Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fashion on the Ration : A Year of Lessons

Last week marked the end of my Fashion on the Ration challenge, one year of living on the 1941 clothing ration in the UK, inspired by blogger Susannah of Cargo Cult Craft. I had 66 “coupons” to spend on new garments and had to thrift, sew or mend my way through the rest of the year.

Over the past year, there have been days I wished for the end. I dreamt of yards of silk, cashmere cardigans, even fast fashion. I desired reckless consumption, a way to itch the scratch of my newest obsessions (Blouses! Tiered skirts! Red shoes!). A lifetime of longing for stuff, bubbling up in my daily life.

Then late January rolled around and I barely noticed I was free from my self-imposed restriction. See, a year of going sparingly has taught me, well, to go sparingly. I was always aware that this challenge was a concoction, that no one would care if I succeeded or failed. In fact, the entire retail industry was set up to cushion me if I fell off the wagon.

And still, the change that occurred was personal: the way I view clothes, how they’re made, and the space they inhabit in my life. See Susannah’s excellent end-of-challenge post here.

Coupon Tally

So how did I do? I spent 52.5 coupons, with 13.5 left. Since this limited my new purchases, they really had to matter. (Coupon prices, if you're curious.)

6.25 yards of fabric
1 cardigan, gray
1 blouse, black and white
2 scarves
2 pairs: 1 pair black flats, 1 pair black riding boots
2 nude bras
1 pair gray sweater tights
3 knee-high socks

But did they really matter? Yes and no. I'd say only half of them are used. Best purchases: Nude bras and good quality black flats. I wear them both constantly.


There were times, especially during the summer, when I felt this challenge invited me into a different type of consumption. Sure, I wasn’t buying new things, but I was sewing and thrifting like a maniac.

Under the ration, second-hand clothes were allowed under a certain threshold. Susannah adds that “clothing is so incredibly cheap compared to clothing in the 1940s that you could easily stock a modern wardrobe with new clothing that didn’t exceed these price limits.” For those interested in changing garment prices, see the wonderful article, “The History of a Cheap Dress.”

Susannah was exactly right. Looking at the thresholds in today’s dollars, this would be no challenge at all. So as a goal, I aimed to only buy thrifted clothes that were 1/4 of the 1941 threshold (rounded). Both dollar amounts are listed below.

Common garments, price ($) threshold for second-hand
Winter coat 45 | 11
Jacket, blazer, short coat 20 | 5
Dress, wool 41 | 10
Dress, non-wool 26 | 7
Cardigan 20 | 5
Blouses, tees 15 | 4
Skirt 15 | 4
Slacks 19 | 5
Shorts 11 | 3
Pair of boots, shoes 15 | 4

Even with this restriction, I managed to buy A LOT of thrifted clothes that were less than the second number. It just goes to show you how much excess clothing is out there and how cheap you can get it. I only exceeded this goal three times: A vintage mod coat in rust ($14), a Michael Kors shift dress ($11) and a pair of Beautifeel nude t-straps ($7).

Thrifting, like the obsessive sewing, seemed to fulfill a need that was most pronounced after a death of a loved one. I just wanted to buy stuff. I wanted the new-to-me-ness. In hindsight, sewing or going to thrift shops was a way to channel my nervous energy from other stressors or distract me from grief. And of all the self-indulgent behaviors that I could’ve indulged in during such a tough time, I’m not going to begrudge myself this crutch.

But now in the new year, with a bit of healing behind me, I want to slow down. Less sewing, less shopping, more everything else. I have to remind myself that time is what I really value, not stuff.


Revisiting my intentions a year ago, I listed three main reasons why I wanted to embark on the challenge: I wanted to allow myself to buy more quality items, to explore personal style and to have some measure of financial accountability of my purchases. On all accounts—save what I mentioned above—I’d say I did well.

The thing that made the biggest difference, though, was having to constantly ask myself:
  • Do I really need this?
  • Will this serve me? 
  • If I get this, am I willing to pass on some future desire (since the coupons/money have been spent)?
This made me frequently put things back on the rack.

I also purged my closet regularly, increasingly wanting less, wanting to have only things I actually wear. This became particularly important with all the thrifting and sewing. Each purge made the next easier. I gave things to friends, sold them to consignment, donated them. Amazing how I don’t miss things once they’re gone, and how better I feel to have clothing in colors and silhouettes I adore.

And finally, I attained a lot of new skills. I took numerous pattern drafting classes, learned to copy ready-to-wear and knit. All of these things are so empowering. It’s sort of mind-boggling to think that I could make everything on my body except for shoes.

What’s next?

In Ali-fashion, I want to hurl myself into another challenge, but it’s probably best I just pause here and enjoy my lessons.

In fact, as my habits changed (as imposed by the challenge), these lessons on having and wasting less bled into the rest of my life. Today, I commute to work by bike, compost, and subscribe to a local farm. I’ve installed water- and heat-saving devices in my home and have started to wash my clothes by hand (mostly because I can’t be bothered to schlep to the laundromat). I made draft snakes for my windows out of scraps and produce bags out of an old curtain. I relish fresh beans from my pressure cooker and books on my e-reader. I long for a little plot to grow things in.

So, the challenge is over and I’m not going to run out and buy stuff.  Instead, it’s a beautiful day in Oakland. I might wake the boy, make a quiche, and whip up the Victory Patterns’ Lola dress with my sister-in-law later. Maybe I’ll walk on the marina and dream of adventures-to-come.

Happy sewing and happy Sunday, all.

1 comment:

  1. Girls fashion and their age are always inversely proportional. You have fantastic stuff on this blog that keep the girls young and beautiful with you fashion tips. Being a fashion artist I really appreciate your efforts and work.
    Love from Royal Lady