Project 333: A Small Wardrobe for a Lithe Life

I've  joined a community of women and men committed to reducing the amount of clothes we buy and wear. My goal to cultivate a small wardrobe filled only with items I love and wear regularly led me to Project 333 back in 2011.

While growing up in a working class mixed race neighborhood in Los Angeles I had a small amount of clothing and usually only two pair of shoes. My grandmother sewed (wonderful) dresses for me, but only a few and yet I never felt lacking. Everyone I knew was also scraping to get by -- it was normal. I was dirt poor in college and yet I always felt that the few outfits I had looked great on me and I was content. Most of my early adult years were not focused on an over abundance of clothes, and then somewhere along the way I took a wrong turn.

Although I frequently purchased items on sale and didn’t have any credit card debt, it occurred to me that I had too many clothes, and I was squandering my time shopping.

I’m moderately minimalistic in other aspects of my life. We grow a garden and I like to cook. The car I drive is an older economy model. I don’t buy a lot of gadgets. My home is decorated in an economical simple style, it’s comfortable and inviting, without a lot of stuff, and it is clutter free. But there was a time when my closet told another story. 

In addition to writing, for a number of years I worked in a fashionable corporate environment and I had frequent meetings to attend. I also travel to speak at conferences and lead workshops and had fallen into the trap of thinking I needed a variety of outfits. So at first gaining a collection of clothes, shoes and purses that filled my average-sized closet was fun. Then it became stressful because I had too many choices. Packing for trips had become torture. I prefer to pack light with only a small carryon bag, and I agonized over what to pack because I had a multitude of options.

I had good clothing that fit me well and was of quality. But I also had far more clothing than I needed. And like most people I had my favorites and everything else just hung on its hanger waiting for a turn to be taken out and worn. Although I had begun to edit monthly, giving away things I was not wearing, I still had too much, and I kept buying. Always searching for the perfect something.

Since my husband and co-workers shopped too, I decided to allow myself to believe that shopping was an acceptable hobby, as long as I didn’t over spend and kept within my budget. Looking back I’m embarrassed that I let my thinking go haywire.

Currently I’m working from home in a casual environment, and my work wardrobe needs have changed and provide me with the freedom to wear casual skirts and  jeans. But if I ever return to working in an environment that requires professional wear I will maintain a small core wardrobe for work. Because most of all I've changed. I no longer want or feel the need to have excess.

The Project 333 target is to select 33 items of clothing, accessories, outerwear and shoes to keep in your closet and commit to wearing only those items for 3 months. Clothing worn only at home or exercise wear, underwear and sleep wear, are not included in the 33.  However, Project 333 guidelines are not set in stone and can be adapted to fit your lifestyle. You can up the number a bit if you prefer. The key point is to learn, reduce consumption and make positive changes.

Still, paring down was painstaking. I had a lot of good clothes that I always planned to wear, but seldom did. I spent days trying things on in order to make decisions. Finally I gave myself permission to let go of two large garbage sized bags of clothes, shoes and purses, all items I had formerly worn in the corporate work-world and no longer needed. It was hard because everything fit me, much of it was new, and of good quality. But I didn’t need that many clothes and I no longer had occasions to wear most of it. 

It took a lot of doing but I forgave myself for making the mistake of using poor judgment in the past. I reminded myself that since I now know better I will do better in the future. And I’ve reached that success. Today I have a simple, small collection of clothes I enjoy wearing regularly.

But it was a rocky road reaching the good place where I am now. Truth to tell, I participated in Project 333 twice before I finally found my rhythm. The concept of selecting 33 items and boxing everything else up was daunting. I kept wondering if I’d made the right choices, always second-guessing myself. Thinking that perhaps there was a better choice boxed up and I could swap it out.

So when the second round of Project 333 began I decided not to box up or store any of my clothes other than the things that are seasonal. I gave away everything that I didn't love or didn't fit properly. 

When purging initially I took some of my quality clothes to a consignment store to sell, but then I began to understand that I’d rather give my things away and donate to a charity that gives the clothing to women in need who were working in low paying professional office jobs. 

Now that I have a smaller collection of clothes I’ve discovered that having less really does mean more. My closet and my clothes no longer overwhelm me. It is easy to get dressed every day. Now I usually find that I have the right outfit for every occasion. And on those rare occasions when I don’t, I do not dwell on it. I’ve learned that it is probably just a “moody” day for me, and it has nothing to do with my clothes. Instead of focusing on clothing lack, I journal write to discover what is lurking in my mind and deal with that.

Although I now have less variety in my wardrobe, I’m happier because it includes an outfit or two (or three) to cover all of my basic needs. I don't follow a strict 33 limit, usually I average between 33 and 40 items for any given 3 month period. And instead of a "capsule" I've opted for a small wardrobe with everything kept inside my closet, and my out of season clothes are in a small suitcase that tucks neatly into a corner of my closet.

My clothes mix and coordinate well, and since I stick with a few basic color combinations I find that everything works with other pieces to create a variety of options.  

It makes packing for trips easy. 
I have less laundry, which is easier for me, and better for mother earth.
I have better educated myself about the horrors garment industry workers face, and my responsibility to the planet.
The changes I’ve made have brought me back to caring deeply about sustainability and interconnectedness, traditional Native values that I was raised with, but were slipping away from me.

Our human brain is not wired for a multitude of options. Having lots of choices sounds delightful, but being faced with too many choices is stressful.

I’ve discovered that my clothing needs fall into two categories: “warm weather” and “cool weather” clothes. And since I live on the central coast of California many of my things can span both seasons. 

I've had a small wardrobe for a few years now, and I no longer think of Project 333 as an experiment in living with less. It has become a lifestyle for me. 

Getting dressed is easier for me with less. I no longer spend a lot of time thinking, wondering and worrying about what to wear. I also no longer shop unnecessarily. Most days I’m happy. Happier than I have been in years. 

Now that my load is lighter, my thoughts are lighter. 

Minimizing and simplifying my clothing has also allowed me to see excess consumption in other parts of my life as well, and to make changes. Before I buy anything or bring a new item into my home, it’s important for me to ask myself: 

“How much do I actually need it, in comparison to what it has taken from the planet and from workers, and from others in order to produce it?” 

“How long will it last?”  

“When and how will I dispose of it?” 

The changes I’ve made give me a wide-open field of space and time to write, read, for long walks, to watch the sun rise, and set. To listen and give my full attention when someone speaks to me, to daydream, putter, pray to the earth, rest and renew my spirit.
Photo credit Beyond Buckskin.com