Living Through 3 Seasons on 1 Suitcase

My husband, 1 year old baby, and I moved from Malaysia to Mexico in the summer of 2018. We traveled by airplane, but our household goods traveled by boat. We sold all our electronics, gifted most of our baby implements, and donated a ton of clothes. Even with all this purging, we managed to fill a 17.5 cubic shipment container with furniture, kitchen implements, and clothes. And to be specific, clothes means my clothes. My husband might have shipped a box of clothes, whereas I shipped everything (winter gear, jewelry, shoes) but one suitcase of clothing. See, we knew that the boat with our stuff wouldn’t greet us immediately in Mexico. The first two months after leaving Malaysia, we were traveling around the US, seeing friends and family. My one suitcase was a practicality then. Once we arrived in Mexico, I needed to make my one suitcase last until the rest of my clothes arrived.

To give an accurate timeline, I said goodbye to the majority of my wardrobe on June 11th in Malaysia. Despite our optimistic timeline of early October, our shipment didn’t arrive in Mexico until December 17th. 6 months, 3 seasons, one suitcase.

I learned a lot about myself and my relationship to things through this time of involuntary minimalism. This blog post is to document that learning, and share some ideas.

Quick note: I fully understand that minimalism isn’t a choice for the majority of the world. This artist’s photos show how very few people in this world have houses bursting with things. I am writing this post as someone with the privilege to have enough things to meet my needs. So many things, that in fact, that all my needs and wants are met, my closets are bursting and I have to buy organizational containers from Home Depot.

To start, let’s talk about my one suitcase. It contained (yes, I am a tight packer):

I only counted the number of clothes after the shipment arrived. My response was “That seems like a lot!” It didn’t feel like a lot, but it felt like enough. Enough so my co-workers never noticed I was cycling through one suitcase of clothes. Enough so laundry wasn’t a daily necessity. I knew exactly what I was going to wear, no questions, by the fourth day of not doing laundry. The options were limited, which made getting dressed in the morning all the quicker.

Four months in, the weather started to change. It was 10C/50F in the mornings, which was a little frosty for a lady who just moved from the tropics. I started to panic. The shipment had barely left the port in Malaysia at this point (delays delays delays). How was I going to survive this weather without my boxes and boxes of winter clothes?

The answer: borrow clothes. My stubbornness and eco-conscious determination won out. I wasn’t going to buy a bunch of clothes WHEN I ALREADY HAD CLOTHES. I borrowed a coat from my mom. I borrowed a sweater from my next-door neighbor. I borrowed sweatpants, warmer socks, and thicker long sleeve shirts from my husband, and he borrowed my yoga pants. I allowed myself to buy one sweatshirt, something that would bundle me up on the coldest days. I layered, layered, and then layered some more. I stalked the boat on the internet, until I realized that wasn’t going to make the boat come to Mexico any faster.

And then, on December 17th, I came home from work to find our stuff in our house. Lots of stuff. Boxes and boxes of stuff. 17.5 cubic meters of our stuff. My husband told me that if we wanted to sleep in our bed tonight, I had to get cracking on my boxes of clothes. He wasn’t kidding. Boxes were all over the floor and bed.

I immediately got unpacking. I had been envisioning this moment for months, so excited to be reunited with MY clothes. Opening up the first box, it felt like Christmas. What was in there? I could barely remember which clothes I had packed and which ones I had given away. As I lifted up my first piece of clothes, I thought “Oh, I kept this one?” As I continued through the boxes, I continued to be disappointed. There were gems of clothes in the piles, but they were few and far between. The feeling that kept popping up was this is nice to have, but I can’t believe we went through so much trouble to keep this piece of clothing in my life. I went back six months in my memory, to try to remember my thinking about keeping these clothes. I remember thinking that it was impossible to part with the clothes I had shipped. That I had to keep them in my wardrobe. But, the truth was I had parted with them. For a half a year. In that half a year, my life had never been cramped or thwarted from the absence of those clothes. I went to fancy restaurants, went for hikes, and survived weather extremes. I had done more than survive on one suitcase of clothes. I had lived a full life on one suitcase of clothes.

What is life like now with two bursting closets of clothes? What does the after look like?

The paralysis of choice is real. Before I would turn to my husband to ask for my running long sleeve shirt. The one. Because I only had one long sleeve athletic shirt. Now I have 4 long sleeve athletic shirts. I am running 4 times a week? No. Do wear them on a regular rotation? No. And when I call up to my husband, I now need to specify “the turquoise one, without the collar!” Shoes were just as easy. I had running shoes, flats, sandals and a pair of boots. Was I wearing socks? Then I had two shoe choices. Was it hot out? Again, two choices. I now have twenty pairs of shoes. This complicates dressing immensely. What was once a rotation, quick decision-making based on weather and anticipated daily activities, is now a hemming and hawing. As a working mom, I don’t have time to process as many options as I have. A smaller wardrobe got me dressed quicker.

I barely wear my two closets worth of clothes. I’ve been keeping track of what I am wearing post-shipment. At best, I wear one piece of clothes from the shipment per day. Some days, I wear only pre-shipment clothes. Yes, I got more accustomed to the clothes I wore for 6 months; but even with the cold weather, I am mostly sticking with the basics that I truly needed.

My closet is clogged up with aspirational clothes. I am sticking to wearing the basics because a chunk of my closet is full of unpractical clothes. I have a silk purple tank top. I am never wearing it because 1) my child will get stains on it immediately, 2) it needs to get dry cleaned if I get it dirty and 3) it is winter right now. When I bought it, I had delusions of a girls’ night out or a solo trip with my husband. Those happen in my life, but with low low low frequency. As in maybe once every six months. When I take a critical eye to my wardrobe, I own many pieces of clothing for “just in case” situations. For that beach vacation. For when I go bike riding (last time was 2 years ago). For when I have to dress up for a military ball (once a year event). I wish there was a tag on my clothes that would tell me: This item of clothing has been in your closet 5 years, and you have worn it a total of 3 times. What a waste of the Earth’s resources, and what a waste of space in my bursting closet.  

This has been a wake-up call for me. I had considered myself pretty eco-friendly and not a big shopper. But the evidence in my closet clearly shows I have a wasteful attitude towards clothes. Hard news to stomach to be honest. So hard, I looked to justify my decisions by thinking well, compared to others…. Or it could be worse, I gave away so many pieces of clothing already. I got to feel better temporarily, but the suspicion that I had a clothing problem came back swiftly. It doesn’t matter what others are doing, or what I’ve done in the past: it matters what I do, today, tomorrow, and every day moving forward. I can make the change… I just have to do make the change!

So here are my promises to myself and the Earth:

I need to reduce my wardrobe. I do not need 4 rain coats. I do not need 4 running shirts. These clothes are made out of finite resources, and should be used more frequently. Over the course of the year (slow rolling promises work better with an already full life), I will give away items to reduce my closet from two full closets to one full closet.

A year without buying new clothes. As I type those words, I feel very uncomfortable. But what if I need something? Just a few new pieces of clothes? I know the truth: I don’t need any more clothes. I have what I need, and more than I could ever wear. I will recalibrate in 2020, but for the next 362 days, I know I can live a full life on the clothes I already have.

Create a community to share aspirational clothes. Back in my youth, sharing and borrowing clothes was a way of life. We had finite financial resources, and envied each others’ clothes. The easiest solution was to share them, rotating from closet to closet. My friends and I got older, became financially more stable, and stopped sharing. We bought our own clothes, and rarely do we share anymore. The truth is that sharing day-to-day clothes isn’t practical for adult women. But what about aspirational clothes? I have at least six beach dresses and four sarongs. I wear them never now that I live in the desert. Why couldn’t a friend borrow them for her beach vacation? Do I need to buy a new outfit for a Christmas party? Or could I ask a friend to borrow a dress? It will be new for me, but won’t clog up my closet, awaiting the next special occasion.

Look to rent before buy. I know some of us have different body shapes. I am usually much taller than my friends, which limits my ability to borrow their clothes. I am thankful that clothes rental companies are springing up, allowing you to wear clothes for a fraction of the price of buying. This year, I rented a dress for the military ball (again, why would I buy a dress if I know I have dresses in my shipment!?). I loved it. I wore a super fancy dress, much prettier than the ones I could afford to buy. I got so many compliments on the dress, that I knew I could never rewear it. I had an amazing night wearing it, and now that dress will be used time and time again by other people, rather than sitting unused and neglected in my closet.

My awakening came from a period of involuntary minimalism due to boat delays. There are voluntary and more structured methods towards minimalism. Project 333 is a movement towards clothing minimalism, with support posts and tips. This project has changed people’s lives for the better. Another approach is Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I am going to watch her Netflix show, looking for inspiration and a support group of aspirational minimalists.

I am also looking for community support. Life gets busy, work and family demands take precedent, and spare time can disappear. Similar to people supporting each other to work out more, I would appreciate a community to help support my transition. Please reach out to Earth Mamas International if you want to change your relationship to clothes this year, or are just curious what it might look like.

10 thoughts on “Living Through 3 Seasons on 1 Suitcase”

  1. I love this! I have tried the capsule wardrobe and read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up- and after my move from Europe back to the states I was without all but two suitcases for just under nine months and felt the same way when I opened up all my boxes! I have slowly gotten rid of soooo many things- clothes and household items- it feels awesome! I actually don’t enjoy shopping anymore- unless it’s for food or wine. Can’t wait to hear how your year goes!

  2. Heather, such a great post! Thanks for sharing! I made a pledge that I won’t buy any new clothes in 2019 – if I need something, I’ll shop used! A colleague of mine also hosted a clothing swap – actually, Ann did at MIS too, I think – and it’s a great way to give old clothes new life! It was also so lovely seeing everyone at school in their recycled outfits – lookin’ fly – the next weeks at school! 🙂
    Good luck in your endeavours!!

  3. What a great post. Keith and I watch the Minimalist documentary every once in awhile and feel this urge to declutter, aiming for a more simple freeing lifestyle. I am going to join you in the no buying of clothes in 2019. This choice also makes me nervous and uncomfortable, but that is when you know it’s probably the right choice.

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