Four Years of Dressing with Less

Aug 27

The Story

August 9, 2010, just after noon. I must have stumbled across Courtney’s Minimalist Fashion Project post while eating lunch. I read it several times, thought about how I’d been longing to simplify my closet. I wanted a wardrobe in which everything fit all of me–my body, my style, my values.

I left a waffling comment:

I think I’m in. My fall / winter clothes are packed away, so I’ll have to go to the basement and see what I would want to keep for the project! I love this idea!

Boy, did I ever love it. October 1 will mark four years during which I’ve kept a minimalist closet. I’ve written about it for the Project 333 site, as well as here. I’ve persuaded IRL friends, Twitter pals,clients, and blog readers to give it a try. The initial reactions to the project are often the same: fascination, trepidation, sometimes a defensive “I don’t even wear 33 different items” (often recanted when the speaker goes back to her closet and counts), and sometimes “I don’t like the way my clothes look. How could I find 33 items I’d wear for three months?”

My response to all reactions is the same: give it a try. Just one round of it. Box up what you’re not wearing that round, and see what happens. You don’t have to give it all away, but I’m betting once you get hooked, you’ll give away a lot of those boxed clothes. And I’ll bet you’ll get a better sense of what does flatter you, and as you build your small wardrobe, you’ll be happier and happier with how you look each day.

Project 333 morphed into Project 52/52–ending on Sunday–and that morphed into Project Ethical Elegance.

I asked on Twitter and Facebook what folks want to know about dressing with a minimalish (yes, -ish!) wardrobe. Here are my responses to questions–please feel free to share your own experiences and questions in the comments.


How do you incorporate “outsiders” in your wardrobe–the occasional colors to brighten up the uniform? Since the 90s when I realized New Yorkers (most city women) wear black to hide dirt just as much as for its chic factor, I’ve been a devotee of black. During my early Project 333, I shifted to gray–I’m no longer a city dweller, and I wanted something ever-so-slightly off of the expected. Last year when I gave up dye and grew out my silver hair, I felt a strong need for color, and I turned to accessories for that bit of bright. Over the past four years, I’ve invested in an orange handbag, a chic pink scarf, a red DKNY cozy. I think hard about each accessory, try to imagine using it with every option in my closet. This spring, I got a ton of compliments when I carried my orange bag and wore m hot pink rain coat. Underneath? Gray sheath dress, fishnets, and gray Malibrans. Accessories are like the party-in-the-back part of a mullet!

Do you feel like you have enough options? I do! After almost four years, I’ve filled wardrobe gaps, found pieces that offer flexibility (check out the DKNY cozy linked above). Accessories (do I sound like a broken record?) help. I may only have two belts, but I have scarves that I also wear as belts. I may have gotten bored a few months ago, but it wasn’t the lack of options!

How do you keep from being stinky? This question really cracked me up, but I was assured it was serious. I rarely wear perfume, and I avoid smokers like the plague, so I don’t get too much environmental stink on my clothes. The first “term” of Project 333, my dryer was broken, and it was a chilly fall (read, not much outdoor clothesline action). I was pretty stingy about how often I washed clothes. I have plenty of undergarments to see me through a week without laundry, and unless I spill, I can wear my black pants, jeans, and skirts several times without washing. If you don’t have a washer/dryer at home, it’s easy enough to do a quick hand wash of that day’s clothes in the sink. Very few of my items require dry cleaning.  Most of the time, if I’m in a sweaty situation, I’m wearing my work out or cleaning clothes. Finally, I wear an apron at home, in the kitchen, when I’m working in my sketchbook, sometimes if I’m out in the yard with the dogs. That’s more to prevent stains than stink, I guess.

How do I deal with relatively inexpensive jewelry I don’t wear but was gifted to me? This can be a pickle, but I’ve used a few different approaches. First, I’ve shared with the folks who tend to buy me costume jewelry that I don’t need or want about my project before a gift-giving occasion. Another option is to see if you can create something you would love to wear out of the pieces. My talented bff Sara of Et Voila Design, for example, will take your unworn bijoux to create a stunning OOAK piece that will preserve the sweet intention behind the gift and let you enjoy it.

How do you deal with those deep-season items that are essential at the weather extremes, but not really used at any other time? I like to layer, which makes many of my warm weather pieces adaptable to cold weather. For instance, my Karina dresses are short-sleeved or sleeveless, making them perfect for summer. With a light cardi, they work in early fall and late spring. Add a heavier sweater, and I’m set for winter. Add tights or no, pull on boots or sandals: endlessly flexible. As far as heavy winter coats and boots? I streamline what I have, purchase with flexibility in mind, and accept that living in New England means I can’t do without cold-weather gear.

I get bored easily with my clothes, even now that I buy fairly nice clothes. Not designer, but well made clothes for work. Do you get bored? In nearly four years of dressing minimalishly, I’ve only gotten bored once, about halfway through 52/52. I love the challenge of styling what I have in new ways (and since tights don’t count, I’ve amused myself by building a small, funky collection). Accessories, selected with care and an eye to edginess, help a lot. Project 333 is great because it only lasts three months, and I don’t know about you, but I can do almost anything for three months. At the end of each three month session, I refined my closet. I thought about what I’d been missing, what would have made me even happier when I got dressed. And then I made those very specific purchases (I’m looking at you, hot pink pleated rain coat!).

How do I get my husband to throw out stuff he hasn’t worn since college? Courtney wrote a terrific post on how to live with family who aren’t participating in your changes. When Neal saw how easy my refined wardrobe made my life, how having an emptier closet brought me more ease, he made some changes to his own closet. 

What do you do when you look into the closet and you hate every single thing in there? I suck it up. It’s only happened one or two times, and it’s usually just my bad attitude that I have to smack back to its cave. By considering what makes me feel good (for me, that means well put together, like if Cary Grant suddenly stepped out of a movie and asked me to go for a drink, I wouldn’t be ashamed of how I look), what flatters me, and what is aesthetically pleasing to me, and investing in those pieces over time, I’ve made it easier to love my closet every day.

I still struggle with balancing a work vs weekend wardrobe…suggestions? Working as a professor makes this a little easier for me than if I worked in a company requiring a more corporate dress code. I don’t dress much differently on the weekends than I do for work. During the summer, I wear dresses or skirts and a tank top or t-shirt. I have work out and cleaning clothes that don’t count towards my 33 or 52 items. I love wearing my black slacks, a tank, and cardi to work with Fluevog Malibrans, and with my Ugg sneakers on the weekend. I have a few dresses that I’d never wear on the weekend, but most of the items, by changing out accessories, are great for running errands, visiting, or even hanging on my porch, writing or drawing. Honestly, I like feeling well put together when I pick up my CSA share!


If you’d like to start Project 333 (you can start any time; there’s no reason to wait), but you’re feeling a little anxious about cutting down the wardrobe, I recommend you start with Courtney Carver’s excellent Micro-Course Dress with Less: Click here to view more details.* The course is a week-long, and it includes pdf worksheets, playlists to inspire you (Courtney’s a real Mix Master), and access to a private FaceBook group, where you’ll find lots of people ready to cheer for you and answer questions.

And if you have any questions about paring down your wardrobe, well, I’m here for you. I’d love to chat with you about your clothing list-sometimes it helps to hear that you really can get by with one pair of black pants!

Are you intrigued? What’s holding you back?

 *Please note: I am an affiliate for this program. I believe with all of my heart in Courtney’s work. Almost four years in, I know her advice works!


  1. I didn’t join any of the programs, but I have winnowed my wardrobe down and continue to do so. Black and gray are my staples. I’ve been looking for interesting, well made accessories and I’m intrigued by Cozy. Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring posts on this subject.

  2. What bugs me is when a color/style disappears from earth. I had a great pair of grey Jones NY jeans. I lost weight and they had to go. Can I find a pair of greay jeans that fit? (not skinny, don’t like them on me) Nowhere. I know, not a huge issue, but when grey is your staple…waaahh

    • Terri T /

      This is me. My lightest blue jeans developed a hole in an inaspropriate location. I love now that I actually wear clothes out but now ai can’t find light jeans anywhere. Just dark blue and gray. I considered the gray until I realized they were all skinny. I’m with you in that one.

  3. Love it! I’m so proud of you for continuing to do this and remind us that personal style does not have to suffer just because there is less in the closet.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed watching the evolution of this project. And the Q&A is both helpful and insightful. I’m not tempted to try something like this myself, but I do find that I think harder about my clothing choices …. and I’m a lot pickier now about fit, function and quality than I ever used to be. Thank you for the inspiration!

  5. As you know, I’ve entertained this idea several times the last 3 years. My excuse at the time was that I had just cleared out my entire house and rid myself of most everything I owned. I couldn’t possibly reduce my wardrobe, I needed every-single-item for comfort, options. But I..think, I think I’m ready! Can you come help me? This is a great post for those who are overwhelmed about how to go about it. Merci!

  6. I first read about project 333 on your blog earlier this year. It really struck a chord, and I did take Courtney’s mini-course. While I haven’t taken the full 333 plunge yet, I’m working toward it. Thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughtful approach to how it works for you. You’ve inspired me to just keep whittling away. (And that Cozy looks ideal!)

  7. I loved reading this! I’m nearly done with my first go at P333 (after putting it off for months), and I absolutely love it.

    Also, that DKNY cozy looks like the best thing ever invented.


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