I have a confession to make: I own 182 pieces of clothing. Last year I decided to pack 176 of them into large laundry bags and wear only the remaining six for the next six weeks.
What happened is a tale of two halves. It started in February 2020 when I had the headspace to be both apprehensive and obsessive about what six items to keep and what to give up. In my notebook from February, I wrote: ‘I am suddenly passionately attached to all my clothes. Even the ones I haven’t worn in months.’
With a few days to go, I had whittled my wardrobe down to seventeen items and part of my brain was in panic mode: ‘What can I pass off as pyjamas? If non-six things are in the laundry, can I keep them?’ I am embarrassed to say I even emailed the Labour Behind The Label office to ask if I could get extra items as a ‘uniform’ – nurses, for example, have uniforms excluded from their six items. I guess I hoped journalists did too? A note from the time reads: ‘Caroline wrote me a sympathetic email back, gently implying that I should stop worrying.’
The angst I was feeling might seem superficial but it was real and it was part of why I wanted to face this challenge. In a society where we depend so much on material objects to express our identities, the Six Items Challenge stress tests what happens if some of that choice goes away. I was curious to discover the extent of my dependency on clothes. Was it possible for me to let go and find other, less materialistic, ways to connect with people, and how might my happiness levels be affected?
Wardrobe cold turkey is not easy, it is a reckoning with your sense of self. A shrinking of the resources we use to construct ourselves – even as they in turn shrink the collective resources we depend upon to live. It’s not easy, but why should it be easy? I hoped it might take me to the existential question of our time: Is life about having, or being.
The Pandemic Hits
A few weeks later it was March 2020. Everything, especially the garment industry, had plunged into total chaos.
It has always been very clear to me that the Six Items Challenge is a luxury. In a world of food banks, refugee camps, homelessness and poverty, having bags full of clothes to give up is a champagne problem. But the arrival of a global pandemic intensified the feeling that my worry over clothes had been particularly, luxuriously quaint.
Despite the cliché of lock-down being about wearing pyjamas, the challenge got harder once we had to stay inside. I’m conditioned to turn to clothes to attempt to cheer myself up but there were still weeks to go. I did, however, switch two hopelessly formal items – tailored trousers and a body suit – for a relaxed pair of trousers and a t-shirt.
As I grappled with a huge surge in work, the struggle to keep up with the Armageddon engulfing garment workers, and my own personal knowledge that my new book tour was over before it had begun, those six items became the opposite of disposable, they were vital. They kept me warm and in return I cared for each of them, connecting with their seams and stitches, each one sewn by another human – someone who I hoped hadn’t just lost their job, or fallen sick in a crowded factory. I felt every pulled thread and patch of thinning material – seeking joy in familiar, dependable love even when it felt really hard.
Once the six weeks ended on April 9th, I did not get all of my clothes back out, just a few pieces to liven things up. In the months since, I have mended every item in my wardrobe that needed fixing. I
have donated a few items and started ‘shopping my own wardrobe.’ Those same storage bags still contain packed away clothes that I can ‘discover’ when I crave something new.
When I started thinking about how to write about the challenge, I thought the global pandemic meant I had no big revelations to share – who can say whether a wardrobe fast changed my life when so much has altered since without my choice? But now, as I glance over now at the clothes in my wardrobe and then turn to look out of the window, I have realised I do have something to share: It is better to have no beautiful things and a hundred places to go, than to have hundreds of beautiful things and no places to go.
The pandemic has reinforced a sense of what I love – community, other people, family, friends, shared wellbeing, purpose and culture, travelling through the outdoors, working collectively to make the world a fair and just place. My wardrobe though? Not so much – I’d trade it all in an instant to regain the precious immaterial world we have lost.