This post first appeared on TheTinLife on 8 September 2020.
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I have my dear mother – though deeply elegant herself – to thank for this startling green bell–bottom pantsuit of my childhood. As I grew older and chose my own clothes, I don’t think you can blame me for choosing to wear all black all day.
When I first went to study in Florence at age 20, an Italian friend told me that Italians really care about what they wear, and to wear only my best clothes all the time. I was never out of sweatshirts at that point, but I paid attention to the advice.
I bought a few t-shirts, ballet tops and skirts in black, forest green and burgundy, which I wore with my trusty black Doc Martens. Everything mixed and matched, and everything fitted into a small case as I headed off to Florence.
Classes could mean oil painting in the studio or our literature professor walking us around the city to show us where Dante and Beatrice met. My classmates and I often ate in our respective homes – I stayed with an Italian family – then met up again to go dancing until 4am. Whatever I put on in the morning was perfect to carry me through all of these activities. For the first time, I felt I was dressed for life.
As the years went on, I forgot the simple formula and my wardrobe expanded and contracted as I moved between countries, cultures and temperatures.
On the first film I worked on, I was the director’s assistant and one of the stills photographers. Because it was an all-hands-on-deck sort of film, I was also bouncing around helping various departments, including costumes. In its review, Time magazine said the most sensuous thing about this film were its fabrics. And they certainly were stunning.
It was the first time I gained proper appreciation for clothes. I learnt how lovely silver looks with midnight blue, or gold with Tibetan red. I learnt about layering fabrics and mixing textures. (The film’s costume designer gave me an armload of clothes at the end of the shoot, saying I’d been in the shit seat throughout and here was their thank you; as I subsequently moved around the globe, I regretfully gave away the lovely pieces one by one.)
When I returned to Italy to work for a year, I found myself a perfect chic uniform for that mid-90s period: flared black trousers, a fitted black jacket, block heeled ankle boots, and revolving long-sleeved shirts whose collars and tails peeked out from under the jacket. I spent a lot on these items and they held up well for the whole year. I actually carried a whole suitcase of clothing over, but these plus a pair of black jeans were all I wore.
Over the following years, I somehow lost touch with these lessons. I read many books on clothes and dressing. I studied how fabrics can be cut on the bias to drape over the body. I experimented with different necklines and sleeve lengths to see which flattered me. I was always on the hunt for the “perfect” piece.
I wanted to be glamorous, but it felt like a role I was trying to play, and ended up feeling awkward and insecure at every attempt. I kept purchasing clothes for the fantasy version of myself – faux-fur trimmed jackets, acres of silk and lace, and block-heeled leopard print sandals. Part of this disconnect was because I’d gained a great deal of weight and perhaps couldn’t reconcile or accept the person I had become. I hated the clothes when I was really hating my body. But feeling like I didn’t quite “match” myself with the image of me also happened in the periods when my weight went down too, so I don’t know the whole story there.
It was only about five years ago that I stopped resisting my innate taste and preferences, regardless of fluctuating weight. I still experimented (and made plenty of mistakes), but I began to settle into a look that made me feel comfortable and look like a good representation of the image I have of myself.
I separated what I admire on other people – eclectic layers, piles of jewellery – and accepted the relief and contentment I feel when I wear what I like: a near monastic simplicity in clean lines, almost always in cotton. I like a silhouette which is a little more fitted on top and a little more flowy at the bottom. Instead of getting decked out, sometimes all it takes to spruce up a look is applying red lipstick and a dab of exquisite perfume. Insouciant hair (and attitude) goes with everything.
I used to love wearing flares but those work best with shoes that have a bit of lift to stop it looking frumpy, and I no longer like wearing heels or platforms. Trainers and sandals, even if both are “flat”, make a trouser leg fall differently. If it’s a bit too short it looks like an awkward mistake; too long and it drags and becomes messy. It took me years to appreciate what French women seemed to have figured out already: ankle length (or ⅞ length) works fabulous with all footwear, including boots. I like ⅞ in both slim fit and loose with cuffs, the latter being more casual.
I stopped having a range of shoes to serve all the lives I thought I had, and love that my flat beige-gold rubber sandals have taken me from the beach to Venice Film Festival premieres to dinner dates to running errands.
I still wear a lot of black, largely because that’s the colour that’s most available. I would happily exclusively wear chocolate brown but, annoyingly, it’s a difficult colour to find, perhaps because of its unfashionable 1970s associations or it’s considered too drab. It’s also tough finding the right rich, dark brown shade without its being chalky or having red undertones.
I adore a pop of deep orange for accents. I love my accessories to be sandy beige or dull gold; these suit my warm/yellow skin tone, and complement my clothes.
For the past few years, as I replace worn out items, I’m consciously choosing fairtrade and ethical garments made of organic cotton, including underwear. One fourth of the world’s pesticides are used in conventional cotton farming; this is extremely toxic to the workers, and pollute waterways. Hemp and linen (though the creases drive me crazy) are also good natural eco fibres.
Bamboo is a good eco choice in terms of the actual plant, though there are some questions over the process to turn it into yarn. As I live in tropical climates, I’ve grown to appreciate its qualities which I admire in merino wool for colder weather – antimicrobial so non-smelly, sweat-wicking, dries fairly quickly – plus it’s vegan.
Despite clarity on some fronts, and despite decluttering regularly, I still had a vaguely dissatisfied feeling from the haphazardness of what I owned. And still having far too much that I just didn’t really wear made me guilty and anxious.
I knew about Project 333 by minimalist advocate and author Courtney Carver, who – fed up with an overflowing and frustrating wardrobe – decided to choose 33 items to wear for three months. The rest of the wardrobe is packed away and then brought out again at the end of the period to choose for the next three months. It means you don’t have to get rid of everything (or indeed anything), but it prevents the day-to-day overwhelm as you’re selecting from a smaller pool of items at a time. Project 333 has been around for 10 years and it’s wildly successful.
Though I’m not on social media and so haven’t seen everyone sharing their 333, I’ve been aware of it from blog posts and articles, and liked the idea of it in theory. Carver’s book, Project 333, came out recently and I read it, and woah! I knew I had to try it for myself.
The 33 items include clothes, shoes and accessories. It excludes undergarments, jewellery you wear daily (like a wedding ring) and attire for home and workouts (Carver stresses your yoga pants have to go to yoga though; if you’re wearing them out and about then they count as part of the 33). And yes, by and large, “33” is arbitrary; she chose it as a feasible but still challenging number.
I can’t say enough how this liberated me. It’s such a simple framework. The constraint stopped the endless negotiations-with-self as to what stays and goes as it does in a general declutter. I wrote down my 33 – trusting my intuition to guide me – then went to my wardrobe and picked just those items out. I packed the rest of my clothes away without thinking about it too much.
I did this for June, July and August. But I was in lockdown the whole time and so only really wore my joggers or leggings with t–shirts. I’ve become spoilt by the round–the–clock comfort of soft, stretchy fabric and I don’t think there’s any going back. I also don’t mind a uniform.
When it came time to choose the 33 for the next 3 months, my circumstances were changing. I’m moving countries and then, as more borders open up, I plan to travel only with a small backpack.
So for my second round, I brought my entire wardrobe down to 33, including some items Carver excludes, such as glasses and a watch. Outside this list, I have undergarments, socks and swimwear.
This has been a revealing and fabulous exercise. And since, gosh, when I was 20 in Italy, I have a wardrobe that I love in its entirety. And it took only an hour to sort out.
One last note: writing this reminded me how in my 20s I had few items but all were lovingly, repeatedly worn. Each of my friends from that period had almost a uniform of sorts as well, and it’s an indelible memory, like characters in a graphic novel who are always dressed, reassuringly, the same.
So when and why did things change? I think I turned to things outside of myself to help soothe inner stress and turmoil, hoping getting that “perfect” thing would bring me comfort and happiness – and control.
It didn’t help that this coincided with clothes suddenly becoming very cheap and very accessible. Consumerism also normalised shopping as recreation. While I didn’t jump on the fast fashion bandwagon, I can’t discount the very persistent messaging of how we “deserved” bountiful closets. Sadly, this only resulted in confusion and frustration.
I hope this exercise has a lasting effect on my relationship to my clothes and shopping habits.
Here’s my current Project 333 list:
black ⅞ joggers
3 black ⅞ leggings (2 for home)
dark brown ⅞ pants, loose
dark brown ⅞ pants, slim
black ¾ sleeve t–shirt
7 black t–shirts
black v–neck tank
orange v-neck tank
black sleeveless bubble dress
navy sleeveless maxi dress
red sleeveless bubble dress
beige slip-on walking shoes
beige–gold thong sandals
beige-gold flip flops for home
daytime gold–plated earrings
dressy gold–plated earrings
tortoise–shell framed glasses
wood frame sunglasses
gold crossbody purse
3 cold weather
black down jacket in pouch
black denim jacket
black fleece hoodie
“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” — Joan Didion
I love both of Courtney Carver’s books, Project 333 and Soulful Simplicity. She also hosts a podcast called Soul and Wit with her daughter, Bailey. Her blog and website, Be More With Less is just terrific.
I rather find relief in wearing the same look every day but having fewer items absolutely doesn’t mean being monotonous like me. There are endless charts on Pinterest showing all that can be done with a handful of items. My favourite is Bea Johnson, founder of the zero waste movement as we know it today, who owns just 5 bottoms, 8 tops and 2 dresses. From this 15-piece wardrobe, she can create 50 different looks.
It’s been a while since I’ve shopped for clothes in the US, but here are some favourites from other places:
Bamboo Tribe: Their clothes have a great fit and in the softest fabric so I just never take them off. I also love their outstanding customer service. If I stayed in India any longer, I’d badger them to create more products like women’s joggers and fleeces.
Nicobar: beautifully designed and ethically made with some organic cotton clothing and homeware (my whole flat was basically Nicobar). I buy my presents from here too and they’re always a huge hit.
Anokhi (no online shopping) and Fabindia: my tunics and saris were always purchased from either of these two, both decade-long favourites, and both are ethical and fairtrade and often use organic cotton.
People Tree: for fairtrade, organic cotton. My underwear is from here!
Toast: I haven’t shopped at Toast for some years but used to rather live in their clothes when in London, and my London home had a lot of Toast homeware. Often organic cotton. Sometimes their clothes have that art-museum-doyenne feel with shapeless arty tunics, so not all of it works all the time. Lovely swimwear too.
LaDress: I used to rotate my four LaDresses and always received compliments on them all the time from friends and complete strangers. They helped me look professional and chic when I worked in an office. Now I’ve kept only the maxi dress, which can be dressed up or down; I’ve worn it to the beach and I’ve worn it to weddings. I purchase only their Italian jersey clothing; it’s a miracle fabric – works in all climates, packs tiny, never wrinkles, and is sooooo flattering without ever looking cheap. Their stuff is pricey but my dress is many years old and still looks fabulous.