How I Found Closet Serenity (a.k.a. My Project 333 Experiment)

The following is a guest post from Sybil, a longtime reader of this blog.   After retiring at 60, Sybil transitioned to a self-employed consulting role, no longer going into an office every day.  That change opened her up to addressing her problem of over-shopping and she embarked on a Project 333 challenge – and she learned a lot! 

If you would like to be profiled in an upcoming installment of the “Stories of Recoveryseries (you can be anonymous if desired), please connect with me to share your thoughts.


Early in 2016, I decided to challenge myself with a modified Project 333 exercise – selecting 33 items of clothing and wearing only those pieces (accessories not included in count) for three months.  Those who know me well laughed at my plan.  I’m not exactly known for setting limits on myself.  But, remarkably, not only did I succeed, I reached a turning point in managing my wardrobe.  And, most surprising, the emotional payoff was significant.

Sybil's Project 333 Capsule Wardrobe

This was Sybil’s Project 333 capsule wardrobe earlier this year. 

About Me, My Life, and My Wardrobe

I’m a semi-retired professional in my early 60’s with a history of loving clothes, buying with abandon (when I could – and couldn’t – afford it), and “never wearing anything twice” according to urban legend.  I worked – and now consult – in fairly buttoned-down corporate environments.  Most days I’m in a home office, but want to look reasonably competent when I go to client offices.

My life also includes lots of outdoor activities, including hiking, running, swimming, and gardening.  I travel for work and pleasure, so I need practical, sophisticated, packable pieces.  And I have a yet another identity as a child of the 60’s, indulging in Boho looks to go to concerts and art galleries with my husband.

It was a struggle to blend all of this into a cohesive wardrobe.  I had accumulated separate collections for each persona, and there was always an excuse to buy more to bridge the dissonance in my closet.

I was overwhelmed by choice every day.  Standing in my walk-in closets (of course, there were two, packed wall-to-wall), I couldn’t make decisions.  I always had the sense of not quite hitting the mark of what I wanted to portray.  Vague dissatisfaction was my normal state.  I wandered through stores looking for magical garments that would make me younger, hipper, slimmer, smarter, BETTER.

That’s a lot to ask of clothing, isn’t it?

Drawing Parallels with Food Issues

In desperate frustration, I decided to take action, remembering a structure that had worked for me in younger years, when I fought food obsession and compulsive overeating.  To manage that obstacle in my life, I embarked on a disciplined, restrictive, externally accountable plan, one day at a time.

There’s a lot of research that shows the connection between compulsive shopping and food disorders, so I won’t belabor this theory too much.  (Geneen Roth’s “Women Food and God” was pivotal in my understanding of this connection.)  In my 20’s and 30’s, I battled a food disorder, alternating compulsive overeating with diets, fasting, and purging.  I found recovery through a 12-step program that required me to plan my meals, weigh and measure my food, and report to a sponsor daily.

Over time (many, many months), I was able to move past making food the focus of my life.   Even then, I recognized that I practiced the same binge-purge behavior in my shopping – buying to excess, returning/discarding when the guilt and depression hit me, lather-rinse-repeat.  But it wasn’t something I wanted to deal with in my busy life.  It didn’t threaten me like food did, and it was socially acceptable to be a “clothes-horse.”

Increased Issues with Shopping…

As my career progressed, my attention to clothing grew.   It became more affordable and I was admired by others – a sure path to compulsion, considering my need for continual validation and reassurance of my worth.  I collected clothes, wore many items only once (or not at all), bought multiples of anything I liked, jumped on board  “must-have” trends, and constantly compared myself to everyone around me.

But even all that effort wasn’t making me happy.  The feelings I had about my wardrobe were familiar to me:  frustration, disappointment in myself, loss of control, shame, fear.  When I “down-sized” my career, I became more uncertain about clothing than ever, missing daily feedback from my colleagues.  I realized I had absolutely no idea what I really wanted to wear, and my closet reflected that lack of definition.  I clearly needed to address this demon.

Enter Project 333

So, Project 333 was an appealing way to rein this in – structured, limited and accountable, much as I had addressed my food addiction.   I took a deep breath and committed publicly in Debbie’s Facebook community.

I spent days selecting my 33 items – it was a frightening prospect!  My anxiety about “not having enough” was proof that I was on the right path.   My mantras were as follows:

  • “You don’t have to do this; you NEED to do this!”
  • “It’s only 3 months, and you can change your mind anytime.”
  • “It’s just clothes; get a grip!”

Finally, I had a capsule in place that I could use for 90 days, using a black as my neutral, with blues, reds, and ivory as accent colors:

  • 9 bottoms (pants/skirts/jeans)
  • 15 tops
  • 6 cardigans
  • 2 vests
  • 1 dress

I insulated myself with my abundant collection of scarves, jewelry, shoes and bags (I didn’t have the guts to limit those – yet).  Here are a few of my “accessory bundles” in different color families:

Accessory Bundles 1 and 2

Accessory Bundles 3 and 4

I posted my Project 333 wardrobe in the Facebook group so I couldn’t waver and I committed to weekly reports to the group.  I also moved all the clothing I wouldn’t be using (whoa, there was a LOT of that!) to another closet.

As Project 333 Progressed…

Here’s what happened as my Project 333 experience got underway:

  • At first, I was euphoric about the open space in my closet. I would just stand there and gaze upon its simplicity with complete satisfaction and pride.
  • Then I panicked. What if I hadn’t chosen right?  What if the weather changed?  What if something was damaged, or stained, or didn’t fit well?  What if some event came up and I literally “had nothing to wear”?
  • I became dissatisfied with some clothes I thought I liked, as they weren’t the quality I wanted for things worn frequently. I was bored when I wore repeats.  I questioned my choices.
  • But some items became precious to me – my well-made black slacks, my favorite jeans, and my cranberry cardigan that seemed to add punch to everything I wore. I recognized what great choices those particular items had been, and made notes about what really worked well for me.
Cranberry cardigan stylings

Here are a few of the ways I styled by beloved cranberry cardigan. 

  • Then, about 3 weeks in, I hit the groove: my daily clothing decisions were effortless.  I became inordinately creative with accessories and color combinations, working with what I had and making what I had work.  I was enjoying my closet, proud of my ability to look put-together every day, and I was actually dressing BETTER.  The thoughtful process was paying off.
  • And finally… I saw that I had enough. I had more than enough.

The Aftermath of My Project 333 Experiment

At the end of the 90 days, I felt afraid and a little sad.  As I transferred summer clothes to my closet, I considered a second round of Project 333, but decided to take a break to internalize the lessons I’d learned.  I did a major closet clean out, using my new powers of discernment to let go of things that had been almost good enough, but really weren’t.

Although I had always been swift to get rid of things (and then promptly go out and buy more), this time the process was more of a selection exercise than a purge (to be followed by the inevitable binge).  I made a list of what I truly needed, just three replacements for items I had worn and enjoyed but had seen better days.  However, I didn’t feel compelled to replace those items right away, as I knew had enough.

Has my behavior changed long-term?  Yes, I think so, although I can still shop to soothe the emotional discomfort caused by fears of inadequacy, denial of aging, facing realities of life, and plain old boredom.  The difference is awareness and thoughtfulness.  I take a breath.  I think about what I have.  I wait to see if the urge passes.  I’m planning another stint of Project 333 as I enter the fall (I find summer an easier time for managing my wardrobe, as the heat & humidity limit my choices through pure necessity).

A Ringing Endorsement!

My Post P333 wrap-up post on the Facebook page read as follows:

You guys cheered me on through my Project 333 experiment (not to mention my occasional ‘poor pitiful me’ posts about aging, weight, clothes not flattering, frustration with my need to shop, and other self-involved crises).  Project 333 definitely helped me turn a corner, and if anyone here is considering something similar, I recommend it – and will offer assistance getting started). Have I left behind compulsive shopping to meet my emotional needs? Oh, heck no! But I’m better – at least for the moment.

Other things that helped: I unsubscribed from fashion-blogs. I unsubscribed from store emails & offers. I stopped immediate ordering online, but saved things in my cart for 3 days before making decisions (and then seldom went through with the purchase). I used some of Debbie’s tips to “use what I have”: making myself wear items and decide then and there if they were keepers; turning hangers around to see what I actually was wearing; taking inventory frequently so I fully understand exactly how much I have.

I wear my accessories – every day. I get rid of duplicates, and only keep the ‘best.’ I’ve become far more selective about what I purchase, and that alone has kept me centered on what I’m REALLY doing.  I ask myself, ‘Am I buying something I love and will enjoy, or am I just numbing out?’ I have become more thoughtful about all of this. Once I started truly paying attention, I find I’m enjoying getting dressed more, enjoying what I have more, and enjoying NOT shopping more.  All of this began right here…..  Like they say, it’s a journey, not a destination.”

Conclusion

When I found Debbie’s blog a few years ago, her message immediately resonated with me.  It took me months to work up to this kind of challenge, but I’m so happy I did!  I’m grateful for the support and encouragement of a wonderful group of friends from the Facebook group.  Life is so much better on this side of the closet!

Sybil in some of her Project 333 items

Here’s Sybil wearing some of her Project 333 capsule wardrobe items.

A big thank you to Sybil for sharing her inspiring story with us!  If you have any thoughts or questions regarding Sybil’s story or would like to share your own Project 333 experience, please feel free to comment.  

If you’d like to learn more about Project 333, here’s a link to the rules of the challenge. I highly recommend the “Dress with Less” Microcourse for lots of assistance and support on getting started.  You may also be interested in reading about my Project 333 experiences from back in 2013 and 2014 (starting HERE and HERE), and you can read all of the “Recovering Shopaholic” posts related to Project 333 HERE.  


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Comments

  1. Sybil, thank you for this delightfully inspiring post. My story is similar to yours, and when I transitioned from my button-down corporate life and began working from home I found myself experiencing the same situation you were in. Truth to tell, I participated in Project 333 twice before I finally found my rhythm. Now, five years later my wardrobe is on the small side and works well for my current life. Yet like you, I find doing at least one round of Project 333 each year helpful. When I found Debbie’s blog back in 2013 her message immediately resonated with me, too. I dragged my feet for a few months before working up to the challenge living permanently with a much smaller wardrobe, but now I’m so happy I did! And I’m grateful for the support and encouragement from you, and from the wonderful group of End Closet Chaos commenters here, and friends on the ECC Facebook page. I agree, life is much better on this side of the closet! Again, thank you for this post.

  2. I loved reading about your experience, Sybil, and I like how you tweaked project 333 to fit your needs. It’s interesting how changes in the types of clothes we need – like with your job change – can trigger wardrobe anxiety. That’s certainly been true for me too. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you Murphy – I really did find myself at a loss as to how to dress for my new life, and was afraid I’d take it as another opportunity to shop. I want to be thoughtful about what I wear and what I buy – P333 helped me do much better with that~

  3. Great post! And great results from the challenge. I keep hoping that one of these days I’ll be *forced* to do P333…maybe a 3 month lease on a Tuscan villa with only a small free-standing wardrobe;-) Until then, it remains something I would like to do but just can’t seem to commit. 3 months seems like such a long time. I have done a 30×30 before and really enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll plan another one of those. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. I really enjoyed revisiting your journey. What especially resonates is the connection between food and clothing. So many women delay wardrobe gratification waiting on weight loss. Or, accumulate clothing for a size they aren’t.

    Your insights throughout it inspired me to try a capsule. It was a dismal failure for me personally. I learned from my failure and your success.

  5. Di Collins says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and progress. I loved following your progress and am so glad you found it such a positive experience. The first couple of weeks can feel strange but once you hit your stride you start to wonder if you will ever want a bulging closet to choose from again everyday. I know the answer for me was no. I will be following your next capsule and would love to hear how it goes also. And what a great post. Glad you decided to share.

    • Di, your ‘rotating capsule’ (which you posted here in your own story) was the concept that reassured me that I could do this – that the ‘rules’ were of my own making and for my own growth. You support means a lot to me – Thank you!

      • Di Collins says:

        I always knew you could do it and make it your own. Big hugs and continued support my friend.

  6. Inspiring! I love the cranberry cardigan. I can tell from the pictures that it’s very versatile.

    Question: Now that you’ve done the capsule experiment, have you noticed any merging of all your different types of looks (you had mentioned work, outdoor, travel, boho)? Or are you building separate capsules for each of these life activities?

    • Thanks Jane – yes, I am finding more consistency in what I wear – but mainly I don’t feel the need to have such an abundance of choice in each category. I haven’t built separate capsules (except an athletic wear/outdoor one) – my work wardrobe is all travel-friendly. Some things cross into different ‘moods’ – a casual/boho top can be worn with dress slacks to be work appropriate. I really have become more creative in styling things different ways – I rely more heavily on accessories, and find that keeps me from the ‘I need something new’ syndrome that got me into so much trouble. I also realized that absolutely no one notices if I wear something multiple times!

  7. What a wonderful article. So much of your story resonates with my life experience. I haven’t attempted P333 but have pared back to a capsule which has reduced my compulsive shopping. I find I now shop in a calm, measured & emotionally satisfying manner. The cranberry cardigan is lovely & I thought I’d share with you my story. I purchased a very similar cardigan but felt the colour overwhelmed me (light blonde with blue eyes & very fair skin). However when worn with a blush pink silk shell & accessories it has now become one of my favourite outfits!

    • Thanks Sharon! That cranberry color has been a revelation to me – I like red a lot, but that particular shade is ‘softer’ than what I typically wear, and I like it a lot. My coloring (since I’ve let my hair go grey) has changed, so I’ve had to adjust to that too~

  8. That’s a nicely written article.
    I get the impression you pared down from your large wardrobe, but that you aren’t, in daily life, still on the 333?

    I’ve noticed that when I’m on vacation with whatever I’ve packed in my bag, and I do check a bag, that I have fun with my wardrobe. It seems like a lack of choice sometimes opens up your options.

    • That’s right Ginger, I’m not a ‘permanent P333’ person, but will very likely do this again for Fall. I really liked the simplicity of knowing exactly what I had to work with. It was in fact packing for a number of week-long business trips that assured me I could pull this off. I spend a lot of time planning a travel wardrobe, and realized if I invested that kind of thought into my daily wardrobe, I could simplify and streamline…..

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