Project 333: ‘How a little wardrobe challenge changed a whole life’

Imagine my surprise and delight when I had the chance to read a newly-arrived copy of Courtney Carver’s new book, Project 333. In case you’ve not yet seen it (the book’s official publication date was 3/3 (of course!), I thought you might appreciate a review. So, here it is!

If you’re familiar with Courtney Carver, then this is the book that followers of bemorewithless.com might have expected her to have written first. In fact, Soulful Simplicity came before which included a section on the project. Still, Project 333 (along with Carver’s popular Tiny Wardrobe Tour) is arguably the most well-known aspect of her work to date. With its humble beginnings back in 2010, Carver set herself a challenge that was to be the catalyst to other – more far-reaching – changes in her life.

Project 333 – the basics

The idea of this minimalist fashion challenge is that you set aside the rest of your wardrobe for a 3-month period during which you dress with the remaining 33 items or less (hence the name). When the 3 months are up, you’ll swap out some of those items and bring back others.

Most items you’ll wear will count towards the 33, including jewellery, shoes, accessories and bags. But workout gear, underwear and pyjamas (for example) don’t count.

Not another ‘how to’ book

Although Carver does talk about the idea of a ‘capsule wardrobe’, Project 333 isn’t merely another ‘how to’ book. Indeed, the approach is not at all prescriptive. Whilst there are lots of useful tips and some interesting case studies, the idea is that, by following the challenge, we remember to connect with ourselves; listen to our hearts; and ask the person who knows us best (ourselves).

Carver also demonstrates how the ‘three thirty-three’ concept can used as a way in to dealing with more signifcant and profound life questions. Nicely crafted into a series of themed chapters, the book describes, ‘…..how a little wardrobe challenge changed a whole life.’ That’s quite an audacious claim but if you know Carver’s work, you’ll know what an impact #project333 has made on her, those around her and the 1000s of people who’ve followed in her footsteps.

Life lessons, big or small

Project 333 works on a number of levels, so take from it from whatever you need. Want to sort out a messy wardrobe? Here are some tips you can use. Or maybe you need to tackle just a small part of your life first, which can then act as the catalyst for more far-reaching changes. You can get this here, too.

What Carver is clear about is this: taking part in the project won’t protect you from whatever the world throws at you, but its benefits have a lovely way of spilling over into ‘real life’.

Clothes are boring

This morning, I listened to Dame Kristen Scott Thomas on Susannah Constantine’s new podcast, My Wardrobe Malfunction. If you listen to this – or any of these conversations – they are far less about the clothes and much more about lives lived well. The outfits, garments and fashion moments, if they feature at all, are far from centre stage.  They are merely the conduit to a more interesting conversation.

I do like clothes (and I’m not averse to a real bargain), but I have stopped yearning for them. This has given me such freedom, saving hours of time and hard-earned money, as I have given up the quest to find the simplest of things: something to wear. This is Carver’s point. A shopping ‘fast’ (a bit like intermittent fasting) does you a world of good. It clears the head and leaves you feeling lighter, calmer and more in control.

Things to consider

Paring down your wardrobe does mean you get to ask yourself some great questions.

For example, if you could start from scratch with your closet, what would you buy? Or, if you’re stuck in a cycle of ‘consume, donate, consume, donate…’ how much better for your wallet and the environment would it be if you simply stopped? Or, what if I challenged the voice in my head that said, “I could never…..”.

Often, we hear of people trying to fill an emotional vacuum with the temporary high of shopping. But, as Carver writes, “When things are broken but bearable, it feels easier, at first, to stay at ‘bearable’ rather than to address the problems.”

Try lightening your load

Courtney Carver’s quest for more had resulted in stress, depression, debt and strained relationships. It certainly didn’t answer the simplest of questions, “What shall I wear today?” As she writes, “I’d been shopping for years and I still had nothing to wear.”

So, instead of adding more and trying something new, try shopping from your own wardrobe; living a little more intentionally; and lightening your load. Who knows, a little step in this direction could inspire you towards a full-on spring clean or encourage you to get uncluttered once and for all!

Project 333 is published by tarcherperigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House


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How do I look?

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Quiz question of the day:

What’s something we all have, which can inspire both joy and loathing in all of us, but which we can’t live without?

Of course, no prizes for guessing: clothes.

A hotch-potch wardrobe

I’ve been mithering a bit about clothes lately.

In the past year, I’ve bought relatively few things to wear. But, if I’m honest, I feel like I’ve ended up with a ‘hotch potch’ of items. Most I have bought second-hand (and very good purchases they were too). Others were bought in a sale or via a clothing discount store such as HighStreetOutlet. As a result, I’ve maintained my frugal ways, but I never feel particularly stylish. Plus, I’d love to be a little more consistent about what I choose to wear and how I look.

How do I look?

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. So, I was grateful to have been given a copy of Inger D Kenobi’s How Do I Look: The Year I Stopped Shopping.

This entertaining book is a curious mix of memoir and commentary on fast-fashion,  consumerism and the ridiculous stories we tell ourselves about the clothes we wear (or which call to us from the shop window).

Challenged by a friend to join her in a “shop-stop” year, Kenobi resolved to avoid buying any new clothes for a whole 12 months. The book charts her journey from unintentional clothes buyer to chastened, mindful consumer. Along the way, she provides a number of “Emergency Shopping Guidelines.” These provide a ‘set of rules that will prevent us from making the same stupid shopping mistakes again, and again, and again.’

Emergency Shopping Guidelines

I thought it would be interesting to bring Kenobi’s rules together and to consider them in the light of my not-particularly-well-curated but minimal ‘capsule wardrobe’.

Don’t buy anything you can’t wear tomorrow

Well, I’ve failed at the first hurdle here. We all buy stuff to wear for a special occasion, although I try and avoid this.

In my experience, clothes bought for a particular event don’t always translate into ‘real life’. For my friend, Zoe’s, 50th birthday party in September, I bought a lovely pair of black trousers and floaty shirt to wear over a black camisole. To go with said outfit (which cost all of £11 from the charity shop), I purchased some suedette kitten heels from John Lewis. I wore them for 2.5 hours.

I haven’t worn the clothes since and have already sold the shoes….

Don’t buy anything you don’t need

How often have you gone out to buy a particular item, only to come back with something entirely different?

Here’s where ‘heart’ purchases often trump ‘head’ purchases. I do have the loveliest, seldom-worn but beautifully soft faux-fur jacket. It is absolutely gorgeous. I acquired it a long time ago when looking for something else in my local (now defunct) dress agency. I rarely wear it, but I keep it as something really special, knowing that I won’t wear it tomorrow (see above!) but will enjoy it during the holiday season.

These days, I’m much more inclined to think really hard about anything I buy. I keep a ‘wish list’ in Evernote, which helps me consider – slowly – if a want is also a need.

I also do a lot of research online. It’s easy to forget that there are so many (too many) places where you can buy what you need. A clever search can help you find what you need at the best price, so shop around.

You have to be you. Figure out who you are and dress accordingly

Oh, gosh. Who am I when it comes to what I wear?

Style consultants categorise women into a number of ‘boxes’. Are you an Audrey Hepburn ‘ingénue’ or more ‘sporty’ or ‘natural’ when it comes to your signature style?

Well, I’d love to fall into the ‘glamorous’ category – and really admire others who pull of this look – but that’s really not me.

Over the years, I have – with some considerable enthusiasm – declared myself to be an advocate of a particular brand, in an attempt to simplify and narrow down the available choices.

There was my short-lived (but fun while it lasted) Gudren Sjoden phase. My family pointed out that if you’re going to make this work (it’s quite ‘out there’ when it comes to style and colour), you have to go the whole hog.

There has also been my ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ phase. I am, after all, another Catherine Elizabeth. This clothing personality has been, arguably, my most enduring. I once spent the most I have ever spent on clothes (even more than my wedding dress) when I purchased an LK Bennett suit for an interview. I didn’t get the job, but (at least) I got the suit. Many years later, it’s still my ‘high days and holidays’ outfit when I need something super smart. And I wore it for my current job whose interview took place around a year ago.

My latest obsession is Cos. I love the Scandinavian simplicity and clean lines. I have yet to purchase anything.

If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.

Oh, this is so true. You already know that I previously performed ‘plastic surgery’ on my credit card, so there is no risk that I will ever splurge on something I can’t afford. Indeed, I have spent so little on clothes in the last year that this has not been an issue. But I know it is for some of you.

Recently, a work colleague was describing to my husband that she had lots of clothes on which she had spent so much money, she was embarrassed to admit that she cut off the labels of the unworn items before giving them away. Let’s not be like this.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

I’m all for this and it works really well. Project 333 makes sense on so many levels, especially if you mostly shop at thrift stores (another of Kenobi’s Emergency Shopping Guidelines).

Here’s something I have noticed, however (and Kenobi observed this, too). Clothes worn often do actually wear out. This is where it helps to buy quality over quantity. Less but better is the way forward.

Invest in experiences, not possessions

Yes, yes and yes!

This is where we have to put clothes in their rightful place. Clothes can play a part in our experiences. Love to ski? You’ll need some kit. But they shouldn’t be an end in their own right. Clothes as ‘stuff’ have a negative impact, both on the environment and on our finances. So, let’s see them as a part of our overall day-to-day lives but not to the detriment of other things, which are way more important.

Change your hair, not your clothes

For someone who has limited options when it comes to hair (short, blow-dryed, that’s it), I can’t espouse this guideline. However, lots of women (especially) enjoy experimenting with different hair colours or styles (in her book, Kenobi reveals her expertise in plaiting, braiding and in ‘up-dos’). A colleague of mine rocks a wonderful short wig and looks amazing in it. But that’s not for me.

One of my own

Beware the Diderot effect

Remember those black trousers I bought for Zoe’s party? To wear them again, I would need more tops. This is an example of a phenomenon known as the Diderot Effect. This is where the purchase of one beautiful item leads to dissatisfaction with the other things you already own. In my case, I don’t own anything suitable to go with the trousers, so do I invest or let them go? This is something that Juliet Schor mentions in her book, The Overspent American, about which I wrote a post here.

Stop mithering

Since reading Kenobi’s little book, I’m glad to say that I’ve stopped mithering about clothes. But I think I need to be a bit more intentional – as in other areas of my life – when it comes to what I buy to wear.

And whilst Shakespeare wrote that ‘clothes maketh the man (woman)’, there is another truth that’s worth remembering. There are only some occasions in life when this really matters. How do I look? No-one really cares.


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