Sunday, November 26, 2017

I wore the same outfit in 30 combinations.

And nobody in the office gave a shit.

I daydream about the goal of having all my clothes, shoes, and accessories work seamlessly together. I call this ideal state closet nirvana: not having to think about what to wear and feeling absolutely secure in what I wear every day.

My visualizations of what I should own to achieve closet nirvana evolve over time, prompting me to buy a lot of stuff, return a lot of stuff, and give away a lot of stuff. I recognize the irony that none of these behaviors are nirvana-esque; it's probably my coping mechanism to make up for the other aspects of my life that seem more uncontrollable. Some people snort cocaine, I snort with horror when I read my bank statements.

Channeling Mark Zuckerberg and simply owning multiples of the same clothes would make reaching closet nirvana way easier, but there are several problems associated with this:

a) I enjoy variety too much to do that
b) I have not reached the stage of self-confidence where I can post a picture of myself wearing an outfit completely identical to what I wore in the previous picture on another day and truly believe that nobody will notice/care
c) It would be harder to tell whether I've worn one item more than another; I think about these things sometimes when I take out the first fork, spoon, and knife from the kitchen drawer, which were probably the same fork, spoon, and knife that I put back in the drawer the night before

Thus, I face seemingly paradoxical objectives of wanting to look different every day and yet wanting to eliminate any decision-making or uncertainty.

The way I see it, one way to bridge minimalism and variety is to stick with a few carefully selected items, but then owning them in multiple colors: eight of the same wool sweater, six of the same high-waisted pants, two pairs of boots in different shades of brown, identical necklaces in both silver and gold. (These are not hypothetical examples.) My consumerist personal struggles reach a new high in situations when it seems reasonable to own the same thing in every available color. For instance, the thought that goes into buying the aforementioned wool sweater in all eight colors is very different from the thought that goes into buying a new backpack when there are eight different designs. I obviously don't need eight backpacks. But if the wool sweater is the only top I'd want to wear all winter, owning eight wool sweaters doesn't seem so crazy.

The considerations that go into shopping for clothes don't end there. What about situations when it seems reasonable to own the same thing in every available color, but some colors don't look good? I struggle on this, too. I happen to like all eight colors that the wool sweater came in (thank you, Uniqlo), but what if I like only seven of the colors? What if the eighth color is objectively not bad at all, but is just slightly out of my color palette preferences?

What about situations when it seems reasonable to own the same thing in every available color and every color looks good, but the retailer is out of the right size in one of those colors? My urges to own a "complete" set of things heavily influence my thought processes, leading me to either suck it up and buy the whole set (usually in the case of a color I'm not crazy about) or deciding not to buy any of them (usually in the case of not having the right sizes).

I accidentally put one of those eight wool sweaters into the dryer and it shrunk. I felt very sad.

While I think most people have less extreme devotions to closet nirvana than I do, a known phenomenon in behavioral economics is that the number and presentation of options play a role in the choices we ultimately make.

And this is my way of setting up the story in which I wore the same outfit in 30 different color combinations.

I spent the summer after graduating from college contributing nothing to society. I hiked, biked, swam, gossiped, and repeatedly indulged in Stone Nullah Tavern's joyfully destructive happy hour deal of unlimited booze and unlimited fried chicken for $14.

The summer ended, and I began the current chapter of my life. I moved to a new state in a new part of the country to begin a new job. Aside from taxes, I still arguably contribute nothing to society. This new chapter has called for many life adjustments: learning to feed myself without relying on frozen dinners or brown bags on campus, waking up earlier than I was used to in the past four years, and interacting with a whole new circle of people.

Over the summer, one of the impending adjustments I thought about the most was that I would have to dress differently. I did four internships during my time at college, but did not have to purchase an entire wardrobe for any of them. Two of these internships had dress codes that were in theory business casual but in practice pretty relaxed, and the other two internships downright encouraged dressing casually. I was told, however, that people at my new workplace dress professionally.

I occasionally think about why/how society places value on dressing well, why/how these values change over time, and I occasionally feel angst about the ways societal pressure and class identities are tightly interwoven in the way we dress. That said, I decided that my first job out of college was not the place to air these rambling, tryhard philosophical grievances. So, I went shopping for work clothes. My mom came with me, which was fun because I usually make most of my purchasing decisions alone. She is unaware of my precise thoughts on closet nirvana, but I think she was weirded out by how strangely intense I got in stores.

As expected, I bought multiple of the same pants in different colors, multiple of the same top in different colors, and multiple of the same cardigan in different colors. I also bought a few suits and blazers.

I was/am ecstatic about the pants-top-cardigan combination because the outfit was/is really comfortable. Additionally, due to the number of offered colors and availability of sizes, my decisions about how many of each to get weren't hard. I immediately visualized a three-dimensional matrix displaying all 150 possible combinations (5 x 6 x 5) and figured it might be fun to intentionally wear a seemingly identical, but slightly different outfit every day for several months. They say I'm a real hit at parties. To achieve true closet nirvana, I ought to be fine with wearing every possible combination. In order to maximize variety while limiting the need for decision-making on a day-to-day basis, I planned to wear absolutely any combination I pulled out of my closet that morning as long as the matrix indicated that I had never worn it before.

I ultimately simplified my plan to just covering all 30 top-cardigan combinations (6 x 5) for two reasons. The first was that I didn't know how to neatly create a three-dimensional matrix on paper. I spent an undisclosed amount of time thinking about how to monitor my 150-day plan, and then realized how sad this sounded. Additionally, a shorter plan would give me a sense of accomplishment sooner. With that, I commenced my 30-day plan on my very first day of work in September.

The plan went off without a hitch during the first few days; my job requires some traveling, so I decided very early on that I would stick to the top-cardigan outfits only on days in the office, and wear a blazer or another kind of sweater when I was on the road, depending on the occasion.

(Slight digression: I also own the sweater I wear while traveling in every color. That did not come about easily. The online store was out of my size for two out of the seven colors, so I texted a friend who lives near this store and asked him to help me look for them. His search was unsuccessful and he probably now thinks I'm crazy. I called my mom, who lives on the other side of the world, and asked if she could do the same. Due to the wondrous nature of globalization, she also lives near this store. She found them in the right sizes and shipped them to me. This is what people mean when they talk about how only children are spoiled. But I have the sweater in all seven colors, so who's laughing now?)

Then the first hiccup happened on my fifth day of work. A coworker, eyeing my usual outfit, explained to me that the office practices Casual Friday. I was unprepared for this. Ultimately, I decided that upholding my strange, inflexible, neurotic, self-imposed plan was more important than any sense of community that could come out of dressing casually with my colleagues. And so, I forged on.

After every day spent in the office, I went home and took a picture of myself in the mirror near the front door. I also kept track of what I wore in an Excel spreadsheet.

Because of my travels, it took me ten weeks and one day to complete my matrix. I wore my 30th and final top-cardigan combination to the office last Monday.

1) Nobody noticed or cared that I wore the same outfit in 30 different color combinations and that I went over two months without repeating an outfit. This, I decided, was both bad and good. Nobody ever said, "oh, you look cute today!" and my self-esteem suffered a little. However, I got an odd sense of comfort from knowing that if I looked bad, at least I looked equally bad every day.

2) I thought someone might notice on the days when I wore a top and cardigan in the exact same color (which happened on four days), or on the days when the colors clashed in subtly unappealing ways (which happened on more than four days), but I think my coworkers had become truly desensitized to what I was wearing. The real moral of this story, of course, is that for better or for worse, other people generally don't pay as much attention to us as we think they will. I wouldn't have known if someone else in the office was also doing the same thing this whole time.

3) I think I successfully achieved closet nirvana with my 30-day plan: I spent very little time thinking about what to wear in the morning since I knew I had to wear every combination on the matrix sooner or later.

4) I would probably do the 30-day work outfit plan again, and I wondered if I should create clothing matrixes for other aspects of my life - like for working out or seeing friends. However, I realize that some external factors made this work outfit matrix so uniquely appealing:

  • I have to go to work and make a decision on what to wear every day
  • Expectations for what to wear are constant: the office is heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer, I have to look presentable, and I do not have to do anything physically strenuous while at work
  • I see the same people in the office every day

I think it would make less sense to create a clothing matrix in other situations where I do not have to make outfit decisions so regularly, where the occasion varies, and/or I do not have to see the same people every time. All this made me ask: How much of our outfit decision-making comes from how we think other people perceive us? How much do we care about what we wear when nobody else is around? Perhaps my understanding of closet nirvana can really be spelled out as something else: wanting to avoid any negative attention on my outfits while putting in as little effort as possible.

I casually brought up my little project to my supervisor (well, as casually as you can say, "hey, did you notice I wore the same outfit in 30 different color combinations over the past two months?") while we were on the road.

He blinked. A slight pause. "I'm not surprised."

"You're not surprised?"

"Yeah," he said. "You seem very structured about these things."

I didn't know what he meant by that, but honestly...whatever.