FASHION HONESTLY

Why having just 33 items of clothing could mean you have more to wear

Photo: Stocksy

Tessa Coates challenged herself to wear just a handful of clothes for three months all in the name of having a zen wardrobe. And she discovered quite a lot along the way

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By Tessa Coates on

I’m two months in to the Project 333 challenge, an American (of course) internet phenomenon, where, for three months, you can only wear 33 items of clothing. I know it sounds like a very hippy thing to do, but two months ago I innocently googled how zips are made and then fell very hard down the devastating-impact-of-fast-fashion rabbit hole, which was eye-opening, to say the least.

According to a recent report from WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), in the UK this year we’ll spend £10 billion on clothes that we won’t wear – an average of about £200 per person. I’ll go ahead and bet money that you’ll have something in your wardrobe right now with the price tag still on.

In this age of consumerism, we are constantly surrounded by things. We have arguably reached “peak stuff”. Even my computer desktop is covered with files – I currently have 38 tabs open and a three-page Google doc “to do” list, which includes things like “build my own beehive”.

Which leads me to the 333 Challenge. Invented by Courtney Carver, author of bemorewithless.com, it has been adopted by people the world over. Carver was leading a not-enough-sleep, not-enough-time, not-enough-money, too-much-stuff existence, living on the idea that if she just kept working, this would one day change. Then, one day, she woke up and realised that none of us will ever have enough space, time or money and will never have crossed everything off our to-do lists. So, she started simplifying and getting rid of things – stuff, worries, guilt, toxic people. She looked at her heaving wardrobe and realised she was weighed down by it; she had hundreds of clothes and nothing to wear.

The idea of having fewer things and more space speaks to me on a spiritual level. I’ve read Marie Kondo cover to cover and yet I have acres of clothes that “spark joy”, so I can’t seem to let anything go. I’m a junkie for a sample sale or a car-boot sale or a free T-shirt. I looked at my wardrobe (and chair and floor) bursting at the seams with reckless purchases that I never wear and suddenly I realised that I’d become another cog in the fast-fashion machine. I had a burning desire to re-evaluate my habits and have the sort of minimalist, Scandi bedroom that would make it look like I lived inside Pinterest.

I wanted to be all the things Carver was promising, I wanted to be light and free, I wanted to let go, I wanted to be more with less and I wanted to value the things I did have. And so I challenged myself to embark upon the 333 wardrobe method. Here’s how I did it.

1 Make enough time

This is probably going to take the whole day, so block off a Saturday or Sunday and make sure you have nowhere else to be. Switch off your phone, get a babysitter – whatever you need to do.

2 Take everything out of your wardrobe and put it on the bed

I initially ignored this step because it seemed tedious, but it’s the most important. Take everything out and then clean your wardrobe. See how much dust there is and how many items have fallen off the rail and are lying at the bottom. Notice what a difference it makes having nothing in your wardrobe and how much lighter the room feels.

3 Leave the room

Go and get a snack, have a cup of tea, walk around the block.

4 Come back

Take everything on the bed and, piece by piece, decide what can go. Anything that could be worth something goes on a resale site. Anything with the price tag – check to see if it can be exchanged in store, even if you don’t have the receipt. Clothes that are beyond repair can go to textile donation. Office clothes can go to projects like Smart Works, who dress women who can’t afford a new outfit for job interviews. Old bras can go to Smalls For All. The more you feel like your clothes will do some specific good, the easier it will be to let them go.

5 Now you’re looking at only the clothes you want to keep

Some of these will be sentimental pieces: old school jumpers, bridesmaids’ dresses, stag-do T- shirts. Box these up and stick them under the bed, under the stairs or anywhere out of sight. Your wardrobe is only for clothes that are worn.

6 Now you get to pit your remaining clothes against each other in a Hunger Games-style battle to find your 33 items

These INCLUDE accessories, scarves, sunglasses, hats, jewellery, coats and shoes. It does NOT INCLUDE your wedding ring, sportswear, tights, pyjamas, “loungewear” (clothes that don’t leave the house) and underwear. Though, a note on underwear: consider how many knickers in your knicker drawer you actually wear. The cheap, painful lacy ones that never go out? The decade-old cotton pair of indistinguishable colour with holes and no elastic? Say a Marie Kondo thank you for their years of service and let them go.

7 Put your clothes on and look at yourself in the mirror

Sure, it’s nice, but is it nice enough to make the 33? Is this what you’d choose for a date or photo day at work? This is the magic of the 33 system – you have to be ruthless. You have to be your own football manager, pulling together only the best and most versatile pieces – those that can play up front and defence (I don’t follow football).

Anything you have in duplicates, choose only the best one. You are not – and I say this from experience – a travelling mime company and you do not need seven black-and-white striped T-shirts.

It isn’t about becoming a worthy puritan and only wearing one hessian sack for ever. It’s about working out what you actually like and then surrounding yourself with quality clothes you absolutely love and taking good care of them

Anything you love but needs sewing, either do so right now or, if they’re more elaborate tailoring projects (affectionately known as my PhDs – Projects Half Done), move these items to the living room. Hang them up somewhere prominent so you’ll force yourself to finally get round to fixing them.

8 Hang up your 33 items and see how it feels with only the most precious items displayed. In my case, these were:

1. Black puffer jacket

2. Woolly hat

3. Black Timberland boots

4. Grey scarf

5. Sunglasses

6. Necklace

7. Earrings

8. Converse

9. Ballet pumps

10. Trainers

11. Black jeans

12. Blue jeans

13. White T-shirt

14. White cotton shirt

15. Black sheer shirt

16. Red day dress

17. Blue day dress

18. Black party dress

19. Black-and-white striped top

20. Dark blue jumper

21. Grey jumper dress

22. Light blue jumper

23. Black strappy top

24. Blue skirt

25. Black leather jacket

26. Pinafore

27. Long-sleeve grey top

28. Vintage Ralph Lauren cardigan

29. Blue strappy top

30. Cream cotton dress

31. Hoop earrings

32. Smart black coat

33. Silk headscarf

Everything else – the B division – gets boxed up and packed away out of sight for three months.

After sifting through my own wardrobe, I found that I own 12 pairs of slightly disappointing cheap jeans and have started saving up for one amazing pair. I learnt that I own eight pink nail varnishes, even though I never paint my nails. I learnt that absolutely nobody will notice you’re wearing the same 33 items. I found the physical difference to my room was huge, I no longer feel weighed down by how much there was in there and I’m sleeping better. And I made £300 on eBay. And when I wear the same thing to work, I get to pretend I’m Steve Jobs.

Clothes are amazing and fashion is wonderful, so the whole 333 isn’t about becoming a worthy puritan and only wearing one hessian sack for ever. It’s about working out what you actually like and then surrounding yourself with quality clothes you absolutely love and taking good care of them. And then, if I wanted to be really American, I’d tell you that in taking care and loving your clothes, you’re taking care and loving yourself – but we’re British, so we’re not quite ready for that.

This is part of our Wear Your Clothes week, an editorial series discussing sustainability and transparency within the fashion industry and looking at what we can do to love, treasure and make the most of the clothes that we enjoy wearing 

@TessaCoates

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