In the past twenty-four hours, I have learned a great deal. Having gone from being completely ignorant to slightly enlightened on a fascinating study in human behavior, I felt compelled to share the experience. My friend, Alexandra, is one of my idols regarding theology and 'living out her faith through her actions'. Unbeknowst to her, as she suggested a link for "The October Dress Project" on Facebook, a large number of her friends began chiming in on this subject. The premise behind this project is that one woman has chosen to highlight the vast amount of consumerism in our culture, particularly with women and their clothing. The blogger in question chose to shine a light on how much money, time, energy and worry we spend on clothing ourselves. "The October Dress Project" website linked me to another woman's story: the "Little Brown Dress" journey. In this case, the woman made her own simple brown dress and wore the same dress for one year, documenting her journey emotionally, spiritually, economically and practically. She answered the question of "Do you wash the dress?" and "What happens if you get a hole?" (The answers were "Yes!" and "I sew it back up."). The Little Brown Dress Project sparked a memory of a story I'd read about in a magazine: the Uniform Project. A woman designed her own simple black dress, but in this case, she did have 7 identical dresses made in order to ease with the laundry load. The Uniform Project went a step further in that she wore all accessories that were homemade, donated or bought second hand. As I looked through the photos of the latter two blogs, I was amazed and impressed by the ingenuity the women showed in how to create whole outfits around one particular dress...creating everything from weekend wear to work wear, from casual to fashionable.
The average in American women's fashions is to spend $3500/year on new clothes, shoes and accessories. Of course, there are women who spend far more than that on one purse or one ring. There are also women who are adept thrift store shoppers and can walk out of a consignment store in an outfit worthy of exiting Saks Fifth Avenue. I wish I had that ability, and I envy my friends who can spend less than $20 on an outfit that embodies style, sophistication and a personal touch. The amount of money that can be spent on women's clothes is staggering. Why is that? As a fashion junkie myself, it's a tough habit to break. Although I can't afford to put together looks from Haute Couture houses, I daydream about walking into Chanel or Dior and walking out with an entirely new look that just screams "elegance". I read "Vogue", "Lucky" and "In Style" with a voracious hunger to know what's 'new', what's 'hot' and what's 'next'. Just as I can admire great art without being able to paint or sculpt, I can appreciate great fashion, without the ability to carry it off, either stylistically or financially.
What is it about fashion that is utterly captivating to women? In my own case, it's a desire to want to be attractive, as well as to be perceived as 'current', 'literate' and 'forward thinking'. While my own wardrobe tends to run towards the classics, I love playing with trendier touches. I used to say that shopping was my hobby. There was little that I liked more than walking up Madison Avenue or down lower Broadway in Soho, in New York City, popping into all of the little boutiques before stopping at the Mother Ship: Bloomingdale's, on Upper Lexington. I have even indoctrinated my daughter into this annual pilgrimage. Despite being born and raised in Maine, my daughter knows her way around Manhattan as well as most natives. One comment that she shared with me, the last time we were in the City, was "Oh, I can breathe again!". Like the stations of the cross, we have a special walk we do whenever we arrive in town: we walk down 58th Street from Park Avenue, and turn left onto Fifth Avenue...and like true pilgrims we say "hello" to St. John, Balenciaga, Valentino, Gucci, Pucci, Prada, Dior, Chanel, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, Fendi, Cartier and all the glimmering stores. We turn left again at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and head back up to our hotel. Do we ever enter any of these bastions of elegance? No....they're out of our financial means. But, we do love to sigh at the beautiful windows and that night, we discuss which pieces we saw that would make up our dream outfits.
As I read about the three project sites above, I'm overwhelmed with guilt. I realize that I've been lusting after "things". Worse yet, I feel dreadful that I've taught my teenager the same bad habit. Do we really *need* these shopping extravaganzas to make us feel good about ourselves? I think of my husband and our teenage son, who look at shopping as a *mission* to be planned and executed: they decide what they need (whether it's car tires or a new pair of shoes), plan the location, and get in and out with the exact purchase in record time. They buy no more and no less than they decided to in advance. As a matter of fact, if they can't find it at the first store, they often will second guess the need. For myself, the act of shopping is both relaxing and invigorating. I don't see it as something to cross off my 'to do' list; I see it as a form of self-improvement recreation. Therein lies the difference between myself and the men in my life: we have different goals about purchasing what we need. They buy because they have to. I bought because I wanted to.
The current economic situation curtailed much of our shopping rituals this year. Instead of going to New York, my daughter and I went to the outlet malls and made a strict list of must haves for her prep school dress code. We not only stuck to the list, but we stuck to our budget too. She is well outfitted for her school year, in clothes she'll feel beautiful in. Yet, each piece was carefully selected to be multi-task items. Dresses can be worn to class with a cardigan or with heels to a formal dinner. Pants can be worn with sneakers for every day or with a silky blouse for a special assembly. Her dress code actually made the process simpler: no jeans, no collarless shirts (meaning no t-shirts), no sweatshirts and no distressed clothing. Because her storage space is minimal in her dorm room, we looked for items that could work triple duty: class, formal and weekend. We had more fun looking for bargains and honestly debating each purchase's usefulness. We began to use expressions like "cost per wear" and "durability". There were a few items we spent more on, that could serve a variety of purposes. There were others that, as much as Caroline liked them, she rejected saying "I just don't think that I like this $30 worth". In short, we created a workable, practical, yet lovely wardrobe for her in which every item can serve several purposes.
As far as the three dress projects, I have to say that my interest is piqued. I wear many hats in the course of a week: a yoga teacher, a theology student, a community volunteer, an altar guild member at Church, a hockey mom and a homemaker. Could one outfit serve all of these purposes? Probably not. But, could I simplify what I think I need for each of these areas of my life? Most certainly so. My daughter loves to tease me that I 'reinvent the wheel' every time I go shopping because I am attracted to the same things: namely gray sweaters or t-shirts. When I pick up yet another take on this, Caroline rolls her eyes and says, "Mom! Not another one! There are other colors in the rainbow besides gray!". And yet, I wonder if I have been, unwittingly, trying to create my own little black (or brown) dress, in theory. As I think about what I've worn the most in the past month, I've worn one of these gray tops nearly every day. Although I can't imagine that I would begin a new blog ("The Gray Cashmere Project"), it does stand to reason that I've been getting in my own way. My subconscious has been trying to simplify all along! Because I'm deeply attracted to the concept of simplifying, spending far less and being wiser about using all resources, I believe I'll try to explore this further. My first step, however, will be to learn to live with what I have already, rather than needing the next best thing. I do have a lot of uniform ideas already in my closet.
If you happen to see a woman in gray every day, you might want to say hello. It just might be me.
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