The 333 Challenge

Recently I was talking to a friend about things that I spend a lot of my time, energy, and in some cases even money on, but I don’t want people to know I spend a lot of my time, energy and in some cases money on: things like eating healthy and staying in shape, but also decluttering or minimalizing my possessions and practices like mindfulness or yoga. I think part of the reason I want to keep these pursuits on the down low is because I perceive stereotypes around them that I do not want to be associated with. Yes, I exercise, but I’m not a fitgirl and I definitely do not run a Pinterest page on Marie Kondo, even though I do sometimes watch her show on Netflix. I also think I experience a lot of pressure, in the seemingly transparent age of social media, to make things like healthy lifestyle choices appear effortless. And I also want you to think I am deep and intellectual and spend all my time reading Tolstoy or something rather than trying to decide which of my six million handbags truly sparks joy in me.

Yeah, handbags are important to me; get over it. Because that’s another thing: I fear a lot of prejudice around admitting that I spend a lot of time on my appearance, and that prejudice is gendered. I’m not saying you will, but I am afraid that you might think I’m shallow if I tell you about the amount of time and money I spend on clothing, accessories and my appearance. Furthermore, it is easier to pass off what I perceive as ‘shortcomings’ in my appearance as trivial if I give off the impression of not having given a lot of thought to my appearance in the first place. For more on the topic of the ‘shortcomings’ we perceive in ourselves, see also Sasha’s lovely article about body positivity.

So, considering all these anxieties I have, it’s not strange that I struggled a bit to write this article, even though its topic might seem light-hearted or playful at first. The topic of this article is The 333 Challenge.

You: What is the 333 Challenge?

Me: “Project 333™ is the minimalist fashion challenge that invites you to dress with 33 items or less for 3 months” (source)

You: What?

Me: Basically, you choose 33 items of clothing and commit to wearing no clothes but these for 3 months.

You: Why?

Me: That’s a good question. I think this article is probably about why I decided to do the 333 Challenge. First of all, it didn’t seem that hard.

You (probably): Sure. I just own about 20 items of clothing or so, I do this all the time.

Me (bashfully): I’d say 33 items is about ¼ of my wardrobe, 1/5 if you count accessories.

You: Jesus.

Yeah. So a big part of the reason I decided to do this challenge is because I want to make a sustained change in my lifestyle: I want to own fewer clothes, I want to buy fewer clothes, I want to keep the clothes I have for longer and I want to recycle. The main reason for this is environmental: I just found out that the average person in my country (the Netherlands) buys 20 items of clothing a year. By reducing that number to 17, you’d save about 57 kg of CO2 (source). But another big advantage of this lifestyle change is that I also think owning fewer clothes would be less stressful, as there wouldn’t be as many different things to choose from and there wouldn’t be such huge piles of laundry all the time.

So, I embarked on the challenge. In case you’re thinking of doing the same, or maybe just because you’re curious, I’ve outlined the basic rules for you here, although, of course, there are a few different versions. Every lifestyle blogger I’ve read emphasizes that the challenge is not supposed to be some gruesome hardship, so feel free to take these with a grain of salt.

  • You pick 33 items and commit to wearing no other items for a period of 3 months.
  • Underwear doesn’t count towards the 33 items, fortunately. I’ve personally taken this to mean that socks, tights and leggings don’t either, because I don’t care what you say, leggings are not pants.
  • Exercise clothes don’t count either, although not all bloggers agree on this point.
  • The challenge only applies to clothes you wear outside the house, so your pj’s, bathrobes and kinky sexwear don’t count either. Unless you wear that stuff outside of the house, I guess, but that’s your business.
  • Accessories do count, and this really proved to be the toughest part for me: your briefcase, handbags, backpacks, clutches, winter coat, raincoat and jackets all count. Scarves count. Your shoes also count towards the 33. Jewellery counts, too, with the exception of jewellery you wear every day, such as a wedding ring or watch.
  • The way I see it, anything you wear to pretty yourself up counts towards your 33 items.

On August 15th I put my items together. It wasn’t particularly hard, which was surprising. I already knew which items I wear a lot, which items I count as my ‘basics’ and favourites, and they all more or less seem to match each other. I agonized the longest over the bags. I just love bags, okay? I own a lot of them, I think they’re all very pretty and practical. I came to realize that I use a nice bag to jazz up an outfit a bit.

I am now approximately one month in. For the first few weeks, it was easy. Incredibly easy. I had put all my non-33 items away, so all I had to do in the morning was pull open my top drawer and there they were: my clothes. Choosing an outfit in the morning became a lot easier and more pleasant. I didn’t have to do laundry any more often than I usually would, because I was more or less wearing the same items I always am, just as often as usual. I just didn’t have to consider all those other items anymore, which saved time and mental space.

I also became more aware of what purpose clothes serve for me. The 33 items I selected were all comfortable ones. Colourful, but not overly so. They all more or less matched the same colour scheme, and they all made me feel nice. I don’t know a better word to describe it. Just nice. Like I was really….me. Some of the items in there are really basic, and I enjoy them for their basicness and flexibility, but others are more pronounced. There’s a t-shirt I bought when I saw Hamilton at the West End, which makes me happy because it reminds me of that time. There is also a dress with a pattern of polar bears and penguins, which I think really expresses my love of animals and overall attraction to cute things. This selection of clothing gives me a strong sense of my personal style, if that’s the right word. The aim is obviously to not do any more shopping, but I do think I have gained a stronger sense of what kind of clothes to buy myself and what characteristics and qualities to pay attention to when I purchase something so I can avoid bad buys in the future.

But as the first month wore on, things became more difficult. Especially as the weather is now colder, I began to long for sweaters and scarves that were not part of my 33. I had accounted for the change in the weather in my initial selection, but I had not accounted for my emotional attachment to some of the wintery items I had disregarded. That’s okay though; the ones that just pop into my mind unwarranted now and then are definitely things I’ll keep, and I’ll be excited to revisit them once November 15th rolls around.

The rest of my clothes though? Not so much. I am getting rid of so many clothes at the end of this challenge, maybe even sooner. Ask yourself this: how many items in your wardrobe do you automatically dismiss? How many things are in there that would never be your first pick for an outfit, or even your second or third? In my case, the answer is: a lot. And getting rid of clothes you don’t like feels good.

Full disclosure: I did cheat a bit last weekend. I had the flu and I was totally not up for doing laundry so I went out in a t-shirt that was not part of the 33. Then Monday, when I was actually completely healthy again, I wore a dress that was also not part of my 33, but it’s such a nice dress and I had a great time wearing it. I don’t feel bad about it, either. I think the 333 challenge has really helped me think more about how and why I select clothes and what I use them for, and these insights will help me buy less in the future, even if maybe I’ll let the challenge come to an end prematurely. I now have a stronger feeling of which items I really enjoy, and there might be more than 33 items on that list, but there certainly aren’t as many as I own.

If I do decide to end the challenge before the three months are over, I can show off the new bag I just bought. I’m so excited for it to arrive. It was second hand, though, so that’s okay.

PS: The thing about just buying a new bag is totally true. The reason I decided to mention it here, even though it makes me slightly uncomfortable to admit to buying another bag, and even though I worry it undercuts the entire (anti-consumerist) point of this article, is because I think a big part of the reason I don’t want people to associate me with certain lifestyle choices is because I worry there is a certain dogmatism attached to these choices. I worry people will say: “So if you’re trying to eat healthy why are you still eating gluten/lactose/carbs/whatever else?” I worry that if I mention I want to do something about climate change people will point to me not being a vegan and call me a hypocrite. I worried about that with this article too. But I also very much do not want to care what people call me. And here’s what’s more important: people who insist on dogmatism are wrong. Every little bit helps. Every time you exercise, every time you eat something healthy or don’t eat something unhealthy, every time you make a decision based on how it will impact the climate, no matter how small that decision is, no matter whether it is consistent with your overall behaviour, you’re doing a good thing. You don’t have to be a perfect minimalist to do the 333 challenge and be ‘allowed’ to blog about it. You don’t even have to finish it to blog about it. Just think about things. Try. You don’t have to be perfect all the time.

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