Thursday, July 27, 2006

Could you wear the same outfit every day for a year? (the Brown Dress Project)

This is so fascinating-- a woman named Alex Martin in Seattle wore the same little brown dress every day for a full year (through 7/7/06). This is how she describes it:

So, here's the deal - I made this dress and I wore it every day for a year. I made one small, personal attempt to confront consumerism by refusing to change my dress for 365 days.

In this performance, I challenged myself to reject the economic system that pushes over-consumption, and the bill of goods that has been sold, especially to women, about what makes a person good, attractive and interesting. Clothes are a big part of this image, and the expectation in time, effort, and financial investment is immense.

This project absolutely blows my mind. It's a combination of performance art (she's an artist/dancer/choreographer who designed and made the dress herself, and saw it as an art project both in ordinary daily life and through specific performances about it); a public statement to provoke thought on consumerism and materialism and simplicity, on feminism and fashion and superficiality, and the way those areas intersect; and a deeply personal experience. I really enjoyed reading her journal entries throughout the year. For example:

It's January, which means lots of "sale" racks around town. I noticed one beckoning from inside a store as I was waiting for the bus the other day. A big mash of sparkly stretchy things, hangers mashing up against each other in an appealing tangle, big paper signs telling me "$10 rack" "clearance". There I was, literally "killing time", waiting for the bus, and I felt so happy when I realized I was not responsible for going over to the "sale rack" and spending my time shopping.

It made me realize the strange relationship I have had, since maybe 6th grade or so, with the "sale rack". The word RESPONSIBLE keeps coming up. Almost like I am urgently responsible for shopping my way through it to be sure that there is nothing I want. If I don't take time to look, it's like I'm throwing away a vital opportunity.
Or how about this?
I have become really sensitized to our cultural slant towards giving "compliments" on each others' daily outfit. "Oh, I just love your (fill in the blank - bag, hair, shoes, socks, sweater, dress, earrings, jacket, bracelet, hat, scarf)" - and tragically often, this is the intro to a conversation about where the item in question was purchased, a perfect segue back into our place as consumers in this economy. These conversations are not out-and-out evil, but I do think they are a symptom of the insidious fashion culture that keep us, and here I mean ESPECIALLY girls/women/ladies, so ridiculously busy consuming. waxing, accessorizing, and beautifying to perfect our wardrobes and fashion alignments that we can't possibly find the time to accomplish anything more revolutionary or important.
My neighbor totally warmed my heart the other day, I've been telling quite a few people this story. He said "You know, I just saw you in your dress and I realized that I'm not going to buy the shiny new bicycle that I looked at today after all. I'm training for a triathlon and I thought I needed a new bike to go a little faster, but just seeing you right now made me realize that my old one will be just fine." I feel very honored.
I could quote her forever, but I'll just highly encourage you to go over there and read it yourself. (If you need more encouragement, there are cute kid pictures there too!)

What Alex did was obviously a dramatic and radical act, and probably most of us figure we could never do it just based on the reactions we'd get from others. But maybe those reactions wouldn't be as strong as we expect. From the MP Dunleavey article where I first learned about the project:
When Alex Martin started wearing her little brown dress day in and day out, "I expected to get a lot of flak," she says. To her surprise, few people even noticed. "We are all so concerned with our own lives and families and work and whatever we're doing, most people don't judge what you do," Martin says. "I think we need to give people the benefit of the doubt."
To me, that's a very important point. So often, we're reluctant to take steps we'd personally like to take because we worry about what other people think of us. It's pretty liberating to consider that if someone could wear the same outfit every day for a whole year and generally avoid notice, there are probably a ton of less dramatic things we could allow ourselves to pursue if we stopped worrying so much about the eyes of the world upon us, judging us. How many rules do we follow because "everyone else does/has it" or "that's just how things are" that we could step back from? How much time, money, and energy do we spend on things that we don't really need to?

I find the Brown Dress project utterly fascinating and thought-provoking, and I think it will keep provoking more of my thoughts for quite some time. What I'm personally taking from it right now is about questioning assumptions and "rules" and trends and expectations, and about finding ways to define yourself and make yourself happy that come from inside you instead of outside. Those are big important things that go much broader and deeper than personal finance, but I think they're also very applicable and important to our financial decisions as well, especially in the sense that "personal finance" isn't naturally isolated from the rest of our lives but instead it's all intimately and inextricably intertwined.

(By the way, after her one year ended on July 7th, Alex is pursuing a new approach to clothing: she'll wear a very pared-down "intentional wardrobe" she's designing and building herself out of reused materials. She kept most of her closetful of clothes throughout her brown-dress year, but is now donating bags and bags worth to Goodwill.)

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