project 333 model, even this easy, relaxed version, is something I want to keep doing.

The main problem I had wasn't the raw number of clothes. The problem was that I didn't have the right clothes in my selection, and there's just not enough flexibility for it to work for me. Here is a list of the problems I experienced:

1. I didn't get the mix right for the weather, which is no surprise since the weather is never particularly easy to forecast in the British Isles (because we live on the cusp of several different competing weather systems, which is a tangent I won't go into, but basically, yes, unsettled weather all the time) and especially difficult in seasonal transition months like September. I thought I'd covered all the possibilities but no, I really didn't, especially since my one pair of summer trousers disintegrated two days in. I had one day where I looked outside, looked in my wardrobe, and ended up grabbing something out of storage to wear because nothing that was clean was suitable for the combination of weather and my planned activity. That was the only day I went totally off-plan, but I had a few layering additions as well on colder-than-expected-for-September days, and I sweltered unhappily through some much-warmer-than-expected-for-September days because I didn't include enough hot weather options.

2. About 40% of my selection was pure workwear, i.e. things I would never choose to wear if I'm spending the day mostly in my apartment or out and about e.g. tailoring, woven blouses, etc. If I were actually working full-time right now, I probably would have been OK with this mix. However, my employment situation is weird right now (long story, don't ask) and as a result, I was only on campus three times this month for less than half a day per visit -- maybe 5% of my actual time. In reality, my 33 garment wardrobe was therefore, for the vast majority of the month, more like a 20 garment wardrobe. Luckily I had some things in the mix that were more flexible, like jersey tops that were just as reasonable to wear with jeans as with work trousers, or it wouldn't have worked at all. The obvious answer would have been to do some kind of swap part-way through. However, the problem is I can only say now, with hindsight, that my employment situation was going to be weird all month and I would at no point in September need my work wardrobe. For most of the month I've been expecting it to sort itself out. While this was a fairly extreme case of the wardrobe not matching my life, if I were thinking of doing the three-month thing I can easily envisage hitting similar snags all the time, to the point where I'd probably spend as much time off the planned wardrobe as on it.

3. I really had to stay on top of my laundry and ironing. If I didn't, the whole thing became increasingly unworkable, particularly since I was already limited by the selection errors above. I could of course solve this by getting more organized with my washing and ironing, but let's get real: it's much more likely I'd carry on being disorganized/lazy/busy/prioritize other things over doing the washing, and getting annoyed with my wardrobe than that I'd suddenly come over all organized.

4. It turns out you really need to like every single thing in a limited wardrobe. If you put something you don't really like in the 33, you won't wear it any more than you'll wear it when it's lost among a larger wardrobe. I had a half dozen I-don't-really-like-this-but-I'll-include-it-anyway items in my selection, on the false premise that (a) I would "get some wear" out of them; and (b) I might grow to like them with greater familiarity. Some of them were workwear and weren't really needed anyway. The other items I either avoided wearing, thus reducing the number of available garments even more, or I did wear them, mainly due to lack of choice, but it didn't make me like them any more. In fact I went from mild dislike to active loathing of one thing, and flung it in the recycling pile with great glee this morning. My overall happiness with my wardrobe was generally in direct proportion to how often I had to wear the things I disliked.

5. There's definitely a tension between choosing things that you can wear a lot and in a lot of different ways, which seems to suggest you should go for reasonably bland design and not too much bright colour, and wearing things that are visually interesting. In the 33, I got the mix wrong, and I was surprised how much this aggravated me. I wore the things that were more colourful a lot more often than anything else. I felt driven to do so, even though it meant I wore purple (my "accent" colour) more frequently than I ever have in my life, because otherwise I had so much neutral/black in my mix. I forgot that I find wearing black non-stop incredibly depressing and that I really only like to wear black head-to-toe very occasionally. The weird part is, I don't think of myself as a very colourful dresser because I don't wear certain really eye-catching colours at all (yellow, orange, pink), I don't tend to wear a lot of colour combinations or prints, and because I tend to stick to neutrals for things like trousers and coats/jackets. However, I really love my colourful tops and skirts, and I am definitely getting more and more interested in wearing prints after years and YEARS of avoiding them. This 33 selection was way too heavy on dark, solid coloured clothing. Maybe that would be possible to fix, but I don't know how I could put together the ratio I would prefer within a 33 item wardrobe without ending up either washing a few neutral items every few days (see above: never going to happen) or wearing wacky colour combinations that would make me uncomfortable.

6. I am a really serious wearer of layers, and this gave me a problem selecting garments, and screwed with the number of outfits I could get out of the 33 garments without doing a load of washing. Again, I've never really thought of this as a style, or even that it's a thing at all, but actually yes, I like to wear layers a LOT, more than other people, apparently, and this introduced another level of frustration to using the 33. Some of my favourite tops were in the mix, but the base or top layer I wear them with was not, due to the number constraints.  This is the most helpful of all the problems I had because it clarified a thing I've always been kind of baffled about: people who have an actual totally different wardrobe for all four seasons even though we live in such a temperate (if unsettled) climate. I have a very few things that I reserve for the (rare) extremes of summer and winter but the vast majority of my wardrobe is wearable at least 9 months of the year, provided I'm wearing it in layers. It also explains why I've always been disappointed in cowl necks or draped fronts: they're really hard to wear either over or under another layer. Wrap and faux wrap are a bit more versatile because you can wear a little tee underneath or a drapy non-buttoning cardigan thing over top, but do you have to pick the right style. My favourite tops of all are flat and without embellishment so they can go under or over another layer if need be. This is really helpful information when thinking about avoiding buying patterns/making things I just won't wear in future.

The biggest problem of all, though, is that I spent all kinds of energy this month thinking about how to make the "rules" of the experiment work better for me for a longer-term project. I went through a whole series of possible personalised plans: I was inching towards the idea of a stable 30-ish wardrobe for three months, with a complicated monthly allowance of swaps and edits. I spent some time trying to work out the "right" seasonal split to get 90 days with weather that wouldn't throw the selection criteria for a loop (spoiler: this is not possible in a country with uncertain weather). I tried to figure out what my selection errors were so I could iron out the problems in future limited number wardrobes. I danced around the question of what had to be counted vs. not counted in the 33. I also found myself gaming the system, just because I could. I was constrained by numbers in my regular wardrobe from having my favourite red sweater in the mix, so I shuffled it sideways into my "around the house" clothing so I could wear it more often, which, what was the point of that? The arbitrariness of the number 33 began to annoy me more and more, just from a philosophical standpoint, but every other number I came up with seemed equally arbitrary and annoying, and I kept going around in circles.

Then, a few days ago I sat back and went, or, hey, you know what else I could do? NOT DO THIS. And then I breathed a sigh of relief.

So that was all pretty negative. However, I genuinely did learn some useful things, and over the weekend I did three things as a direct consequence of the experiment:

A. I culled all the things I really don't like out of my wardrobe. There are all kinds of reasons that I've ended up keeping things I don't like, most prominent of which is the belief that because I paid X for something, I have to hang on to it until a least poorly defined time Y, just in case whatever moment of madness that made me buy it in the first place revisits me and I fall in love with it again. However, I tried to set that aside and just went through my clothes picking out what I really don't like and don't want to wear, and put them on one side to recycle. Seeing my wardrobe cut down to just the things I am at worst indifferent to (black trousers, never going to be very exciting) to things I love (little blue top of joy! It looks like nothing at all in the photo but I love it) actually makes me really happy. There are no wardrobe errors staring me in the face any more!

B. I looked at the things in highest rotation for the month and that I most enjoyed wearing. There were things in my 33 mix that were basically never in the wardrobe, always either being worn or in the wash. This, together with my wardrobe inventory that I've been running in the background for a while, plus the fact I had a deliberately limited wardrobe from June to August before the main body of my belongings came over to Ireland, really gave me a better insight into what I'll actually wear. There wasn't anything very surprising about the outcomes, but it gives me more confidence in my wardrobe planning.

C. When I originally put together the 33 things, I used my inventory spreadsheet to do it, and that is really how I ended up making the colour/pattern and layer selection errors (I did have a qualm about all the black when I first started, but I ignored it!). When I did the latest iteration of a wardrobe plan this weekend, this time I used Polyvore to come up with an image display of what it would actually LOOK like. This way I could see how things would fit together, how much colour and print there would be. That's given me a much better idea of what I'd like my dream wardrobe to actually look like, how much colour co-ordination I could have, how things would layer up, and so on.

Overall, an interesting experiment! I'm both glad I did it, because I learned some useful things, and glad I'm done with it!


  1. Very interesting. I have really loved your posts about the 333 project, and this is the best one.

    I have always found that if I head out of the house in clothes I like and feel ok (good is better) in, the last time I think about what I am wearing is when I have left the house. If I wear clothes I hate, it seems to be on my mind constantly and I feel pissed off and angry all day. So I guess this means that right now I have no clothes that I hate. Good for me. And thank you for making me notice that.

    1. I am so with you on that. The common feature of those things I hated was that most of them needed to be constantly re-adjusted over the course of the day to be comfortable -- trousers that slid down and had to be pulled up constantly, or shirts that slid forwards or backwards on my shoulders and have to be tugged back into place -- or else the fit was off in one specific place, like the top that fits everywhere except right across the upper back, where it was too tight. Like you, I want to go out the door feeling at least OK and hopefully good about my outfit but then also not have it be a constant irritant all day long, no matter how cute it might theoretically look.

      I am glad you thought my P33 was interesting. It's sort of off-topic, I guess, for a sewing blog, but I wanted to be long-winded about it and so I was. :D