A really big thank-you to all who sponsored me to give up most of my wardrobe for the Six Items Challenge, a ‘fashion fast’ for Lent. You raised a rather wonderful £114.31 for Labour Behind the Label, an organisation working hard to highlight the perils of fast fashion. So thank you. Over on my Instagram feed I’ve posted a few rather monotonous pictures charting what I wore: @Scrapianagram. If you thought about sponsoring me but didn’t get around to it, there’s still time. And it’s for a tremendous cause. Here’s the link.
What is fast fashion?
The Six Items Challenge is an annual event organised by Labour Behind the Label to highlight the problem of ‘fast fashion‘. And what a problem it is. Our increasing reliance on cheap clothing makes it almost a disposable commodity – we can afford to wear this stuff once and pitch it, not even bothering to to give it a wash. One of the hidden impacts of such cheap clothing is the meagre earnings of many garment workers worldwide, living on so little (£1.50 a day isn’t unusual) that they don’t have sufficient money even to eat properly, let alone clothe themselves – oh, the irony. Organisations such as Labour Behind the Label help garment workers worldwide gain fair conditions and a living wage.
Why did I take on this fashion fast?
Well, it was the least I could do, really. Coping with a pared-down wardrobe from Ash Wednesday till Easter isn’t a major deprivation. It wasn’t as if I was committing to working a 100-hour week. Or earning £1.50 a day. Or starving. I hoped to challenge myself, and to help raise a little awareness, maybe.
How did I feel about this before I began?
Honestly? As a relatively pampered Westerner, I was quite daunted by the prospect of limiting my wardrobe to just six essential pieces, excluding underwear, accessories, sleepwear, performance sportswear etc. It seemed so restrictive. I anticipated feeling hemmed in. I expected to find it difficult, to fantasise about what else I might be wearing. I thought I’d miss my jeans. I imagined I’d run into personal hygiene problems. Yes, the prospect didn’t exactly fill me with joyful anticipation. Who on earth enjoys giving anything up anyway? We all want more, right? Why am I even doing this with problems of my own? Charity begins at home and all that. That’s pretty much how I felt.
So, what was it actually like?
Well, the 6 weeks were full of surprises.
Possibly the hardest thing was singling out my six items in the first place. I chose a palette of ‘media black’, grey and red, something I’ve never really tried before as I’ve always felt it was bland and boring. One irony (as this was really about not consuming stuff) was that I had to go out and buy thick black tights at the start of the challenge as I didn’t have any. But they were a great investment: very comfy and warm.
And I soon settled into my wardrobe, shaping myself to my new regime. I found that I wasn’t questioning it. In fact, very soon, I began to really rather like the restriction of my slimmed-down wardrobe. I didn’t have to think about what I would wear when I got up, just pulled on ‘my uniform’. It felt slightly like going back to school, but in a good way. And not just because I (subconsciously) chose a kind of pinafore dress get-up not entirely unlike what I used to wear at school back in the ’70s. I think I began to feel a little different too: more streamlined, less personally cluttered. Less like someone whose clothes were wearing them instead of the other way round.
Were there any benefits?
I’m sure everyone’s experience is different, but here’s how it worked for me. I learned a lot.
10 things I learned
- Fewer choices can be a relief rather than a restriction. There’s such as thing as too much choice. And that’s where I tend to be on a daily basis.
- Fewer choices = more head space for the important stuff. This leads on from my first point, and it’s a biggy. It suddenly dawned on me in the middle of this challenge that nuns are really onto something. The habit of wearing a grey habit, for instance, must free up their grey matter for more important stuff. Less of it is exhausted by trivia. Choices about what to wear might seem marginal but, as Mark Zuckerberg etc have found, having your own self-imposed uniform can release you from the daily expense of energy deciding what you’re going to put on with what. We only have a finite amount of attention, ingenuity, willpower etc to use every day, so why waste it on the wrong stuff? The challenge stripped back and streamlined my thinking, rather like a mental palate-cleanser. Really refreshing.
- ‘Media black’ is OK, and suits everyone. Just accessorise. It’s your typical blank canvas. And as I draped various colours against it, I began to enjoy my accessories much more than usual. Though black shows all those pieces of fluff , dust and stray cat hairs – if your cat is grey and white, at least. Note to self: buy a black cat.
- There’s less laundry to do. Less laundry saves time, energy and resources. I chose items of breathable, natural fibres to ensure that my skin liked them and vice versa. Partly because they were all made of wool or cashmere, I tended to wash the items by hand after they’d been worn a couple or three times – at least, the ones that were against my skin. The dresses got a less frequent washing. This appeared to cut down on the loads of machine laundry being done (surprise, surprise). And airing items between wearings had a cleansing effect too.
- It’s all-round better for the environment. A reduced wardrobe means consuming fewer resources, full stop. The most obvious conclusion to reach – and I reached it quickly – is that I’m able to live consuming fewer resources than I’m used to consuming, and without feeling deprived. Win-win.
- I have too many clothes for one person. I didn’t think I’d ever admit this, but fairly soon into the Lent experience I began to realise that I simply have way too many clothes. Many of them are silly, impractical, unsuitable, a lot don’t even fit me properly. I sometimes kid myself that I’ll re-use or recycle a lot of them. Many of them were bought in charity shops so I can feel vaguely virtuous about owning them, but I still own way too much. I began to sell some of my things on eBay during the experiment. And somehow, because I wasn’t going to wear them imminently, I felt less attached to them and able to relinquish them more easily.
- I have too many things for one person. This challenge made me reflect on consumerism in general, and me as a consumer in particular. I accumulate too much of everything. I’m an acquirer, a gatherer, a collector, a magpie, an accretion device. Things mushroom in my house. I don’t just have one bird-shaped pie funnel, or one old ceramic hot-water bottle. I see another interesting one somewhere in a car boot sale or a charity shop and I’ll pick it up. On a good day I’m a collector, but on a bad day I’m most certainly a hoarder. So, shedding has now become my priority rather than acquisition. And my next challenge (which I’m having much more trouble adhering too) is to get rid of a bag of stuff a day. A simple plastic shopping bag of whatever it might be, every single day.
- I’m far more adaptable than I thought. It was nice to discover, as a middle-aged woman, that I can still change. A new habit, incidentally, takes between 3 and 6 weeks to forge, so Lent is a golden opportunity to remake yourself, the perfect length of time to ingrain something new or excise something old. And, trust me, if I can do it then so can you.
- Changing the rules every so often is a good thing. Leading on from the last point, I found this was a golden opportunity to keep myself on my toes and move out of my comfort zone, to exercise my adaptability. And this doesn’t just apply to clothes or material goods. It made me challenge the way I’m doing things generally. Have I just been on autopilot? Does this way of doing things still work for you? Time to try tinkering with the parameters. Oddly, I didn’t miss my beloved jeans. In fact, they felt really odd when I put them back on at the end of the 6 weeks – it’s amazing how quickly our own perceptions can change. Go ahead and try giving something up for a while and see what happens. During this fast I also gave up social media – for a number of good reasons. One was that I’d honestly fallen into my level of online involvement over a number of years. I had not strategised but had let the thing expand on its own. It needed challenging. But where to begin? I cut the lot for Lent and took a few deep, thoughtful breaths. I don’t underestimate how much my sense of refreshment during the challenge came from switching off extraneous social media noise. That was a real blessing, and I’d certainly recommend a social media sabbatical (or a digi-detox) every now and again to anyone who is online a lot. It should really come on prescription for a lot of us.
- No matter how far you’ve come wrong, you can always turn back. Sometimes we feel committed to a course of action that we know in our guts to be wrong, but we think there’s no point in changing now – the force our past activity weighs heavy on us, and we’re wedded and welded to our position. What difference will it really make now? Well, it’s never too late to turn around and start doing something differently. To press refresh.
Were there any downsides?
- I didn’t pick stuff that I could cycle in very easily.
- Nor dig my allotment in.
- Towards the very end, I lost my hand-washing-of-laundry mojo and began, I suspect, to whiff just slightly. My family and friends were too polite to agree with this assertion, however. My laundry meh could have happened with or without the challenge being on, but normally I’d have other stuff to throw on during the lull.
- I accidentally washed one dress with my Ruth Singer upcycled felt brooch on it – as seen in the picture above – and wrecked the brooch. Doh!
- I felt a bit scruffy in my well-worn items towards the end. I also stopped brushing all the hairs etc off so began to look like I’d been rolling in lint, particularly if I tried to do anything involved fabric or yarn. Or the cat. But I was mostly writing and editing, so that was OK.
- I had to do the odd spot of mending (such as a ripped hem), but I don’t really consider that much of a downside.
- Also, on the one or two warmish spring days, I slightly regretted the all-covering woolly nature of the my choices with no option to peel off. As the challenge began in February, I’d expected to be too cold not too warm.
Did my resolve break?
I admit to spending a couple of days in my dressing gown, as PJs didn’t count, when I was working from home. I also spent a couple of days in my running gear because performance sportswear didn’t count either. But on one of those days I didn’t actually go running, so that was bending of the rules. Forgive me.
Is having fewer clothes fine for everyone?
Self-imposed restriction is one thing, but if I only had six items of clothing in the world (say, just the clothes I stood up in) I’m not necessarily saying that such a state (let’s call it ‘enforced wardrobe restriction’) would be a good thing at all. That’s the state most garment workers are living in. And when it’s all day every day, year in, year out, that’s rather different. But my period of personal, voluntary restriction was refreshing – a holiday of a sort. It was partly the difference from my normal state of plenty which was so welcome.
Would I do it again?
Hell, yes. A fashion fast is a great way to call halt on a ‘More! More! More!’ ‘Me! Me! Me!’ culture and take stock. Besides the wider campaign benefits, I found that the personal gains were physical, financial, mental and spiritual. But I’d recommend doing a digital detox at the same time – to give you some necessary head space to contemplate issues such as living more lightly, rethinking what you’re doing, reframing your priorities and really getting the most out of it. This makes life a little difficult for LBtL which obviously hopes participants will post on social media about their exploits, raising much-needed awareness and funds. But the silence and slimmed-down wardrobe worked well for me in combination. It was like going on spiritual retreat, minus the inconvenience and expense of actually travelling anywhere, or attempting to mime ‘please pass the salt’ in an echoing refectory. Amen to that.