It has been a quiet couple of months sartorially speaking. As recently I have spent a lot of time gardening, tackling DIY jobs and running, my wardrobe has revolved around a battered old denim skirt and Mr M’s defunct city shirts or my mismatched selection of Lycra. And when I ventured out to meet people, I donned my existing cotton and linen skirts and shifts. We may have just experienced a few blazingly hot weeks but as the British summer is notoriously short and precarious, I see little point in investing in an extensive summer wardrobe at the best of times. And certainly not when I am rationing new purchases!
That said, I have invested in a few new items, all of which will see at least nine months’ service per year and illustrate some of the practical and psychological challenges of living on a strict ration: two pairs of socks, the yarn for a scarf and a dress.
Needs versus wants
Self-imposed clothes rationing forces me to distinguish between needs and wants, as well as consider the real meaning of need. This process has been a little disarming. Not because I am particularly profligate at the best of times but as I have the luxury of being able to explore this distinction, it is obvious that there are very few additional things I truly need, unlike those living on or below the poverty line.
It is, of course, very easy to persuade ourselves that something is necessary, rather than desirable (even without the omnipresent advertising industry). What is more, there are sound reasons why distinguishing between needs and wants, or rather the continuum from bare essentials to superfluous desires, is complex. We are social animals with what Maslow called a “Hierarchy of Needs”. Once our physiological needs are met and we have achieved a basic level of security, we need a sense of belonging as well as self-esteem and respect, and clothes can and do play some role in meeting these needs. I am not talking about the extremes, like the latest bag to be considered cool or a new frock for every event, but simple things like a sturdy pair of shoes for allotment work or country walks when visiting my sister, a smart outfit for interviews or meetings…
In the context of this year of rationing, I am prioritising replacements of essentials (like underwear) and basic staples but am also allowing myself to indulge sensible aesthetics where possible. In practice, this means most of my acquisitions are very practical, like the two pairs of running socks I bough this months. Dull as this purchase was, I had no qualms about it as I finally relegated three pairs of 8-year old, de-elasticated, threadbare, paper thin socks to the compost heap.
Rationing has not only made me think about the relative necessity of each potential purchase individually; I am aware that I am also considering what needs are likely to arise in the coming months so I can reserve enough coupons for them. For example, it is touch and go whether my running shoes will limp on till December and many of my knickers have started to reach the end of their useful life. I therefore reckon I shall need to reserve about 11 or 14 coupons for such mundane items.
Frivolity and treats
To meet higher Maslowian needs we also need to feel presentable, confident, attractive… Whilst frivolous unconsidered purchases are out on rationing, that does not mean there is no scope for treats that help achieve those psychological and aesthetic considerations.
In some ways, really thinking about how much I shall use an item means I am only buying clothes that work for me, my body and my life. No “maybe one day I shall really be able to fit into them properly” trousers or impractical silk dresses. Instead, I am prioritising well cut items made from good quality cloth, in attractive colours that I know I shall wear often and will make me feel good on a regular basis. Like the dress to I bought to replace my faded black wrap dress. As it is in the same style as another dress of mine (but a completely different colour), I know I shall get a lot of wear out of it. **
Thanks to my knitting skills I am also able to inject a little frivolity in my wardrobe despite this challenge. As cloth and yarn need to be paid for in coupons just like ready-to-wear items, I have had to slow my pace of knitting. This year, therefore, I am focussing on sumptuous yarns and more intricate patterns, like in the scarf I finished in June (just before the heatwave hit!). It may have taken me three times as long as normal but the end product is a beautiful scarf with a vintage shell-like pattern, knitted with gorgeous organic wool in a wonderful mix of blue, green and brown. It is the complete antidote to a frivolous purchase. Rather, I see it as an item that combines practicality with whimsy and turns a mundane item into a real treat!
A frivolous afterthought
I have found another way to inject some frivolity in this year of rationing, taking inspiration from my wartime peers. During the war women still made every effort to look glamourous, leading to some homegrown solutions when make-up was scarce.
Now I have never been one for the overpainted look and fortunately I do not need to resort to beetroot juice on my lips but I have found myself using make-up more regularly this year. As this Wartime Wardrobe Challenge is about considering and limiting resource consumption, I have not rushed out to buy loads of cosmetics though. Instead I am blending my eye and lip products more to make the most of my capsule wardrobe.
Under my “replacement only” policy, I am allowed to replace an eye shadow that accidentally fell into the litter tray. I could have wept when a particularly useful shade – which doubled up as a blusher – crumbled in Dante’s loo. To prevent any further accidental waste I have created a little luxurious make-up corner on my chest of drawers. I have even treated myself to a magnifying mirror so my “precious” cosmetics no longer need to venture into the bathroom.
* Taken from Wikimedia Commons
** I have not included a picture of my new frock at this stage, as the ecological considerations that went into it merit a post to themselves.
The two coupons for socks, two for the scarf and seven for the dress bring my total coupon spend to of 31.5, just under half my allowance.
Overall I have saved 32 coupons by making do and mending, including partly unpicking and re-knitting a jumper that was not working for me, and have saved a further 5.5 coupons by making two bras from scratch.
I have bought eight items this year (two T-shirts, a bra, a pair of woollen stockings, a slip, two pairs of socks and a dress) as well as the yarn for a scarf.
In total I have spent £174 on these new purchases, which is about one third of the annual clothing budget cited in Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research into the Minimum Income Standard, i.e. the minimum needed in the UK for a “socially acceptable life”.
Admittedly I am not going to win any prizes for elegance in my gardening, DIY or running apparel but at other times I have not looked tatty or unkempt for maximising the wardrobe I have. In fact, I doubt friends not reading this blog would spot any difference.
The self-imposed restrictions (quantity, environmental credentials and ethical considerations) have definitely made me more creative about meeting as many of my needs myself. It has also crystallised what trade-offs I am and am not prepared to make, fuelling creative solutions further.
Midway through the year with just over half my coupon allowance left, I have also found myself thinking not just about how to budget wisely to accommodate “cold and damp busting” clothes for the remainder of the year but how I might cope with rationing for successive years – which was the reality in Great Britain from 1941 to 1949!