I used to be very into clothes.
I began hand-sewing clothing in high school; at 17, my mom gave me her sewing machine. I made clothes. I hunted thrift stores for clothes. I bought and sold vintage clothing online. Eventually, I had to expand to two closets to hold my wardrobe. I. Loved. Clothes.
For all of these reasons, I am an unlikely candidate to have worn the same outfit every day for a year. But I did, and here’s why I did it and what I learned.
Hobbies Don’t Make You Human
Hobbies are exciting, and they make you interesting, but if you’re not careful, they can creep into your identity until you become the thing you do, not the creative force powering that thing.
It felt good to browse clothing, make clothing, sell clothing, and think about clothing during my free hours. The fact that I had more than a fast-fashion interest in clothing (because I sewed my own clothes and can still talk your ear off about fabric, design, and dating clothing), made me feel like this hobby was “legitimate”.
Eventually, though, I became overwhelmed by the voyeurism. I wandered through fabric stores and bought yards of fabric that I never got around to sewing. I spent easily over 50% of my free time looking at or thinking about clothing, but I rarely made a purchase. Instead, I would “e-acquire” clothing by saving images into a folder on my computer.
It was exhausting and a poor use of my time. What could I be accomplishing if I spent that time on something else?
My identity had somehow become tied to my wardrobe. I didn’t want to be known for what I wore but rather what I had contributed to the world. When I took away my hobby, what did I have left?
"Become your actions and your principles. Stop trying to create a façade of who you are through buying things. Buying things is easy, and everyone knows it. It can garner wonder or excitement, but never respect." - Tynan, Life Nomadic
Getting Rid of Stuff
It took me months to pare down my wardrobe. I started by getting rid of items I hadn’t worn for several months, then moved on to items of sentimental value. I stashed the items in a corner of my closet and told myself that if I didn’t miss them for two weeks, I’d get rid of them.
The beginning was hard, but a funny thing happens when you start getting rid of stuff. Instead of addictively pursuing the acquisition of clothing, you become addicted to getting rid of clothing. You begin to realize how little you actually need to get by, and that feeling is euphoric.
I didn’t try very hard to recoup the money I had spent on my clothing. If I had, I wouldn’t have learned the consequences of my actions. This is why major apparel sites make it so easy to return clothing. Acquiring items without consequence makes you acquire more in the end.
I took most of my clothing to Buffalo Exchange and had them donate anything they didn’t want. Seeing them go through my clothing and buy it at painfully low prices made me realize just how arbitrary monetary value truly is.
By simply focusing on getting rid of clothing piece-by-piece, I came to the point one day where I looked at my wardrobe and realized most of it was gone. I found the perfect gray V-neck tee from Icebreaker that I thought could work in multiple occasions, and I had a pair of black Acne jeans. I kept a scarf and long-sleeved shirt for when it got cold out, two athletic outfits for working out, and a number of dresses for formal occasions. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do.
Rockin it in 2012.
Stiiiiillll rockin it in 2013. (photo: Tony XQ Chen)
You Are More Important Than Your Clothing
I spent a year wearing the Icebreaker T and black jeans every day. I wore them to work, I wore them to coffee and drinks, I wore them hanging out with my friends. And here’s what I learned.
Nobody gives a shit what you wear. 
You may feel anxious wearing the same shirt you wore last week, but most people A) won’t notice, or B) won’t care. I wore the same damn outfit every day, and in the span of a year, only one person ever brought it up to me of his own accord.
Sure, you lose your status as a fashion symbol (except, perhaps, among the most avant-garde circles). Whatever. I realized that when I cared less about what I (and others) wore, I cared more about what I (and others) said and did.
The way I interacted with others changed. I felt less on display when I walked around outside. I knew I didn’t have as much to “hook” people in with, so I had to be twice as interesting to convey my value. I cared a lot less not just about impressing people with my clothes, but about impressing people in general. I felt more comfortable in my own skin.
Getting dressed in the morning took all of 30 seconds. Packing for trips took 5 minutes. Then I could turn my mind to other important things.
Focusing Your Decision-Making Energy
Here are some reasons one-outfitters give about their choice of wardrobe. Do you see a pattern?
"The tux keeps me balanced. I look at myself as a canvas. I don’t want to cloud myself with too many colors or I’ll go crazy." - Janelle Monae
"I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” - President Obama
"Eliminating choice and being able to focus on what matters is a low-level example that sends a big message to me every day." - Leo Widrich, Buffer
“He’d rather spend his time figuring out how to cut prices for customers than figuring out what to wear each day.” - Amazon company spokesman on Jeff Bezos
Adopting a simple wardrobe reduces your decision-making energy and lets you focus on what’s important. For me, this was the primary benefit of paring down my wardrobe.
In the beginning, I could only think of benefits as far as my clothing hobby. I thought, If I focus my creative brainpower on creating instead of consuming, I’ll have more time for things like costume-making and fashion design.
I shocked myself by realizing that I didn’t actually love fashion as much as I thought, and spending my creative energy on pursuing other things, like writing for pleasure and training in aerial acrobatics.
Why I Stopped
In June of this year, I decided it was time to start buying clothes again. Firstly, because I felt that my lack of clothing was starting to become as much of an identity statement as my vast wardrobe of clothing, and the point was to avoid superficial egoistic acts. And secondly, because okay let’s face it, I was getting pretty sick of the gray shirt and jeans.
Shopping for the first time was scary. I entered and exited the store a couple of times. I went from having clothing on the brain during all my free hours a year ago to standing, bewildered, holding a fancy dress shirt and wondering how I ever cared in the first place.
I bought myself a flashy, new, colorful wardrobe and lasted about two weeks before deciding the whole thing was just not me anymore. Where does fashion end? Did I really want to commit myself to a futile pursuit of the latest trends for life?
I decided a middle ground was best. A small wardrobe, but a wardrobe I wouldn’t have to think about. I picked a couple of tops in a neutral palette that could all work together. Kept the black jeans, got a sweet new pair of boots. I was done.
A Feminist Footnote
I struggled with how to include this perspective into the rest of my post, because I don’t want to alienate anyone reading this. Nevertheless, I think I’d be doing my story a disservice if I didn’t acknowledge what it meant to be a woman wearing just one outfit.
My paring down of my wardrobe was as much a feminist statement as it was an act of minimalism. Because here’s the thing. Women are undoubtedly more closely associated with fashion than men. Clothes, shopping, makeup - isn’t that what women are supposed to love?
So let’s put these thoughts together. If women are expected to make more clothing decisions than men, but not focusing on clothing decisions makes you more productive, what does that do for the confidence and output of an entire gender?
Women, you are entitled to your femininity. Nobody is trying to unsex you. I’ll be honest, maybe I was trying to unsex myself a little bit during this year. But I learned that you can’t throw femininity away that easily. Adopting a uniform doesn’t keep you from getting hit on in professional settings - it only slows the inevitable. Or, worse, heightens people’s excitement when you do don a dress for a formal party, because they’ve “never seen your bare legs before” (let’s call it the Sexy Librarian Effect).
Clothing does not make you a woman; it’s your demeanor and your personality and how you carry yourself that make you that way.
We say this a lot, but we continue to preen ourselves.
I think the only way I could’ve truly understood this was by trying what I did, then bringing those learnings back to a balanced reality. So I encourage you to try some experiments, too.
Own who you are. Don’t be distracted by small, shiny things. And reject the many, many marketing messages that try to tell you otherwise. It won’t make you less of a woman; it’ll just make you more of a human.
 Addendum, 9/26/13. I don’t like to edit my posts after publishing. However, there’s been so much focus on this line, “Nobody gives a shit what you wear”, that I feel the need to clarify.
Two things. One, yes, it matters what outfit you choose to wear every day. I gave a lot of thought to choosing a gender-neutral, color-neutral, form-fitting outfit because I wanted something that looked put-together while still flying under the radar. That’s not the purpose of my statement.
Secondly, I assumed people secretly noticed that I was wearing the same outfit every day. But once I got over that initial discomfort, I realized there was no reason to care. The world didn’t end, or even really change, because I wore the same outfit, and realizing that made me a happier person. You may say, “Well, I don’t WANT people thinking that I’m that smelly girl wearing the same shirt every day!” But if that perception doesn’t affect your ability to achieve your goals in life, and wearing one outfit makes you happier, who exactly is still holding you back?