How Clothing Shapes our Lives

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Rita at This (sorta) Old Life

Last winter, after I wrote on my blog about starting Project 333, my friend Lisa told me she was intrigued; then she asked, “It’s 33 items for each kind of wardrobe I have, right?”

When I asked what she meant, she said, “You know, I’ve got clothes for work, and clothes for dance, and clothes for doing the mommy thing.”

When I explained that it was 33 items total, she said there was no way she could do it. Which got me wondering what it means about a life if we need to have distinct wardrobes for various aspects of it.

If we need two (or three or four) distinctive wardrobes, does that mean we are, in effect, two (or three or four) different people? And if so, how many of those various selves are truly who we are? And how would our lives be different or better if we could be just one person?

I began both my blog and Project 333 as part of a larger effort to build a more manageable life. Finding it impossible to be all that I am—writer, teacher, mother, partner, daughter, friend—I felt increasingly fragmented and longed for one, whole life in which I would not feel pushed to do, have, care for, and constantly be more.

During my first season of Project 333, one challenge was having enough clothes for both my work and home life. The things I wore during the weekdays were not things I wore in the evenings and on weekends. I fudged a bit by calling some of my weekend clothes “workout” gear, but they really weren’t.

After talking with Lisa, I wondered if getting down to 33 items that will work for my entire life would lessen my sense of constantly shifting from one way of being to another. I wondered if something as seemingly trivial as clothing could help me feel like I’m the same person at work that I am at home that I am when I’m mothering or playing or significant othering.

I got a taste of that this summer. As an instructional coach for high school teachers, I work a school-year calendar. When it came time to select my 33 items for the summer, it was easy: A few shorts, a few light skirts, some t-shirts and tanks. Done. Getting dressed was even easier.

And—no surprise—my life felt easier, too. Sure, you might be thinking, my life would be easier if I weren’t working, too. I don’t want to discount the role my day job plays in my level of stress, but there were still plenty of stressors last summer: I sold my home, packed it up, and moved. In that move, I combined households with my partner and his daughter. I dealt with a scary health issue. I mentally, emotionally and financially adjusted to the reality of a job reduction coming in the fall. As I do every summer, I managed the care and feeding of two children who weren’t occupied with school for most of each day. Stressors galore.

Minimalism isn’t really about possessions. It’s about who we are and what we do and how our possessions both shape and reflect that. Through looking carefully at how I spend my time and money on clothing, Project 333 has been a great vehicle for me to look carefully at how I spend my time and energy on everything.

I’ve learned that I want to spend those things—which, really, are my life–the way I am beginning to spend my money on clothing: carefully, purposefully, and with a clear focus. So, when it came time to do this year’s back-to-school shopping, I resolved to create a wardrobe that works for my whole life. I wanted to be as comfortable at work as I am at home. That meant:

No more skirts or dresses that require heels.

I’ve got a great pair of boots that feel as good as they look, and casual skirts and dresses work well with them.

This eliminates the need for hosiery as well. (Though I have some soft and warm knit tights that I love.)

No more pants or blouses that require careful ironing.

Most days, I can be entirely work appropriate in dark-washed denim or corduroy, and I prefer the feel of soft knits to that of starched cotton. I do have one skirt that needs quick ironing for those days I need to be a bit more formal—one that I wear when I want to be a bit more dressed up in my personal life, as well.

The result? I’d love to say my life is now an easy dream, but it’s not. I’ve still got plenty of stressors I’m slowly working on taming or eliminating. But I can say this: Getting dressed in the morning is not one of them. I’m spending much less time in the evenings getting clothes ready for the next work day. When I’m at work, I’m much more comfortable: My clothes fit and feel good.

And, I’m looking better at home. I no longer save my “good” clothes for work. I realized that I spent energy on looking good for those I work with, but not for those I live with. How messed up is that?

Best of all, the divisions in my life that had me feeling so fragmented are starting to dissolve. The best parts of my work life are spilling into my personal life, and the best parts of my personal, creative life are creeping into work. To think that it all started from paring my closet down to 33 items…

Read more from Rita at This (sorta) Old Life, where she and her partner Cane chronicle their adventures in life renovation.

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  1. says

    I absolutely love this post! Yes, the wardrobe as the lens through which we view and (challenge, improve) the rest of our lives.

  2. says

    Love the ripple effect of purging the closet. I’ve noticed the same positives that Gina mentions, particularly the ease of getting dressed every morning. Wearing my “nice” things all the time is a pleasure.

  3. Brittany says

    Interesting post. I fall into the Lisa camp, mainly because my job at a corporate law firm requires that I wear plenty of things I would never otherwise wear in my non-work life. You bet I am a different person at work than I am at home – my continued employment depends on it! No way will I wear a suit to a casual dinner at home or on the weekend.

    • says

      Hi Brittany–Since writing this, I’ve thought/wondered some about those like you, who truly do have to dress differently at work than at home. What I realized in my wondering is that I wouldn’t want any of the jobs/careers that require more formal dress. Not so much because I don’t want to wear those clothes, but because I’d have to be someone I’m really, at my core, not. I can see where the chance to put on different personas would be really attractive to some–a way to have a wider range of experiences, maybe, or to be creative, or to appreciate different aspects of themselves by feeling the contrasts. I just feel so comfortable at home, and I guess I’d like to feel that way at work, too!

      • says

        I think it was Thoreau that said “Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.” I guess this is what he meant!

        I love this post. I am about to start Project 333, and was trying to save my “nice clothes” as I mostly work from home. Now I have decided to wear them at home and enjoy them right now.

  4. E says

    This was a very thought-provoking post. I have to say that I agree with Brittany and Lisa – that I WANT to wear different clothes at work and on the weekends. That doesn’t mean that I feel fragmented. Sometimes wearing certain items of clothing helps put you in the state of mind (productivity versus relaxation) that you want to be in.

    Of course, minimalism is having what is right for you, so, Rita, I am very excited that you have made some changes that have simplified and improved your life!

    Project 333 has done amazing things for my state of mind – I’ve reduced my wardrobe down to about 50 items for all four seasons and the discipline required also really kickstarted some meaningful changes I’ve made in other areas of my life (papers, sentimental objects, etc.). It’s interesting to me how the benefits and takeaways of the project differ from person to person.

    • says

      Both you and Brittany are provoking my thoughts as well. I think I’m most productive when relaxed. Maybe that’s why I prefer comfortable clothing? I used to like to think clothing just wasn’t important. (Because I didn’t really know how to buy/wear it.) I really enjoy hearing the thoughts/experiences of those who have a different take on it because I keep seeing different ways in which clothing really does impact us. Thanks for writing.

  5. says

    I have one wardrobe as a SAHM and college student, but I can see where there are careers and jobs that don’t really give that kind of flexibility. My mom wears a uniform for work and I think she’d be extremely uncomfortable wearing it for her regular life. It’s not so much that she’s a separate person as work as it is that she wouldn’t don a pair of scrubs to go play with the grandkids at the park, like I wouldn’t wear my workout clothes to the ballet – it’s not that I’m a separate person at the gym and at the ballet, but that it’s a different part of my life and the wardrobe doesn’t fit the activity.

  6. Kyle says

    I just found out about this project today and I can’t wait to try it! My work allows me to dress casually so that should not be an issue. However I live in Saskatchewan, Canada and it’s winter so a few of my selections are going to be items that help with the cold. Gloves, long johns, toque, neckwarmer… down to 29 already!

    I’ll let you know how it goes.