The year is drawing to a close and with it the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge. There are still many topics and issues that I am mulling over but if I had to sum up the twelve months in a three words it would: research, creativity and pragmatism.
The first two have featured regularly in my posts, from my efforts to patch clothes, dye shoes and even make my own underwear to my research into fibres, production processes and environmental impacts. Practical issues have cropped up occasionally, like my oddly popular post on laundry. Pragmatism, however, has been a silent but significant factor, both in making the most out of fewer things but also in walking a realistic line between being responsible citizen and getting on with life.
Living with a limited wardrobe – whether through self-imposed rationing or out of financial necessity – means focussing on your actual life, rather than a fantasy life or aspirational longings, and it was no different for me.
It started with an honest look at the wardrobe I had (mostly suits from my lawyer days and some clothes I had grown out of but never got round to purging) and the realities of my life and situation. As a student who spends a lot of time gardening, the suits were not overly useful so I packed them away. That pretty much left me living in two pairs of black trousers and a denim skirt, with a few jersey dresses that came out when I was catching up with friends. The balance of the wardrobe was made up of teeshirts and knits, as it has been all my life, bringing me to a key fact of ‘my life’.
As I seem to have permafrost in my veins, my key concern about managing on a limited wardrobe was making sure I had enough clothes that would keep me warm. There would therefore be no point wasting coupons on pretty dresses that I might wear two to three weeks a year. Socks, woolly tights and knitwear may not be aspirational but for me they are essentials!
This pragmatism extended to the make-do jobs too. When resurrecting old dresses for the summer, I prioritised shift dresses that could be worn over a teeshirt and/or with a woolly cardigan in late spring and early autumn. And as running has become a significant part of my routine, investing in a cosy Ronhill* running top for winter morning runs took priority over a new casual skirt.
The issue of materials has cropped up frequently in posts as I mulled over the life cycle of different yarns and fabrics, but there is also a pragmatic consideration: is the material suitable for the day-to-day reality of my life?
Wool is a great insulator so naturally features prominently in my wardrobe, even if it is not without environmental impacts (e.g. methane) or even animal welfare issues (i.e. the mulesing of Merino sheep). When choosing wools for home knits, I have in the first place raided my existing stock and then sought out organic yarns or British ones from small-scale producers so that the environmental and social benefits of supporting traditional, independent players could counteract some of the environmental concerns.
Lycra is a necessary evil so not completely avoidable. Neither are synthetic fibres in running clothes, as any distance runner will tell you. But what about hybrid fibres?
I have to admit that as much as I like organic cotton, Tencel and bamboo also feature in my wardrobe. These fibres are derived from renewable sources (eucalyptus and bamboo respectively) that are chemically treated to break down the cellulose into fibre which is then spun. Like viscose, the process is energy and chemical intensive. Lenzig AG, the Austrian company that developed and produces Tencel, has adopted a closed loop process that recycles and reuses over 95% of the chemicals and water used to minimise ecological damage. The environmental impact of bamboo at production stage, however, varies depending on the process used and the producer in question.
In light of Tencel’s credentials, this fibre quite easily made it into my wardrobe in the shape of a staple long-sleeved black teeshirt from Earth Kind Originals. It pipped the organic cotton contenders to the post for two reasons: one ethical, one supremely practical. First, the founder of the company responded promptly and in detail to my queries about the company’s environmental and ethical practices. Secondly, as it is designed as a yoga top, it is cut long in the body, which means extra warmth in the lower back!
Shape and shade
Bamboo involved a lot more consideration due to its mixed environmental credentials but made it through as an occasional treat because of two key considerations that are unavoidable in a limited wardrobe.
Leaving aside environmental factors, when working with rationing (or a limited budget), long-lasting items are key. This means investing in clothes that fit and suit me well and that are sufficiently timeless to survive fashion trends. In light of these considerations, I treated myself to a bamboo jersey dress from Nancy Dee in a cut and colour that work so well for my shape and colourings that I shall get years of wear out of it. In many ways, it is no surprise that this vintage-inspired dress, with its flattering 6-panel skirt, features in the company’s range. Not only does Nancy Dee produce clothes that transcend seasons, its life cycle considerations are not limited to fibre analysis. Waste is also avoided by careful pattern design, something that featured strongly in British wartime ‘fashion’!
Whilst research and learning have deepened my understanding of the clothing sector and creativity has helped me eke out my wardrobe and add some frivolity, pragmatism has played a key role in navigating the year: from choosing designs, materials and colours to tackling the many grey areas associated with sustainable clothing. A touch of pragmatism was particularly important in making workable choices that felt responsible but also looked… attractive.
For a final coupon update and thoughts on where I go from here, please check back at the start of 2014.
* Steph of The Inelegant Horserider, a fellow Wartime Wardrobe Challenge blogger, has been looking into the ethical and environmental credentials of sportswear. Here is her instalment on Ronhill, a British running clothes brand that features in the wardrobe of many distance runners in this country.
** Photo courtesy of Nancy Dee.