Further reflections on needs and wants

December 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Wartime Wardrobe Challenge

I’ve written before about how rationing forces me to distinguish between needs and wants but as the second year of my clothes rationing experiment draws to a close, I am gaining new perspectives on both.

Waning wants

I have not bought a skirt (or pair of trousers for that matter) in over four years. I could quite easily justify a new one. As I’ve been wearing my two staples pretty much continuously for the last few years, they will probably need replacing before too long. The denim skirt may struggle on for another year before the seams perish; my black corduroy one will hopefully last two more (if I get it relined).

Why have I not modestly splashed out on a new skirt or pair of trousers for so long? Is it due to the rationing? In a way, yes, but not in the coupon counting sense. I have not bought a new one of either as I simply haven’t seen anything that I liked enough to tempt me, so why waste coupons?

Mulling it over, I’ve realised that rationing has not necessarily dissolved the desire for certain garments but it has certainly eroded my longing for most of the currently available incarnations. In many ways, this clothing experiment has changed my baseline. Much like I have lost the taste for nuts and ice cream due to lethal allergy and a mild intolerance, the desire for many colours, shapes, fabric… has evaporated entirely.

Rethinking needs

If wants are fading, where do I stand on needs? Obviously, in its narrowest meaning, needs cover the clothes on my back and a change of clothes in the wardrobe but that extreme was never the intention of wartime rationing and neither is it mine. I’m thinking of needs in terms of enough to be pleasantly comfortable.

So how am I getting on with balancing my needs with rationing, particularly as stock starts to wear out. This year, quite a few undergarments, socks and stockings have given up the ghost as elastic has perished or darns have worn through again. More items are threatening to go the same way. The leather on my long winter boots is perilously thin; there’s the denim skirt that’s on its last legs; and my black trousers are clinging on thanks to some strategically placed iron-on fabric.

On that basis, I can definitely justify some new undies, a skirt or pair of trousers and new boots. Despite this list of ‘needs’ I have actually struggled to spend all my coupons this year, not least of all because I can’t find any staples that I like enough to consider, let alone that pass muster in terms of quality, environmental and ethical considerations.

I suspect my wartime peers did not have the luxury of being this picky about style and colour due the level of shortages and the likelihood of the coupon allowance being slashed in subsequent years – by 1945 resources were so short that it had shrunk to a paltry 24 coupons! With such constraints, I imagine people thought of all purchases as essential stock (rather than in terms of needs or wants), stocking up when they could and making do with colours and shapes that may not have been their first choice before the war.

Although I am still fussy about the shape and colours of my outerwear (even though it really should not be a problem to find a classic pair of side-zipped wide legged black trousers!), I too increasingly regard clothes shopping as sensible acts of stock replenishment, with a bit of frivolity once in a blue moon. Quite a healthy view and a very satisfactory outcome from two years of rationing!

This ‘information’ film is unconnected to this post but I’m quite amused at the lengths wartime ladies could go to make the most of one dress. I suspect the tailored cut helps!


Coupon update

So what have I actually spent coupons on in recent months? Restocking accounted for most of my remaining purchases: undies (4 coupons), leggings that function as tights (2 coupons), cosy homemade socks (1 coupon), a sensible, dark, warm cardigan (still on my knitting needles but accounting for 5 coupons).

A new scarf/shawl accounts for a further two. This is unashamedly an indulgence as I have several already but due to my chilly disposition and its warmth and ability to transform wardrobe staples, it is one I have no qualms about allowing myself.

Total coupons spent in 2014: 56.5 coupons

So with only a few more weeks of the year left, I still have 9.5 coupons, enough for a pair of trousers – should I spot those elusive classics – and a bra or a pair of boots – if I find any that I like and are comfortable -, a bra and another pair of socks.

I also managed to avoid purchases by my ongoing make do and mend efforts – or make, do and mend, as Jackie, a fellow ‘rationee’, has redubbed it. Darning the darns on two pairs of socks saved two coupons and a T-shirt from a charity shop a further five. I’m also working on a pair of multi-coloured stripey fingertip-less gloves, using up odds and ends of skeins (2 coupons). They’ll hardly be the height of elegance but they’re only intended for use around the house to keep my hands warm whilst I work on the computer.

Total coupons saved by making, doing and mending: 22.5 coupons


Choice and identity

September 15, 2014 § 10 Comments

Wartime Wardrobe Challenge

We’re over halfway through the year so an update on my second year of the Wardrobe Wartime Challenge is long overdue. In the last five months there has been some making from scratch, some making do, a bout of rigorous moth control and, yes, even a few new purchases. All have been focussed on maintenance and replenishment and all have reinforced my views about the modern obsession with choice, or rather the fallacy of choice.

Readers of this blog may have realised that I talk about clothes and wardrobe but never fashion. There is a reason for this. Fashion has a lot to do with economics and a little to do with our desire for identity but nothing to do with keeping ourselves clothed and even less with us feeling truly good about how we look.

The fashion industry, like so much of our growth-based economy, is driven by the need to keep the consumer engine turning, whether we need new products or not. Every season, or nowadays every few weeks, retailers churn out another garment only slightly different from previous ones to induce us to keep buying. Nobody seems to bat an eyelid at minor variations on a theme being heralded as the latest must-have products. Questioning this is almost heresy in an age of supposedly endless consumer choice!

Self-imposed rationing, however, highlights how little choice we actually have or rather where our real choices lie.

The only way wardrobe rationing works over a prolonged period is by knowing your style, building a capsule wardrobe around quality products and satisfying the occasional whim by making your own or trawling through second hand shops. All of this involves choices but not the type that retailers claim we have.

On the one hand, it very soon becomes obvious that for all the frocks, trousers or shoes on offer, what I’m really looking for is not actually available as it is not ‘on trend’ this particular season. On the other hand, I have the choice to ignore the ephemeral styles that will not work with my capsule wardrobe, avoid poor quality products made in questionable conditions and decide where to spend my money. I have this luxury not because of my budget – currently very limited – but because I know what works for me and how to meet my needs and wants in other ways.

In the last few months, despite retailers offering endless lines of new clothes, I chose to buy quality yarn to knit my own ‘warm(ish) weather’ cardigan, this being the only way to replace a worn-out staple with something that works for me and meets my ethical and environmental criteria. Similarly, I chose not to buy a new pair of sensible city shoes. Instead I gave my custom to an independent cobbler so he could extend the life of my black lace-ups with a new heel and sole. And I chose to ignore cute transients styles and prints and instead bought a simple black jersey wrap dress to replace the one I’d worn to shreds, confident that this staple will create various outfits for many years.

As it takes me month to wear shoes in, re-shodding them makes more than environmental sense!

As it takes my feet months to wear shoes in, re-shodding them makes sense all round!

At no point has ignoring the endless onslaught of products felt like deprivation. Neither do I feel that my identity is undermined by not having the latest ‘en vogue’ or must-have garment.

Instead I enjoy not wasting my money on poorly constructed clothes and take delight in every moment that I don’t spend tramping around shops, picking over clothes rails or wondering what to wear in the morning. Of course, I have to devote some time (and money) to maintaining a smaller wardrobe but avoiding the fashion treadmill means I have time and pennies to invest in me and my real identity. In my case, that of a wife, gardener, cook, runner, tinkerer and maker of things, perpetual student and, of course, writer,… which brings me to some exciting news.

This summer my interest in writing and sustainable wardrobes resulted in my clothes rationing experiment being featured in Pretty Nostalgic. As the magazine’s motto is “spend wisely, waste less, appreciate more”, I am delighted that the editor of Pretty Nostalgic decided to feature the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge, and in the Goodwood Special Edition* in particular. It feels like this clothes rationing experiment has been given the perfect platform from which to inspire many others!

Wartime Wardrobe Challenge in Pretty Nostalgic IMG_0779


Coupon update

Apart from the wrap dress (7 coupons) and a handmade cardigan (2.5 coupons), I also invested in a new pair of winter boots (5 coupons) and some underwear and hoisery (7 coupons). I nearly didn’t buy the tights due to poor customer service and ended up going to another, more helpful branch.

In the summer I replaced old sandals with a pair of clogs, which in line with wartime practice are coupon free. Repairing my autumn/smart shoes avoided a new pair (5 coupons) as did unravelling a cardigan that had never really worked for me and re-using the yarn to knit a sweater (2.5 coupons). I also shortened the threadbare sleeves of an old nightie so it will last a few more years, avoiding the need for a new one (6 coupons).

Total coupons spent in 2014: 42.5 of 66
Total coupons saved by making do, mending and being a little bit ‘bloody minded’: 13.5

* Pretty Nostalgic is available online (as a subscription or as a single issue) or from selected independent bookshops in the UK.


Another quarter of rationing

March 22, 2014 § 5 Comments

In January I committed to keep going with the Wartime Wardrobe Challenge (with a few modifications). Another year of self-imposed rationing may seem like madness but I have experienced more upsides than hardships from living with a degree of restraint. Less choice and clutter certainly make life easier! Also, last year piqued my curiosity. British women put up with clothes rationing from 1941 to 1949! Although I do not intend to commit to an 8-year plan, I am interested in exploring what constitutes “enough” for a good life for a little longer.

Minor modifications

Based on last year’s experience I have made a few tweaks to the project. As modern knickers involve considerably less fabric than capacious wartime ones, I shall equate three pairs of smalls to one pair of camiknickers (4 coupons).

I have also made a reluctant decision about knitwear. Last year I found it harder to limit the amount I knitted than the number of clothes I bought. I enjoy knitting: it relaxes me and is part of what makes up my ‘good life’! And like sewing, it is allows me to take more control over the supply chain of my clothes. Therefore, and as knitting your own woollies is the opposite of fast fashion, I have decided to discount my own cardies and jumpers from five to three coupons, but only for the first three knits so this discount does not become a carte blanche for unbridled consumption.

I reckon these two tweaks bring me broadly into line with the allowance adopted by Alexandra and Malin, two Swedish sewers who have devised a similar challenge. They intentionally opted for 75 coupons as they wanted a challenge that is sustainable over several years.

Planning and double-duty

As I shall extend this challenge for a couple of years, planning will be even more important. With my glacial internal thermostat, I know that most of my ‘budget’ will go on winter/autumn clothes. And by sticking to flattering cuts, fabrics and colours, I already have a useful capsule wardrobe to work with. On this basis, I reckon I can allocate one quarter of my allowance to teeshirts and knits and another quarter to trousers/skirts/dresses to maximise my existing clothes. I shall use about a third of the coupons to replace underwear, stockings, shoes or coats (as necessary), leaving about 12 coupons per year for emergencies and frivolities.

Who needs ghastly neon yellow cycling clothes...?

Who needs ghastly neon yellow cycling clothes…?

Wherever possible I shall favour double-duty garments. As my style tends to smart but rarely dressy, I have always favoured clothes that can be dressed up or down (like black trousers or jersey dresses), but I shall increasingly be looking for ones that work for different activities. Like long-line yoga teeshirts that look stylish under a cardigan. Or my new raincoat, a waxed organic cotton affair in a daring mustard yellow. This shade would not normally be my first choice but as I am increasingly cycling rather than taking the bus or train, this coat ticks the ‘relatively smart’ as well as ‘visible’ box (and avoids me having to buy a hideous fluorescent cycling jacket).

Applying the updated coupon chart, I have spent nearly a third of my allowance in the first quarter, mostly due to the raincoat (11 coupons). A further ten coupons went on a long-sleeved yoga/smart teeshirt and a merino mid-layer running top that also looks cute over jeans, once washed of course!

Shifting focus

As I mentioned in my last Wartime Wardrobe Challenge post, for me the project was never about clothing per se. Clothes were just a good vehicle for starting a conversation about consumption, resource use, needs and wants… Like my fellow WWC deviser Nik, I am therefore delighted that other bloggers have taken up the baton, whether with formal projects or not, like Jackie over at Life during Wartime Challenge or Alexandra and Malin’s Sew for a Change.

Although I shall check in occasionally on the topic of clothes, I am widening my focus. After all, clothing only accounts for about eight per cent of an average UK household’s carbon footprint, compared to the big culprits: travel (27%), food (24%) and heating (13%).* Nevertheless, clothing is a good starting point and one that can segue into other areas. For example, did you know that wearing a thicker jumper (rather than turning up the thermostat) can be more effective at cutting greenhouse gas emissions than installing energy-efficient lightbulbs?!**


 *Druckman, A. and Jackson T. An exploration into the carbon footprint of UK households, RESOLVE Working Paper, University of Surrey, 2010.

**Druckman, Hartfree, Hirsh, Perren, Sustainable income standards: towards a greener minimum? Loughborough University, 2011.

Wartime Wardrobe Challenge: reflections and beyond

January 12, 2014 § 7 Comments


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).

And a touch of pragmatism

December 28, 2013 § Leave a comment


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.

This 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’.

Pragmatism: warm wool, V-neck and claret red

A pragmatic knit: warm wool, V-neck and claret red

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.

Nancy Dee's Vashty dress - a rare bamboo treat

Nancy Dee’s Vashty dress** – a rare bamboo treat

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.

* 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.

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