Could you wear a dress for 100 days? | Fashion

Fashion

Could you wear the same thing for 100 days? I could, because I don’t care about clothes. I do not like how they look on me, a 46-year-old woman whose hobbies are cake and sitting still, so I stick to navy or green trousers in summer and black trousers in winter, coupled with plain tops and jumpers. I suppose that could be chic, or ingenious, a Zuckerberg-esque Silicon Valley hack, but it’s neither. It’s just a bit depressing.

Sometimes my best friend sends me links to clothes she likes – slinky silk dresses, pretty tops – and I say, “I can totally imagine you in that.” I can, but I can’t imagine myself in anything other than my tedious uniform. My ugly jumpers and toothpaste-stained trousers are “hate dressing” I fear, a widely reported pandemic phenomenon in which you wear things you do not even like as a sort of fabric protest against the general awfulness of everything.

So when my editor asks if I could wear the same dress every day for a month, or if it would be a terrible hardship, I tell her I’ll barely notice. Why not more? I suggest 40 days, a Lenten clothing Groundhog Day.

It’s based on the 100-day challenge devised by Wool&. The US brand is nine humans and a Bernese mountain dog based, perhaps inevitably, in hipster Portland, Oregon, producing simple, sustainably sourced merino wool dresses called things like Rowena, Ellie and Sierra. The basic idea is that women who wear the same dress for 100 days and document it with daily pictures get a voucher for a new one. Thirteen women took part initially, documenting their 100 days, but at the time of writing 978 women have successfully completed the challenge. That may be the tip of the iceberg. “Just this morning I’ve already got five emails,” says customer service manager Rebecca Eby over Zoom. “It’s started to build and build.”

I can see why Wool& suggested I speak to Eby, who is on day 108 with her Fiona dress (some people just keep going). Not just because she is delightful – she is – but because she started the challenge as a participant and loved it so much, she joined the company. Her experience reflects how a clever marketing promo, tying neatly with the brand’s mission statement – “live simply, consume carefully, do good” – caught something in the collective imagination.

It’s counter intuitive that wearing the same thing week after week, at a time when life itself is grindingly monotonous, would appeal. But the challenge taps into a collective desire for a simpler life: “When the pandemic hit everybody started cleaning, organising, minimising… and this really seems to fit with that idea,” says Eby. For some, it’s also about creativity: doing more with less. “It’s a fun challenge, but a safe challenge. It was easy, it was fun, it was something to be excited about.”

‘I take what is available in my size: a grey Rowena.’ Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

Am I excited? Given stock problems (the unexpected popularity of the challenge means long delays), I take what is available in my size: a grey Rowena. It’s fine, but a plain grey long-sleeved dress does not get the pulse racing. Underwhelmed, I take a look at the 100 days Facebook group, where women post pictures of themselves in their dresses for inspiration. Suddenly the challenge takes on a whole new dimension. I scroll, rapt: there are potters and teachers, carers, ER doctors and cat adopters, mountain rescue workers and a surprising number of priests; one woman even wears her dress on callouts as a firefighter.

Of the 3,000-plus group members, there’s a subset who call themselves “team boring” (very much my people) and another subset who go absolutely wild. My favourite is Erin in Kentucky whose outfits include, in her words, “Sexy Lobster” (accessorised with giant claws) and “Captain Protection in tinfoil hat and bubblewrap dress”. Women pose with dogs or chickens, axes and newborns. One, very movingly, stands next to her wedding Converse shoes in the Idaho State museum (she took part in a state class action on marriage equality). Their motivations vary – ecological, creative, emotional – but they feel like the kind of women you want running things: capable, creative and compassionate.

I’m inspired. I want to be part of it, to chop wood or birth an alpaca in my “Ro”, as the group women call it. In reality, I mainly sit at my desk. For the first week, the most unnerving part is my legs: intellectually, I know I have legs, but it’s a shock to see them – stumpy, like a Shetland pony – all the time. Legs also mean tights. God, tights are awful. I had forgotten how you put them on straight, but they inexplicably get horribly twisted, then sit uncomfortably a couple of inches below your crotch cutting off your circulation. I hear they have improved since I last wore them, but it’s against the spirit of the project to buy new stuff, so I don’t. A further downside is the rush of blood to the head they give local perverts: “I like your tights,” leers one, with weird specificity.

My husband, however, is indifferent. After 26 years it takes more than that to pique his interest. “So basically, you’re dressing like a man,” he says, gesturing at his jeans and jumper. Most other people simply do not notice, though one friend says I look “smart” when we convene for a muddy walk, which is Yorkshire for “inappropriately dressed”. “I’m confused about hygiene,” says my best friend, who is strangely hostile to the challenge, I think because she’s French. “What about undergarments?”

“I’m allowed to wear pants?” I say, puzzled.

“I mean, do you have to wear those armpit pads Victorians wore?” It’s a good question so in week two I talk to Lauren Bravo, sustainable fashion champion and author of How to Break Up With Fast Fashion, on the glamorous topic of stains and smells. It’s good timing: I have recently dropped a tin of tuna in oil down the dress, a fishy, greasy disaster. “For oil, talcum powder is fantastic,” says Bravo. “The 21st century equivalent is dry shampoo – those mini cans are really handy to have in your handbag.” She’s a big advocate of spot washing, from the reverse for best results. As for smells “hanging things up on the line or over the balcony or out of the window I find so much more effective than anything you can do chemically”. Failing that, white vinegar shifts a real lingering stink. This is important, as clothing care counts for 25% of the environmental impact of what we wear. The tuna washes out, but with no outside space in the Yorkshire winter, I invest in a can of “Day 2”, which Bravo describes as “posh Febreze”. I can embrace grubby, but I refuse to smell like cat food.

THE OBSERVER EMMA BEDDINGTON1094
‘Of the 3,000-plus group members, there’s a subset who call themselves “team boring” (very much my people).’ Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

By week three, I’m on autopilot, adding black tights and a black cardigan every morning. I like the simplicity and minimal laundry, but I’m less enamoured of how I look. I feel shapeless, unsexy and old. A belt helps, but the real gamechanger, I find, is spending more time on the Facebook group – I can feel my body image shifting the more I read. “Constantly seeing REAL WOMEN post REAL PHOTOS, instead of all this unrealistic beauty we see on TV and adverts is slowly changing my brain,” as one commenter says. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes post frankly about body dysmorphia or weight struggles, the strangeness of a post-partum, post-mastectomy or ageing body and other women respond with thoughtful kindness and support. “Girl you look awesome” and “I love that colour on you” could feel saccharine or insincere, but it never does, in this context. Seeing women living thoughtful, interesting lives in their imperfect, perfect merino-dressed bodies is genuinely inspiring and more powerful than generic body positivity.

The support goes far beyond fashion. Because a lot can happen in 100 days, especially now – you might have a baby, get married, separate, be made redundant, have a mental or physical health crisis, or lose a family member (all real examples). Women post frankly and movingly about infertility and depression, and the answering echoes they receive remind me of the early days of blogging and how other voices reassured me I was not alone. I share my experiences – which I would never do on any other platform now.

‘They are such a helpful bunch that I am quickly overwhelmed with answers.’
‘They are such a helpful bunch that I am quickly overwhelmed with answers.’ Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer

In February, one woman in the Netherlands posted the shocking news that her house had burnt down and the outpouring of support and offers of help were overwhelming. Through all that, but also through smaller and happier things, these women support and celebrate each other. “An entire Wool Army of Women is with you, woven into each thread of your dress,” one commenter posts.

“Be kind” has become a rather suspect internet trope in recent years, but the 100 days group seems to be the kindest place on the internet.

Surely, I ask Rebecca Eby of Wool&, you couldn’t have expected anything like this? “Oh my gosh, it’s a beautiful thing,” she tells me. “I don’t think anyone expected that the community would also be a huge benefit. In fact for some people, it’s probably the benefit.” How strange it must be to create something that ends up so much more than you expect, taking on a life, and a heart, of its own.

I know I sound like a mad zealot, so I ask to speak to a few members to prove I am not suffering merino-induced derangement. They are such a helpful bunch that I am quickly overwhelmed with answers.

Janet lives in lllinois. “I am turning 63 this year and in my whole life I have never gotten the support from other women that I have gotten in the past 96 days,” she tells me. Ragnhild is in Oslo and says it has “given me a much-needed sense of community during the lockdown”. Erin, the Kentucky lobster queen, puts it best, I think. “The comfort and love of the ‘dress people’ is like a gentle sisterhood. The quirky and the basic coexist peacefully and we all encourage one another. We laugh and cheer each other’s accomplishments (birthdays, milestones, new jobs) and cry over each other’s sorrows.”

Emboldened by the group, I try to make my last week in the dress a bit more fabulous and beg advice from the Observer fashion desk. They basically approve (“Timeless, easy to throw on, very useful”), but give me layering tips and suggest jewellery and scarves. To try this, I have to borrow from my bubble mate Les – and it’s strange to realise I never normally wear colour or jewellery. Some of her bright accessories look good, so I rummage at home, excavating a cute pheasant brooch and a bright pink top made from vintage silk scarves. When did I stop dressing like this and why? I show Les a Trinny Woodall scarf trick the fashion team recommended, catching the corners at the back, then pulling them forward to create a chic cowl effect. “What did you just do?!” she gasps, gratifyingly. “I know, it’s witchcraft!” I say, showing her again, laughing. I even post a picture on the group in one of Les’s necklaces and – wild development – coloured tights. “The belt looks great on you!” “I love the necklace!” come the responses.

After my 40 days, I get out of the shower and after a moment’s hesitation, put on my usual trousers and jumper. No one notices, of course, but I feel an odd sense of loss, like I’m leaving a community. What did I learn? That no one else cares what I wear except me, but I care, a bit, and I want to care more. My 46-year-old body is fine and strong and functional – I should respect, and even celebrate, it. I have discovered that the love and support of other women can help me do that and that I, in turn, can feel genuinely moved to celebrate them in all their glorious difference.

I’m still on the group, giddily liking pictures and posting heartfelt compliments. “The real takeaway is the love and compassion and support and interaction among all the 100 Day dress wearers,” a commenter says. “It doesn’t matter if they made it a week or 12 weeks – the love is still real.” I didn’t manage the full 100 days, but I’m honoured to be a member of the sisterhood of the dress.