When I was in junior high, I had far fewer than 33 articles of clothing in my closet. I had 3 pairs of pants, 2 skirts, and maybe 5 or 6 shirts and 2 or 3 sweaters. I know this because each Sunday I created a written plan of my outfits for the week.
In the merciless world of junior high, everyone paid attention to what everyone else wore, and I mixed and matched and rotated those few items as if my (social) life depended on it.
The relative thinness of my wardrobe (I did have fewer clothes than any of my friends) can be attributed to the scarcity of two things: money and body mass. My parents had little of the former and I had little of the latter. Even if my parents could have afforded more clothes, I simply could not find clothing, especially pants, that fit me. If they were long enough, they were too big around. If they were small enough, they came to my calves.
I thought I was long ago over the trauma of those days (my tongue is only partly in my cheek), but my experiment with Project 333 has shown me that I’m not. The wardrobe I have today is a direct (and uncomfortable) reflection on ways of thinking and feeling about clothes that were set back in 1977.
Last week, my closet looked like this:
I’d already done a large purging this summer, when I organized and renovated my closet. I thought I was traveling pretty light. One friend, when I showed her the cleaned out closet in August, said, “My God, how can you have so little clothing?”
To cull the collection down to 33, I began by throwing into garbage bags anything that I really do not like or don’t wear. I got to two bags easy with that. I put away for spring anything that’s clearly out of season and not likely to be worn before the end of March. That left me with just a few more things than you can see here, which is my closet fully cleaned out:
When the dust settled, I realized that I own no pants I truly like. None that fit well, look good, and feel good on. I’m down to about 4 pairs I tolerate.
Today I had a few free afternoon hours after attending an all-day training near a mall. I went to Nordstrom Rack to see if I could find any pants that might meet my three criteria (fit/look/feel good).
I did find a pair. They were originally $150.00. I don’t think I’ve ever tried on pants that cost that much, much less bought any. I can now say that yes, there is a difference between $150.00 pants and the kind I usually buy, which might be, at most, $60.00 full price (which I rarely pay).
These pants were made from some kind of brushed fabric with stretch. Soft like velvet. They fit perfectly. They felt great. I knew the dense fabric would keep me warm through the second half of winter. They were well-made, so I knew they’d last more than one season.
They were a kind of funny color. A black that was sort of blue. They didn’t look right with the black shoes I had on. I started wondering what shoes I could wear with them, and the only ones I thought might work are a pair I don’t like to wear. (And have in fact put away for Project 333.)
And so I did something that I don’t think I’ve ever done in my adult life:
I walked away from a screaming good bargain.
I never walk away from a deal like that. I pride myself on getting good clothing for next to nothing. These pants were only $20.00, and they were originally $150.00. They fit well and were comfortable. But I knew that I couldn’t get them to look good without buying something else (new shoes), and I don’t need new shoes. In the past (last week) I would have had to get them just because they were mostly right. I would have used the low cost of the pants to justify the purchase of the shoes.
But last weekend I filled up two garbage bags with mostly right clothes (and shoes). Here’s the thing: Mostly right is still not right, which makes them wrong.
It was hard to see those piles of clothes I’ve hardly worn but (previously) could not get rid of because they were hardly worn. Looking at the mound of them, I could not help seeing that all those bargains added up to a hefty sum of money. $20 seems like almost nothing, until you multiply it by 50. It was hard to realize how much I’ve wasted in the name of being frugal.
I remember the years of feeling that I never had enough to wear. Scarcity made dressing a huge chore. And what I had was never what I really wanted. It was what I could find on sale that was good enough. I liked it good enough and it fit good enough. I couldn’t afford what I really wanted and there were so few things that fit.
I remember getting to a point in my life where I could have as much as I felt I needed–but only if I used the same criteria I always had: a good bargain that I liked well enough.
I can see now that I’ve been all backwards about the business of clothing. I can see that the only reason I thought I needed more (to the point of a crammed-full closet) was that I was dissatisfied with what I had. Somehow I thought the dissatisfaction was about quantity when it was really about quality.
Still, I know that switching to fewer things I like more will not be as easy as it sounds. I can see that it will be hard to find things that are truly right. I left Nordstrom with nothing, which was a different kind of hard than the junior high hard. I felt like I’d wasted my afternoon. I thought of all the other things I might have done with it:
- Work on my practicum
- Write one of the many blog posts I’ve got kicking around in my head
- Sit in a coffee shop and read the book I can’t seem to get to
- Get to the bank before it closed and take care of some business I’ve been putting off
(Notice how the most I’d pay for any of those is the price of a cup of tea?)
I realized that many times I buy something to justify the time spent looking. I want something concrete to show for my effort. I told myself to be grateful for the insights I gained from shopping, but I still wanted something tangible. This speaks to other dysfunctions, I suspect.
I can see that I’m going to have to retrain the way my brain thinks about scarcity and abundance. In just the past week, I’ve become acutely aware of how many times I feel the desire to buy something because it feels like too good a deal to pass up.
I can always use ___________, I’ll think.
Even though I don’t need it now, I will later, I’ll think.
I’d better get this while I can.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chosen something not quite right because I was afraid that if I didn’t take what was in front of me I might end up with nothing at all. And I’m not just talking about clothes. I’ve done it with really big things, too: jobs, houses, husbands.
I’m going to have to retrain the way my brain thinks about what I deserve. While I’ve obviously been able to spend lots of money on myself, I’ve only been able to do it in ways that don’t feel like a lot, in small increments. I think somehow it seemed like it wasn’t so much that way. What’s ten bucks here or twenty there, right? Seems like a whole different thing to drop $50 on just one thing, just for me. That feels selfish or something. I can see now that perhaps it would not be.
As my closet stands now, there are very few things in it that I really love, that meet my new criteria. If I only included the ones that do, I couldn’t get to 33. I’d have:
5 knit shirts (1 turtle neck, 4 long-sleeved shirts)
Now, I can’t just go out and fill in 18 blank spaces in my wardrobe. So I’m wearing the things that are more good than bad. I can see, though, that as I slowly replace the things I now have, I’m going to be much more selective. I wasn’t sure that today’s almost-right pants would really be any better than any of the other almost-right ones I currently own, which is why I ultimately decided not to buy them. I knew I wouldn’t really be ahead.
I think this is a lot of learning for just one day, and I’m officially only one day into this thing. Looking forward to seeing what else emerges. And to seeing what it’s doing for those of you who are joining me.