Project 333: Lotta lessons for day 1

7th grade: This may have been the year my Grandpa started calling me Slats.

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:

Notice all the shoes, the cubbie full of sweaters, and the pants and skirts hanging above the shoes.

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:

Sweater cubby gone, pants rod now holds coats (which previously could not fit in this closet) and there is space between my hangers.

That's pretty much all I'm wearing now, close up so you can see it. Not quite down to 33, especially if I count shoes and scarves.

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:

2 skirts

2 jackets

5 sweaters

5 knit shirts (1 turtle neck, 4 long-sleeved shirts)

1 blouse

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.

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9 responses to “Project 333: Lotta lessons for day 1

  1. OMG! Junior High must kill us all. I was 5’10” when I was 14, but I wasn’t thin. I wasn’t womanly, either. I was tall and awkward and self-conscious and ashamed because my mother so disappointed to have a moose of a daughter. Tall would have been okay if I’d looked like Christie Brinkley, but I didn’t. I was/am large-boned…not particularly fat, not particularly thin…but not model material. Clothes have been the bane of my existence for too long. Bemoaning hand-me-downs that didn’t fit right (duh…they weren’t purchased for my body, they were purchased for someone else’s)…spending years torturing this body in oh-so-vain attempts to get it to conform (anorexia/bulimia, anyone) and finally, tender acceptance. This body carried and gave birth to my three children…it has served me well these 47 years, despite the punishments I have dished out. Finally, finally, I celebrate what it is, rather than what it is not and, like you, I’m purging clothes that don’t suit it, rather than expecting it to suit clothes. My only regret? That it took so long to get to this place. My most fervent hope? That my daughter never lives in that place.

  2. I should have realized before reading your comment that the clothes issues are (of course!) linked to body issues. Because mine has mostly conformed to our current ideas of what’s attractive (once I got past that junior high skinniness), I’ve thought I don’t have them–but I do, too. It used to make me so angry when other girls/women would voice envy for my body–my body that looked good on the outside but was so malfunctioning on the inside. For years I felt my body was a metaphor for all of me. I still struggle with my body, and I’m sure that my trouble with clothing is really about trouble with my body. I, too, hope my daughter never lives in that place–but when I see the images she is bombarded with, I wonder how any of our daughters will avoid it.

  3. Reading your blog brought back so many memories, most of them not so great! Add to being tall and thin (genetics plus daily swim practice), the fact that at 13 along with braces on my teeth, I needed a back brace. They should have just shot me, I don’t think my self-esteem could have been any lower. Trying to shop on my mom’s limited budget plus trying to fit clothes over the brace gave me first of many panic attacks. I usually left the mall without buying anything. My older sister was six inches shorter so there were no hand me downs from her. But since my younger sister was my exact same size, we were asked to share most of our clothes (and once-shoes.) The kids at school figured out fast that we were “rotating” our wardrobe and didn’t let us forget it. And during these days of Farrah Fawcett hair, my mom took us to the local beauty school for their dollar cuts. It was a perfect example of “you get what you pay for.”

    I don’t want this to sound like my parents lack of money was the ruin of my childhood (as an adult I have come to realize they have extremely poor money management skills.) But I do know that feeling so poorly about myself is what lead to certain “behaviors” in my later teens. I would do anything to fit in. I know it is why, despite wearing uniforms to grade school, my kids always had a closet full of clothes and I now allow my son to fuel his major clothes buying habit any time he asks. Surviving junior and senior high is hard enough. If wearing the “right” jeans or shoes to school makes life easier for him, I’m all for it.

    In my mid-twenties, I finally realized I’d won the body type lottery. I could eat anything I wanted and not gain weight. Any exercise I did just toned my already thin body. I could run, bike or swim for miles with ease. I delivered both of my sons with no medication in just a couple hours of labor. Little did I know ten years later my body would turn against me!

    Having severe rheumatoid arthritis has once again made me rethink my body and what it means to me. Getting out of bed each day is a struggle. It makes choosing my clothes so much less important. Now rather than choosing the “right” shoes for an outfit, it is whether or not I’ll be able to put my shoes on and tie them myself or need to ask for help. I guess things are only as important as we make them but I still believe that what we wear is a huge part of our personality. Are you hiding under layers or showing just a little too much flesh? Do your clothes fit just OK but not perfectly? I always seem to think (true or not) that people who dress well and have their hair & makeup done must have their life much more together than I do!

    After reflecting on your blog, I know that clothes are just as important to me now as they were in junior high. And guess what, almost-good enough still doesn’t cut it and it shouldn’t have to. There are some good things about being an adult. We can eat dessert first and we don’t have to wear clothes that aren’t perfect! I’m going to take another look at my closet and get rid of any of those almost-right clothes. I don’t need that in my life anymore!

    Thanks again Rita for writing from your heart and making me take time to really think about how I’m living my life.

  4. I am sure that if we both weren’t so busy trying to survive our adolescence (and so insecure and self-conscious) we would have been great friends back then! I found myself nodding over and over again reading this. I, too, indulged in “behaviors,” took my body for granted in my twenties, dressed my children extremely well, and am now adjusting to a body that doesn’t always let me do what I want to do.

    Writing this entry, I felt a bit funny about giving so much attention to clothes. I know, in the big scheme of things, that clothes aren’t very important. I kept thinking of a book Grace and I recently read, called Life As We Knew It, in which the moon is hit by something that moves it much closer to earth–and life changes completely. It is easy to read things like that and think that the things we fret about are unimportant, but this is the thing: We don’t have to worry about our survival the way the characters in the book do, but they don’t worry about some things we have to do (pay mortgages, for example). Reality is, appearance matters a lot, and not just in junior high. Appearance impacts employment and relationships.

    I want to keep this stuff in perspective, in its proper place. I think that means not discounting its importance as much as it means not making it too important. I can see so clearly now that clothing has always been about much more than protecting my body from the elements. I’ve wanted to be above such superficial concerns, but they aren’t.

    Keep telling myself that as long as I’m growing, I’m still fully alive. Growing pains, though…guess those didn’t end once I left junior high either :-)

  5. Pingback: The good part about buying a house that’s not your dream home…Gratitude 2.3.11 | The Intertidal Years

  6. Loved your blog post. Very familiar issues. Keep up the writing!

  7. Pingback: Project 333: It’s working | The Intertidal Years

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