The Best Time I Rejected Minimalism
by Isabel Slone
One chilly day in January, I realized that everyone I knew was giving away everything they owned. There were chatterings over Facebook about a book called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, written by an elfin, 5” Japanese woman named Marie Kondo. Curious, I went to the Toronto Public Library website to place a hold: 442 holds on 59 copies.
Kondo posits that if an item doesn’t bring you joy, you shouldn’t own it. Her hardcore tidying method now warrants its own verb (to “KonMari” is to axe). I imagined the delightful ways this method could change my life. But my initial excitement gave way to suspicion. No matter how much mental clarity an empty room with tatami mats promises, I had only ever found my bliss surrounded by exploding closets, walls covered in kitschy art and bookshelves stuffed with 30-year-old magazines.
When you grow up poor, it doesn’t make sense to get rid of everything you own. Instead you learn to save every bit of common refuse in case it ever comes in handy. I grew up in a home where no plastic bread tab was unaccounted for, and my mom carefully washed out Ziploc bags for future reuse. I discovered the joys of thrift shopping around age 13, and nothing since has compared to the high of finding quality clothing for dirt cheap: Italian leather boots for $10, Ferragamo pumps for just $6. I used to “rescue” clothes the way some people rescued stray cats.
Accumulating things is second nature to me, and in the process I’ve amassed a wardrobe that could be described as monstrous in size. I own 28 dresses, 75 shirts, 12 jackets, 22 sweaters, 30 pairs of shoes, 20 skirts, 22 pairs of pants, and six pairs of shorts. It’s mathematically possible for me to go an entire year without repeating a single outfit. I may never have enough money to go on a Eurotrip, but somehow I can always scrounge up $300 to splurge on, say, a vintage Yohji Yamamoto tailcoat. (It was 50 percent off, OK?) For me, fashion is essentially a giant RPG: some days I put on a prairie dress and I’m Laura Ingalls Wilder, other days I put on a cape and a snarl and I’m Bellatrix Lestrange.
For years, however, I’ve salivated over the concept of cutting back. I devoured Judith Levine’s 2007 book Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping as salaciously as if it were a Jacqueline Susann novel. Then I was part of a rapt audience for the Uniform Project, an adorable fashion blog by Sheena Mattheiken, who wore the same dress for an entire year. Mattheiken’s expertise at accessorizing made what should have been an ascetic project look like Disneyland levels of fun.
I’ve done my best, as an upwardly mobile member of the lower middle class, to absorb the monk-like idea that it’s “better to live with less.” In a society where we love to gawk at A&E;’s Hoarders and feel secondhand embarrassment watching Jackie Siegel’s compulsive shopping in The Queen of Versailles, accumulating objects is seen as a tacky and unfulfilling way to live. We live in an undeniably consumerist society, but for a certain strata of the young and moneyed, it’s the minimalist design blogs and spotless empty rooms that are set up as zones of aspiration, rather than the mansions of the super rich.
On a deeper level, having too many clothes can create a paradox of choice. Sometimes the heft of my wardrobe felt suffocating. Being in constant control of your own life, with very little outside support, gets exhausting; sometimes I just want to be a giant baby and leave all my important life decisions in the hands of a well-meaning Board of Directors. No one warned me about how truly terrible my early 20s would be, and for the better part of five years I had felt like a brittle piece of toast with a thick layer of malaise spread on top. By limiting my choices I thought I might find my way to Hosanna.
Sometime in the bleak morass of 2014, I stumbled upon a newspaper article in the Edmonton Journal about a cheery blonde woman paring down her wardrobe under the auspices of something called Project 333. The project invites you to create a seasonal capsule wardrobe consisting of only 33 essential pieces, including shoes, jewelry, and outerwear, for three months. After that, you can forge ahead with your newly de-cluttered lifestyle or simply leave the project behind. The Facebook page is filled with aphorisms about “feeling lighter living with less,” and “putting your wardrobe on a diet.” Despite its painfully earnest, Mom-like social media presence, I was fascinated. It actually seemed doable.
Project 333 suggests you put all the clothing you won’t be wearing into boxes and hide it away from sight. My apartment is small, and any and all closet space is makeshift. So I half-heartedly shoved most of my wardrobe to one side of a rolling rack, where it was still in plain sight.
Right away, there were warning signs. I fell into a long daze while deciding what to keep and what to shelve, and in a sudden cold flash of lucidity realized that I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by piles of clothing, hugging and murmuring faint goodbyes to a ragged purple “drug rug” sweater I had bought during an improbable hippie phase in college.
There was also the issue of laundry. Normally I wear something once or twice, throw it in the laundry bin, and forget about it until it mysteriously reappears in my closet two months later. I like to imagine my clothes are always playing hide and go seek. With only 33 pieces to wear, would I ever get a chance to wash them? Would I become the human equivalent of Pigpen, followed everywhere by cartoonish smell lines?
I decided my concerns were moot. Most North Americans function just fine with a fraction of the number of items currently resting in my closet. I forged ahead with the kind of chirpy, cloying confidence particular to people grappling with a dark secret, like Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom.
The 33 pieces I chose were all variations on grey and black, to reflect the vast majority of what’s already in my wardrobe. (Plus, I never really got over my teenage goth phase.) For the bottoms, I narrowed it down to one pair of blue jeans, one pair of black jeans, black trousers, plaid pants, a plaid flannel skirt, and a cozy grey maxi skirt made out of sweatpants fabric. On top I chose a black and white baseball raglan, two tight black long sleeves, a fancier white button-down, and a few different t-shirts. I maintained one freakum dress — a stretchy 90s snake print number — for occasions on which I wanted to feel “sexy,” and only four pairs of shoes. This last part was the hardest. I have a part-time job at a shoe store, and decided that the shoes I wore to work “didn’t count.”
I didn’t tell anyone I was doing the project, and nobody — not even my roommate and best friend who sees me literally every day — seemed to notice that I had stopped wearing 95 percent of my wardrobe. One day at my part-time job, my manager looked me up and down and said, “You have a lot of clothes.” I tittered nervously. “It’s funny you should say that, because I’ve cut down my wardrobe to the bare essentials and am only wearing 33 pieces for the next three months.”
“Thirty-three is still a lot of clothes,” he said.
It was a shock to realize that I actually appeared more well-dressed than normal. My wardrobe was so curated that I could actually throw items together and look effortlessly amazing. Searching for the perfect item to complete my outfit became less like navigating a labyrinth and more like a simple game of tic tac toe. Picking out what to wear was easy, because there was so little to choose from. It didn’t feel austere, it felt novel and fun.
I started to really understand why Barack Obama only wears gray and blue suits, and the lady from Harper’s Bazaar only wears white shirts and black pants to work. It makes your life hella easy! When you find something you look good in, it makes sense to just stick to that. I also delighted in wearing clothes that I genuinely liked all the time. I have a tendency — and this is another poor kid thing — to reach for my crappiest clothes first, because I always imagine I’m “saving” my nicer clothes for imaginary occasions that never come. For Project 333, I picked out some of my favorite pieces, and the feeling of lounging around in a wicked Black Flag sweater instead of a pilling Michigan State sweater is indescribably luxurious.
I was also surprised and delighted to find I was still receiving compliments on my outfits. Reducing my wardrobe to the basics, I was worried no one would notice I had an actual sense of style. One night I was invited to attend a university feminist mixer as an “influential woman” for the students to talk to. Wanting to look professional, I paired my silky white blouse with black trouser pants, granny boots, and wooden hippie earrings. The place was filled with women around five years my junior, milling about and eating free candy (there was no alcohol). One person who wanted to know about “becoming a writer” genuinely complimented my outfit, and I felt a warmth spread from my inner cavity to my outsides. It was strange to be acknowledged for something that required so little effort, but I wasn’t going to argue.
After three weeks, I started to get restless. The sheer joy I normally get when the puzzle pieces of an outfit finally click together had dulled, and I’d started to feel resentful and crabby that I couldn’t wear my white vintage fur jacket, or use my black leather satchel bag because they weren’t part of the allotted list of clothing.
One night, when I was feeling particularly petulant, I fished out an old pair of brown crocodile-print Doc Martens that were not part of my allotted clothing rations and wore them to a punk show. I had a great night, but pretended my rebellion had nothing to do with it. I went on with the experiment like normal. But I knew I’d committed a bald transgression. It felt like the time I secretly ate a Big Mac while vegetarian — it was wrong, but I was ready to do it again.
Breaking edge was a slow and gradual process, rather than a fit of passion. For two or three weeks after the punk show, I stuck mostly to the Project 333-sanctioned wardrobe, but I started to add a little extra seasoning. I started wearing the white vintage fur coat instead of my blobby parka. I busted out the black leather satchel bag to replace my boring backpack. Until I realized my official commitment to the project had ended, and I should probably just give up.
It wasn’t just boredom; by the end, I felt like I was losing my entire identity. Clothes help me display who I am to the world. I love to wear leopard print, lace, and flamboyant patterns that announce my arrival in a room; I like giving strangers an idea of the kind of person I am without having to say a word. For me, putting together an outfit is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle: part recreational activity, part brain exercise. You can’t just jam any old puzzle piece into a hole and expect it to fit. You have to sift through and find the perfect match. If I can’t piece the right outfit together, I feel mercurial all day.
Project 333 had reduced the greatest creative outlet in my life to a rote activity. And it turns out life is still hard to deal with, even when you know what you’re going to wear.
After abandoning the project, I felt pangs of sadness about “giving up.” I still had that voice in my head urging me to get rid of everything I own, but it receded. When the Marie Kondo craze took off, I lived vicariously through descriptions of her twee-as-fuck tidying method, knowing full well it would never apply to me. It didn’t matter that I would never fold my socks like sushi rolls; I enjoyed reading about it as form of lifestyle pornography. Overdramatic and unrealistic, but fun anyways.
While I daydreamed of white walls, sparse furniture and two finger-widths of space between every hanger, my day-to-day reality contained something better: a treasure trove of beautiful things that make me look and feel like the human being I want to be. When I look at my overstuffed closet I feel like an old-timey King surveying the bounty of his lands. It brings me joy to know that each and every beautiful thing I own represents a tiny part of myself, and if there’s any universal human want, it’s to be seen on your own terms. Give me the deluxe 120-pack of crayons, shimmering with possibility, over the no-frills eight-pack any day.
If you want to be like Mark Zuckerberg, and wear a plain black hoodie for the rest of your life, that’s cool, but I’d rather suffocate in a box underground, because that’s pretty much what it would feel like to me. When I think about my clothes, I feel like James Franco in Spring Breakers, whooping and hollering, “Look at my shit! I’ve got shorts, every fuckin’ color! I got designer t-shirts! SCARFACE ON REPEAT!”
I reject the quiet dignity of Joan Didion’s packing list. I love cashmere, black ankle boots, and fancy rings. Show me a pair of novelty socks, and I’ll show you a person who delights in the smallest details. If minimalists define themselves by their lack of stuff, I am happy to be the sum of all my clothing-related parts. It turns out we’re all playing the same old game.