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Breaking habit of dressing for excess

By 
  • September 22, 2022

Owning less has been a necessity and a goal as we downsized our home with our last move. And last fall, I took up the wooland.com challenge to wear the same dress for 100 days in a row. I was intrigued (as a knitter) by the prospect of wearing wool, exhausted by the choices in my closet every morning, and challenged by the impact fashion has on the environment.

The challenge itself was fun. The dress arrived. I put it on and played with the layers and pieces I could wear with it to make it look different. And I wore it plain and unadorned for more than a third of the days. Not a single person I didn’t tell noticed. I loved the mental break of not deciding what to wear. My body loved the natural fibre and for the first time in my life, I stopped sweating all the time. I repaired a hole instead of tossing the dress. At the end of the challenge, I had the sleeves shortened, and dyed it dark blue. That dress has had more than 200 wears in the last year, and it’s still beautiful.

Since the challenge, I have reduced my wardrobe to about 30 of my favourite non-wool pieces and five wool dresses. I am not going back. I expected the closet purge that followed the challenge but was a bit surprised by the mess I discovered in my heart.

Perhaps the hardest thing for me about having less clothing is the significant decline in compliments I receive about my clothing and appearance. I did not realize how much I was looking for external affirmation of beauty or worth or style in getting dressed. It isn’t that the dresses don’t look nice or that I don’t look nice in them — both they and I are fine, even lovely. It is that I realized I have been conditioned to look for things that are new and trendy, and to value these over older basics.

When I began my career (in senior leadership) at 23, I had to dress up to be recognized as credible. While dressing appropriately for the context does matter to a certain extent, I’ve also come to a deep conviction that our society uses clothing as a status symbol to communicate about who belongs. When I worked in administration in an inner-city hospital a decade later, I found a wardrobe that I could wear to sit beside a homeless person wrestling addiction and an executive in a boardroom. Those clothes can also be worn to make dinner and go to the park with my kids. And it is a profound privilege to be able to choose good quality clothes that I like.

The challenge has also revealed how often I have relied on acquisition as a numbing technique. Feeling bored? Unattractive? Ignored? I discovered how often I buy into the idea that material things will fill immaterial longings in my heart and life. Owning less and buying less frees up my time from cleaning and sorting and handling stuff, and I am left to hold and attend to the real people and feelings and hope in my life. It’s uncomfortable to realize how buying and managing stuff can distract me from living my life.

Finally, the dresses have reminded me that my body is who I am, rather than something I possess. My body moves me through life, expresses who and how I love, receives care and love and beauty. Clothing is a necessity that should allow me to connect with and care for the people in my life.

I have found some online mending groups, connected with repair shops in my new community, bought less, saved from the landfill the things we need to live. Inspired by the way my knitting hobby can be an essential gift, I am working on making more of the clothing I will need to replace items as they wear out. I feel connected to my grandparents in the things they said and the skills they had and taught me. 

As is ever my way in the world, doing a thing with intention changes the way I see the world and feel called by the Spirit to live in it. I am so grateful for the dresses and the hands that made them, for less drawing me into the mess of my heart, and for the spiritual space and freedom that is emerging from 100 days in a dress.

(Perrault works in Catholic health care in Saskatoon and writes and speaks about faith. Her website is leahperrault.com)

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