Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Ethical Roots, continued

Back in January, I began telling the story of how I became a conscious consumer. My thoughts have been turning more recently to the first Earth Day and my life as an impoverished student. That's no hyperbole; between 1967 and 1971, I worked part-time during the school year and full-time in the summer to meet the expenses not covered by my full-tuition scholarship to Syracuse. In 1967, it was possible to work ten hours a week at a minimum wage job during the school year (full time in the summer) and pay my own room, board, books and have a tiny bit left over for everything else. That meant a minuscule clothing budget; I vividly remember all three items I purchased my freshman year (a winter coat for $20, suede boots for $10 and a pair of sandals for $3). Luckliy, I knew how to sew, skirts were getting shorter and the hippie aesthetic was sweeping college campuses, which meant I could refashion my high school clothes into minis and wear my brother's cast-offs.

Becoming an apparel design major my sophomore year was a shrewd, frugal move. Instead of buying text books, I bought fabrics for class projects, and at the end of the semester when everyone else was getting twenty cents on the dollar for used books, I had new clothes. Far from feeling restricted, I found that my financial limits spurred my creativity. Then came Earth Day, and my mother's mantra "waste not, want now" took on new meaning. Where many of my peers saw deprivation, I saw possibility.

Enter the index card wardrobe. During the summer of 1970, between customers at my waitressing job, I would scribble lists and sketches on 3X5 index cards, pursuing my own personal Holy Grail -- the perfect minimalist wardrobe for the future. From memory, here is the smallest one I ever envisioned:

1 pair jeans
1 long skirt (preferably made from an old pair of jeans)
1 short skirt
1 blue chambray work shirt
1 black turtleneck shirt
1 long-sleeved leotard in a color other than black
1 white turtleneck sweater
2 short-sleeved tops (peasant blouses or button-front shirts)
2 sleeveless tops (preferably halters made from old clothes)
1 vest
1 jacket (plain, blazer-style)
1 winter coat
1 pair sandals
1 pair boots
1 pair loafers or moccasins
1 pair heels
1 nightgown
undies and socks sufficient to take me from one laundry day to the other (usually 7 days)

The idea, of course, was that each item would be either so neutral as to be "invisible" (the black turtleneck, the blazer) or individualized so as to be a work of art (the work shirt and jeans, which would be embellished with embroidery and patchwork as they aged).

That wardrobe never entirely materialized, of course. I would have had to actually get rid of things to achieve it, and wearing the same jeans every day in the summer turned out to be a Very Bad Idea.

It appears I am not alone: others have played with the minimalist wardrobe concept:

Minimalist Wardrobe - November Vogue

the 35-piece wardrobe
Basic wardrobe (woman's) -- there's also a description of the same for a man

(The last two are from the very, very excellent


CP said...

You may hear from an honors student who asked about what is the minimum number of pieces in a wardrobe. Have forwarded your email to her. Senior moment, as I cannot say her name to you.

You may also hear from current student JT who is writing about the life cycle on t-shirts...

Jo Paoletti said...

Send 'em on! The "Travels of a T-Shirt" author (Pietra Rivoli) teaches at Georgetown, so she's local.