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Some thought on clothing challenges

capsule wardrobe

When I read about the ‘Six Items Challenge’ on the Ethical Fashion Blog, I immediately clicked through to the challenge website. The challenge is to only wear six items for one month, plus unlimited accessories.

I love a good wardrobe challenge (for example, see my various capsule wardrobe challenges) and this one’s raising awareness of garment workers and money for their campaign (though the fundraising aspect doesn’t seem particularly crucial). Plus, with my expanding belly I only have four dresses that still fit me anyway. So I briefly thought about doing it. Though then I realized I have no idea if those four dresses will still fit me by the end of July, and I’m not buying maternity clothes that preemptively. Plus, there is no way I’m wearing the same thing day in day out without at least having access to all my accessories rather than my streamlined Brussels selection. And they want you to take daily pictures which sounds like far too much work for a whole month.

So I’d already decided I wasn’t doing it when I read the comments. Here’s the first one:

I love the idea but can’t think how it would be possible for me. I wear 4 items every day (jeans, long sleeved top, short sleeved top and jumper/sweatshirt) and I don’t have a tumble dryer (not good for the environment anyway). If it was 8 pieces I might try, although that would mean wearing my work clothes all day every day – jeans and black tops. For me personally I couldn’t do 6 without smelling, freezing or buying new clothes (which would seem to defeat the purpose!). Intrigued to know how people get on though…

To which the challenge organisers replied:

aha…ingenuity is the key – wrap scarves can give warmth instead of an extra jumper…and one extra jean/top might see you through… who knows. It’s difficult with work gear, true. Dresses are always a good solution, the original ‘onesie’, but for some reason when someone talks about onesies I only yhink about the onesies for babies. !

And this is kind of where they lost me.

First, the washing thing. Six items will make two, maybe three outfits. Even if you go for just dresses, you’ll still need some cover up, unless you live in a super hot country (this challenge is based in the UK). So you could have four dresses, a cardie and a coat (coat only exempt in winter) but that would still only get you four days worth of stuff. So either way, you’re going to have to wash and dry stuff all the flipping time. And you either have to run an almost empty washing machine, or handwash every night. And the drying, you’d need a tumble dryer or a radiator because there wouldn’t be time to wait for stuff to airdry. And either way, you’re increasing your water and energy use exponentially compared to washing a full load that can airdry in peace.

But also: Why is a wrap scarf better than a jumper? If the aim is to reduce consumption/use of clothing items, why just actual clothes and not accessories? People assembling earrings and dyeing scarves that smell of scary chemicals are no better treated than people sewing together jeans. The challenge just seems a bit of a weird mix of extreme restriction on the one hand and no limits on the other. And could having to wear the same clothes day in day out not actually push some people towards buying loads of shoes and bags and stuff? It’s a bit like a diet where you’re not allowed any fat so you stuff yourself with starchy stuff instead, or vice versa.

Anyway, I don’t want to pick on this challenge in particular because I think this is a wider point about time limited clothing challenges (and things like short term shopping bans): For me, from a sustainability point of view, they don’t make much sense. They’re supposed to highlight that we can live with less, but I wonder how often they actually do ever change anyone’s behaviour for the long term. Certainly shopping bans often get pretty mixed write ups once the initial ‘I did it! I’ll definitely keep going!’ enthusiasm has worn off (for example, Already Pretty. The Waves has also written about this a lot, I’m too lazy to track down the actual posts now).

With all the challenges I’ve done while it’s always nice to remind myself I can manage fine with few clothes, I’ve always embraced my overflowing wardrobe with open arms afterwards. But then again, I didn’t plan on changing my behaviour, so maybe that’s not the best example. Though also being here in Brussels with so few clothes has made me buy more than in a long time so the withdrawal (and the sudden outbreak of summery weather) has made me binge*.

I think the diet analogy is quite accurate for these challenges. They’re supposed to give you rules to help you be sensible, and the idea is that after the framework of the strict rules is gone, you’ll have internalised them and changed your behaviour. But while I’m sure some people learn that carrot sticks make an excellent snack and continue this on for many years, it’s usually too much change in one go to be sustainable. It’s truism to say now that diets don’t work and most people eventually fail. And I just have a feeling that these challenges are the same, if you are in a mind set where you are addicted to shopping, a short sharp change won’t make any long term difference if your aim is to reduce your consumption. And the more extreme the challenge is, the less likely you’re to stick with it in the long term.

I’m talking about the aim of ‘reducing consumption’ because of course that’s not the only aim of these challenges. Because just to be clear, I’m not poo pooing clothing challenges per se. They can be a really fun outlet for creativity and can push you to be more creative with your clothes and get to know what you own better. Or to learn how to pack for a business trip or a holiday. Like I say, I love a good clothing challenge. But I don’t expect it to make me a more ethical person. That’s a longer term process with a much less impressive and more compromised outcome than any challenge.

D’you know what I mean? If anyone feels that a clothing challenge has changed their sustainability behaviour for the long term, I’d love to hear as well

P.S. I articulated some of the same ideas three years ago in a post on the uniform project. Just so that I’m not only picking on the 6 items people.

* we’re talking 1 pair of trousers, two dresses, some earrings and a hceapo watch. A lot for me!

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  • Sophie - Country Girl 4 July 2012, 7:29 am

    When I heard about the 6 item challenge I was thoroughly confused! How on earth can you only wear 6 items for a month? or even a few days? It baffles me. I’ve taken part in three 30×30 challenges (winter, spring and summer) using 30 pieces to make 30 different outfits, including shoes not inc accessories and tights etc. I found it fun and trying, especially to make each outfit look good. It taught me that you really don’t need a huge wardrobe but you DO need to TRY mixing things up and pairing items which you wouldn’t initially put together. In each one, looking back, you can’t really tell that I’m wearing the same items over and over. Although I do now love free range of my whole wardrobe it definitely taught me to try new combinations and get more wear out of everything. I wouldn’t live in just 30 pieces but I learnt some good lessons from it.
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    • Franca 5 July 2012, 7:16 am

      I could do it, and actually I almost certainly have less than 30 items here in Brussels, but then I don’t think 30 is that little anyway. Though I still love having more in the long run! I totally agree with you it’s good for creative combinations, which I think is all the 30 for 30 aims for.

  • Heather 4 July 2012, 3:27 pm

    I’ve never done a shopping/wardrobe challenge and I don’t think I’d try. I have to limit the amount of clothing I buy anyway just based on budgeting, but I hate limiting myself and I love shopping. It brings me a lot of joy, even if it’s just window shopping. And 4 pieces? Maybe on a tropical island but even in the fairly mild weather area where I live 4 pieces would be a challenge, and not a nice one.
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    • Franca 5 July 2012, 7:17 am

      Well, 6! But I agree! It’s not feasible.

  • Emily, Ruby Slipper Journeys 4 July 2012, 4:45 pm

    I have never done a remix challenge, but I do occasionally put myself on shopping bans (once for two months) the more recent one was only one item per month for a year, which last 8 or 9 months. I do find that they work, not because they prevent me from buying things when they’re over, but because they prevent me from thinking about consumerism so much while they’re on. Especially with the one item per month one, I tended to be so focused on that one item that I wouldn’t even look at other things or go into shops. Since ending it I’ve bought a few things, but the other purpose shopping bans serve is to make you so much more picky.
    Sometimes too picky. I could use some cheapo summer sandals already. 😉
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    • Franca 5 July 2012, 7:24 am

      I see that! Though for me if I was buying one thing I’d probably think about shopping more, trying to get the best option. Sometimes I’m just not that interested, and I go for months without even thinking about shopping, so I’m probably just not really in need of any intervention.

  • Terri 4 July 2012, 11:31 pm

    I did sign up for this challenge in part because it is simply an extension of my already ethical shopping practices, because it simplifies my life for the next month or so while I complete the summer semester and entertain two grandchildren, and because we have warm dry weather right now in the states. I agree that it would certainly be a greater challenge with more changable weather and with a changing body! As for the accessories, I’m one who doesn’t make enough creative use of the accessories I already own, so it will exercise that aspect of styling for me. I haven’t put myself on a shopping ban for the duration of the challenge. But, I do plan to do a serious reorganization of the existing wardrobe during the next 40 days. I thought the point was to “feel” the challenge of being a garment worker, who may have a wardrobe just that tiny. Already I’ve found that I remove the clothing earlier in the day that I would ordinarily and pad around in my nightgown–to save the wear and tear and laundering of the clothing. A good airing can accomplish much.
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    • Franca 5 July 2012, 7:46 am

      Like I say, from the creativity point of view, I think challenges like this can be great, so if you need something to push you into exploring accessories then that’s fab. I also hadn’t considered the thing that some people might just have that few clothes and that it’s about preserving them as long as possible. Which is a valid point, though I didn’t get that very strongly from the challenge’s website. It was all about accessorising and remaking and taking pictures every day. If you don’t have many clothes, you’re extremely unlikely to have access to an unlimited number of scarves, or to care much about making different looking combinations.

      And I just don’t think it would simplify my life at all, it would hugely complicate it, even if I didn’t try to necessarily to make things different looking. Now in Brussels I don’t have that many clothes and I really spend very little time thinking about getting ready during the week. But I have enough clothes to keep going while I wait for enough dirty stuff to accumulate until I can do a full load. Quite apart from the resource use I talked about, the washing thing is a huge stress factor for me and I would be thinking about having something to wear all the time. I cannot rewear things with sleeves without washing, unless I wore a base layer underneath that could be washed instead.. And sleeveless isn’t really an option due to (1) temperatures (2) professional dress codes. I’m not under huge restrictions what I can wear at work, but strappy tops are not really the done thing anywhere.

      Anyway, I’ll be watching with interest!

  • Jen 5 July 2012, 3:03 am

    It’s funny because dressing during pregnancy is sort of like a wardrobe challenge, at least it was for me. I bought a limited number of things, and then friends loaned me a few items, which essentially made probably less than 30 pieces. And then as I grew the things I could wear (or wanted to wear) actually became fewer and fewer…and then I gave birth and was still wearing maternity wear for a bit (at least I could go back to some of the things from the earlier part of the pregnancy). So Franca, you are about to embark on a pregnancy wardrobe challenge of your own – you don’t need to do anything more structured (or stringent) than that at the moment!

    • Franca 5 July 2012, 7:50 am

      I was going to say that actually! I think I’ll probably have about 10 – 15 things when I’m really big, because I don’t want to spend any money on something so short lived. Though I will probably get extremely bored and will go to the charity shops to find cheap things in huge sizes.

      • Jen 6 July 2012, 5:19 pm

        I’m not at all sure you will have as many as 10-15 things towards the end! I seem to remember that I had two pairs of trousers and one skirt that were comfortable, and maybe 5 tops. The other thing was that I didn’t care, didn’t have the energy to shop, and didn’t want to buy stuff that I’d never wear again. My priorities were just different, I only wanted to buy stuff for the baby!

  • Jane 5 July 2012, 5:08 am

    I am in the middle of the 31 for 31 challenge and what I love about challenges are that they make you creative but they also let you see where there are gaps in your wardrobe.
    They have also helped me ack more efficiently when I go anywhere.
    When I was heavily pregnant (about 7-9 months) I lived in a pair of leggings, a large top and lots of different scarves. I hated having to buy bigger stuff.
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    • Franca 5 July 2012, 7:56 am

      I’m actually quite looking forward to finding maternity stuff, it’s a nice distraction from the more serious worries of whether the baby will be ok, and trying to move house when I get back to the UK. Though I am very conscious of not wanting to spend any money. Which to be honest isn’t going very well, given that I just spent 90 euros on a dress I can wear to a wedding when I’m 7 months. But at least that’s cut in a way that will work even when I get back to normal, and it’s not *that* smart.

  • madam0wl 5 July 2012, 4:14 pm

    This must have been why you were searching flickr for ‘capsule challenge’ the other day. I saw that tweet of yours and was curious. As for me, I’ve had fun with the few wardrobe challenges I’ve done, but I think I’m over it now. Didn’t really learn anything “sustainable” about it, in fact quite the opposite. I now know that I thrive on having wardrobe choices. Sure, maybe I’ll end up wearing the same 6+ things throughout a week slumming it at home, but I still like the option of sprucing up a day with something from the back of the closet. Most recently with my 2 week stay back in Iowa, when a capsule wardrobe might have been most efficient to pack, I again went way crazy, packing in anything I could fit into my suitcase and bringing even more home from the thrifts. My longterm sustainability, in terms of clothes, was brought on more by the 100% Thrifty group way back when on flickr. I’d been inspired by others posting their thrifty outfits and I suppose I “challenged” myself a bit to try more of that and it just went from there. As a result, I think I’m on year 5 of not buying any “newly made” clothes and I don’t see myself changing that habit anytime soon. I have made a few exceptions though, like buying new running shoes and running gear, etc. but that is just how my lifestyle is changing.

    By the way I was just catching up a bit (I think I commented congrats on your news, but if not, here is another yay, good luck!) and somehow ended up on one of your posts from last month about the blogging slowdown. Going to go leave a comment on that one next…
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  • Lorena 5 July 2012, 7:10 pm

    I guess for challenges you take what works for you.
    In my case, wardrobe capsules have taught me how to pack for 15 work day trips on a carry on bag.
    I have done shopping bans that have lasted up to six months – and what has come out of them is that I really do have more than I need, for which I am thankful.
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  • Lyddiegal 6 July 2012, 5:14 am

    six items not only sounds like a lot of laundry, but it also sounds BORING.
    if you shop a lot and want to see what it’s like with a smaller closet, than be reasonable, or perhaps challenge yourself to wear things you typically don’t get a ton of use out of.
    I feel like most people (style bloggers excluded) have closets that consist of pretty much of 6 things, just in multiples. 6 pairs of jeans, 6 pairs of black pants, 6 black tops, 6 pairs of ballet flats. and they just keep wearing the same ‘uniform’ over and over every day.

    Sure you could get over the top creative with the accessories, but for a whole month? Who is going to enjoy that?

    I’ve done a few capsule challenges but i’m done. i like my closet. it’s way too full, so my only challenge is to utilize as much as possible and not limit.
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  • The Waves 6 July 2012, 1:13 pm

    I know exactly what you mean, Franca. This particular challenge doesn’t appeal to me at all – 6 items is just confusing. Way more than half of our clothing carbon foot print (was it up to 75%? I forget) comes from the way we wash our clothes, so having to wash and dry the same few items on a daily basis is just wasteful.

    And as you know, for me personally, wardrobe challenges and “clothing diets” are just detrimental. They make me stressed out about clothes, and a part of me feels that the challenges actually make me buy more stuff in the long run. (I reward myself after having been “good” about not buying clothes by buying clothes, for example.) My current attempt to only buy 12 items of clothing this year has been going better than expected (although I think I must have hit the 12 already – I haven’t really been keeping a tally) but at least in part it’s going well because I’ve had so much going on in my life otherwise!

    I’ve never tried a challenge where you pick and choose your clothes for a particular time frame – personally I don’t really see the appeal. I don’t necessarily feel the need to find new ways to wear the clothes I have – but then again, I completely understand why others would find the challenges rewarding and informative. So I guess it comes down to personal preferences. 🙂
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  • jesse.anne.o 21 July 2012, 4:46 am

    Recently I’ve seen a few challenges where the concept escaped me – this being one of them. The other was picking 3 closet orphans and then buying three items to help you wear your closet orphans. I was a little dumbstruck by that one.

    I get the sense that there are both good and bad concepts out there for this kind of stuff. I believe that for the majority of people to reduce their consumption in this area, there has to be a social shift. And I’m wondering if these kinds of things might be a (albeit sometimes false) start to shifting social mores.
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  • April 23 July 2012, 1:25 pm

    Wow difficult challenge! LOL on having to wash and dry stuff all the time. Otherwise, could be a very smelly month. Have you found the LALM code by any chance.

    – April & Black

  • Manvi Gandotra 24 July 2012, 8:17 am

    Thats one difficult challenge! But looks like fun!

    NewD.I.Y. post up- Want to give a sexy look to your old watch?

  • Lauren Fleming 26 July 2012, 3:51 pm

    I find clothing challenges to be absolutely useless. The only thing they give you (in my opinion) is bragging rights, if you complete them. As someone who shops at thrift stores and owns a limited number of clothes anyway, it makes people who attempt these challenges (especially the thirt-for-thirty one) seem like they have way too many clothes.

    Just my two cents, anyway.

  • Lily 13 May 2013, 9:40 am

    I had the same issue with the six item challenge. I think it could work if you lived in a household big enough that there was a full wash and dry load every day anyway. By contrast, as a student, I do a wash once every week or ten days – I simply don’t need to do them more often than that – and so a six item challenge would probably be a pair of jeans, four tops, and a jumper… and I’d have nothing to wear on wash day AND I’d stink in between. No thanks.

    (I actually had to buy a few more t-shirts when I started uni because I went from a turnaround time of a few days in a household of four to a week or so in a wash-load of one)
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