A small, sustainable wardrobe: special occasions

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

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I don’t know about you, but I only attend a handful of special occasions these days. This year, I have had to dress up for one christening, one fancy dress party, one 40th birthday bash and I have our Christmas party still to come. The days of all our friends getting married and naming babies are long gone. The days of endless university formal halls and May balls are even further in the past. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I went to a black tie do. I no longer need a selection of cocktail and floor length gowns.

Not that I ever had a particularly large one. I remember one ex-boyfriend commenting poisonously at a college ball about the fact that I was wearing that old thing again. The injustice of men being able to trot out the exact same tux time and again, while women are supposed to look different each and every function is not lost on me. Luckily I didn’t particularly care about such conventions then, and I don’t now. If you have a single outfit that you feel fabulous in, then wear it again and again. Getting all dressed up is for your benefit, not anyone else’s. You are not required to put on a show.

I have precisely one special occasion dress in my wardrobe. I made it out of some beautiful Thai silk that my dad brought back from a trip abroad. It is simple and strappy and almost backless and I adore it. If I need a dress in a hurry – and the last time I wore it I had exactly one day’s notice – I know I can slip it on. I keep all the things to go with it – sheer tights, for example – at the back of my drawer, and it is my beautiful, reliable fall-back option.

Having said that, I haven’t worn it once this year. When I knew that the christening was coming up, I timed the making of a new Sharpen Your Pencils dress to coincide with the date. Something smart and new is just as fun to don as something fancy. I just dressed it up with some gold jewellery, heels and a pashmina. It has been worn to work countless times since: not something I could have done with a sparklier frock.

The fancy dress party required an altogether different look, but the window of my local charity shop offered up the perfect second hand find, net petticoat and all. I happily be-bopped and oo-ooed my way through the backing vocals of a number of Elvis hits, fully intending to return it to the shop so that it could live to serve another party. (I say intending because my girls were not having any of it. They wanted to keep it to wear to their own parties, fancy dress or not. Needless to say, it has already had many more outings.)

The most fun, though, was dressing up for my friend’s 40th last weekend. Help! I wrote to my sister. Do you have a party dress I can borrow? She brought a little selection to our family gathering in Derbyshire and I picked out one I’d borrowed before: a gorgeous vintage-inspired frock in pink with a diamanté bow. I thought I’d just wear it with my rather clunky heels, until I remembered that another friend has the same small feet as me and a rather more extensive wardrobe. She duly turned up with a collection of heels and handbags, so I picked out a couple to finish the outfit off.

Why is it that dressing up in someone else’s things is so much more fun than wearing your own? It is like getting into costume. I have never in my life owned a pair of fake snakeskin shoes, but it was fun to be that person for a night. It was fun to wear a floaty pink dress and carry a boxy mock-croc bag. And it was fun to hand it all back again, knowing that it wasn’t going to sit reproachfully in my wardrobe for the next ten years.

The fact is that sharing is the way forward. In my experience, people aren’t precious about their things. Most people, myself included, just want things to be used. I’m always happy to lend stuff to others, particularly if it saves them from buying something that might be used just once. The sharing economy is something that we’ve heard a lot about it recent years, but it’s not new. It applies to so many areas of our lives: baby equipment, wedding veils, interview suits, a smart black dress for a funeral. Though not all are cause for celebration, these are all special occasions in that they are not (thank goodness) everyday. If you know someone who has what you need, just ask politely if you can borrow it. They might say yes, they might say no. I’ve never known anyone to say no, but I do have generous friends and family. Just be sure to make it clear that they can borrow from you, too.

The world’s resources are too stretched for us all to be buying a new frock for every occasion. There are far too many fancy dresses hanging, unworn, in our wardrobes. Of course there are companies from which you can hire designer dresses, and I would seriously consider using one of these if I needed to. But the truth is that I never have, because I’ve always been lent something lovelier.

So what can you do if you already have a wardrobe full of once-worn fancy frocks? You could pick your very favourite(s) and donate the rest to charity. You could put some up for sale. You could send an email to your friends, letting them know that they can borrow them in the party season ahead. You could organise a swap, where everyone brings and goes away with a complete and newly-configured formal outfit.

Given a conversation I had with my sister-in-law, who was highly amused by the thought of me dressed in gold, I’m not sure that my cocktail dress is going to get an outing this Christmas, either. I suspect a parcel of glittery loans will be landing on my doormat before long. I might keep an eye out at the charity shops for a pair of wear-them-once heels to buy and redonate. Sometimes the things we do for the sake of the planet can be onerous, but this is anything but. It might be a Yorkshire thing, but it’s a lot more fun borrowing and sourcing second-hand than flashing the plastic. I’m quite looking forward to the next time I get to dress up. I wonder who I’ll be?

Madeleine

Do you have a special occasion wardrobe that you rely on, or do you buy a new outfit every time? Or are you a borrower and a lender, like me? Let us know your solutions, because party season is on its way…

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