Wartime Wardrobe Challenge: reflections and beyond

January 12, 2014 § 7 Comments

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The Wartime Wardrobe Challenge is over. Did I make it through the year with my 66 clothing coupons?

Final tally

At the last count I had spent 42.5 coupons. An additional 15 went on the tops mentioned here.

Body shape could have seriously undone my efforts in the last quarter! Thanks to the miles of pavement pounded I have shed inches and shrunk out of my two pairs of black trousers and denim skirt. By the end of 2013 I was really glad I had not purged all the items in my ‘too small’ pile so I could fill some of the gaps! Of course, I did reward myself for the inch loss with a new purchase (a practical wrap dress in a heavy organic cotton jersey), bringing my total coupon spend to 64.5.

I had got through the year with an attractive, modestly sized but replenished capsule wardrobe, the occasional treat and even a token 1.5 coupons left. And then… by the third week of December another inch had come off my bust and I could no longer pretend my bras offered any support! I dug out an old one – my wedding bra actually – that sort of worked but urgently needed a properly fitting one for my shrinking bosom… And with this my credit turned into a deficit of 1.5 coupons!

Stretching my rations

I eked out my clothes thanks to a mix of patching, dyeing, using up off-cuts of fabric and leftover yarn and in the process avoided 40.5 coupons, but more importantly lots of virgin resources, energy and water.

Darning was already an established habit but last year I became über-diligent about it, fixing elbows and heels before they wore through. I even found myself doing something I had not done since I left school: fixing ladders and holes in my tights and stockings with needle and thread (rather than clear nail varnish).

Wartime advice proved quite handy

Wartime advice proved quite handy*

I also added re-knitting to my repertoire. Self-imposed constraint made me accept that some of my home knits were not really working for my needs or just did not suit me. So I set about unpicking the seams and back of one jumper, re-knitting it to change the design and seaming it up again. As a result it became an autumn staple rather than languishing at the back of the wardrobe. I went further with a cute black cardigan that looked great on paper but not on me. I unravelled it completely and I am currently reusing the yarn, a practice my wartime peers would definitely have recognised.

A question of cost?

Cost is a point I have not touched on to date. Was it (more) expensive to buy “environmentally considerate” and/or ethically made clothes?

As with food, our sense of “expensive” is partially influenced by our benchmarks. If a wardrobe is stocked with fast fashion from Primark, H&M…, it will be more expensive to buy low-impact garments or ones that afford workers across the supply chain a fair wage. If, however, you are used to investing in quality clothes, in many cases the “green/ethical premium” is only a few pounds, if that. In reality, I noticed very little difference in the price of T-shirts and dresses. Knickers, by contrast, worked out more pricey but this was due to them being stitched in London (not Bangladesh or Sri Lanka) rather than their organic cotton content!

Disposable income also determines what we consider to be expensive. As a student living off savings, limited funds certainly helped curb my consumption. Overall I spent just under £463 on clothes in 2013. This may sound like a vast sum to some but I was pleased it was well within the annual clothing budget cited in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard (i.e. just over £515 for a single adult in 2013).

This research organisation has calculated the minimum income needed in the UK to “achieve a socially acceptable standard of living”**, i.e. one that does not just meet our physical needs but also allows us to function as social creatures. JRF focusses on poverty eradication and therefore its report does not address ecological issues. However, as researchers often use expenditure in environmental input/output analyses to determine our carbon (and wider) footprint, I think JRF’s recommendations are a useful guide to finding a happy medium between a life cluttered with unnecessary, resource depleting stuff and a low-impact existence that is so restrictive it is devoid of joy.

Where next…?

For most of us it is completely feasible to limit how many new clothes (or any non-essentials) we buy for twelve months. After all, for many it is a fact of life without the luxury of choice. Making real in-roads in our environmental footprint, however, requires continuous monitoring and tempering of our resource consumption. I therefore intend to stick with rationing in 2014, possibly with a tweak or two, e.g. to reflect the difference between modern and wartime undies.

Buying less (new) stuff is of course only part of the story. Real sustainability also involves ethical considerations, some of which have received increased attention following the Rana Plaza factory collapse. And economic ones.

So, although I shall continue to buy fewer clothes and press retailers for details of their ethical practice (rather than policies), in 2014 I want to dig deeper into the ethics of “not buying” and ponder the economic and human impacts of moving away from the “business as usual” with model, as I doubt this model is sustainable, even with green and ethical tweaks. Of course, these questions will not be limited to garments. After all, my Wartime Wardrobe Challenge was never just about clothes…

***

* Taken from Make Do and Mend, first published by the Ministry of Information in 1943 and republished by the Imperial War Museum in 2007, p. 50.

** The MIS is based upon input from the public about what money is needed for a “socially acceptable standard of living” and as such reflects what we as a society think we should be aiming at as an acceptable minimum. The MIS currently advocated by the JRF is significantly higher than the income achievable based upon the UK minimum wage. It is actually closer to the voluntary living wage (outside of London).

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§ 7 Responses to Wartime Wardrobe Challenge: reflections and beyond

  • jackiemania says:

    Fascinating! I haven’t bought any new clothes in 10 months (and one thrifted dress a few moths ago). I have to look into how you have your coupon system set up — I would love to track my consumption in this way!

    Have you read Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson?

    http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/few-eggs-and-no-oranges.html

    I think you might like it if you haven’t read it already :)

    • The coupon system mirrored closely the regime introduced in the UK in 1941, not for nostalgic reasons but because that system was devised because of resource constraint.

      I’ve been experimenting with some of the other aspects of British wartime rationing too, just to see how easy it is to live well on less. E.g. Mr M has no idea that for the last 10 months we’ve been living on the wartime fat ration and pretty close to the meat allowance too ;)

      I have read Vere Hodgson’s book; I am a big fan of the little Persephone Book Shop in Holborn in general. It is a delightful place!

      Congratulations on your super thrifty wardrobe! I’d be intrigued to know what motivated you.

      • jackiemania says:

        Partially working at an art school and being in school (not only do both my work and school have a culture of non-consuming but making and being creative with what resources we have, but at work my salary is not very high!). Partially being raised by Depression-era grandparents who didn’t waste a thing, made everything from scratch, and repaired and maintained. I lived with them through half of college, and I think I was the only college student who had a little packed lunch from her grandmother each day!

        We went shopping at the local thrift store and then we’d tailor the clothing to fit. She’d cut my hair and stuff like that too — we were always putting eggs on our faces for masks and other simple things.

        When I needed a desk for schoolwork — my grandfather made it. When the trashcan lid broke, my grandfather made another. When my grandmother re-papered the kitchen and our table didn’t match, my grandfather made a new top for it.

        So — yes — I was raised with these values, and found my niche in the world with other people with these values. I always felt that art, literature, creativity, learning, and people were more important than money so I’ve had to use ways to live well on less seemingly forever!

        The environmental and social justice part has only come to play with me in the last decade I’d say. It’s impossible to ignore now. Sweatshops, scary chemicals, disposable everything — how it makes my heart hurt!

      • Similar scenario here. These values were instilled by parents who experienced 14 years of rationing during and after the war. Waste was just not a concept in my mother’s vocabulary. She, like my dad, were from a generation that was much more resourceful because it had no choice. I count myself very lucky that my parents not only passed on many of these practical skills but also the mindset of just rolling up your sleeves and learning what you needed to get a job done.

      • jackiemania says:

        I’ve joined your challenge, with a little twist!

        http://lifeduringwartimechallenge.wordpress.com/

  • Alexandra says:

    Hi!!!
    A couple of weeks ago I had correspondence with Nik regarding creating a new challenge, very much inspired by yours.

    Well, here it is! Hope you approve :-)

    http://sewyourboat.blogspot.se/2014/01/introducing-sew-for-change-2014.html

    Love reading your blog x

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