Saying Yes (and Yes and Yes) to the Dress

Sewanee Theatre Professor Jennifer Matthews wants her students—and you—to think harder about clothing choices. And by wearing the same thing 30 days in a row, she was able to explore a more sustainable way of dressing.

Professor Jennifer Matthews in the blue dress she wore for 30 days straight, photographed in the costume shop of Sewanee's Tennessee Williams Center.

Professor Jennifer Matthews in the blue dress she wore for 30 days straight, photographed in the costume shop of Sewanee's Tennessee Williams Center.

AS JENNIFER MATTHEWS got ready to attend her son’s high school graduation, she found that choosing a dress for the occasion was especially easy. She put on the same dress that she wore to celebrate her birthday, Mother's Day, and two sets of Sewanee Commencement exercises (for the classes of 2020 and 2022)—all events that took place within the preceding month. In fact, Matthews had already worn that very dress every day for the 16 days leading up to the ceremony. And she would keep wearing it every day for another 14.

Matthews undertook a challenge in which she wore the same item of clothing for 30 consecutive days and documented each day’s outfit with a photo. A professor in Sewanee’s Department of Theatre & Dance who specializes in costume design and technology, Matthews sees a direct connection between this personal experiment and her vocation, in which she already engages Sewanee students with considerations of sustainability and costuming on a daily basis. By wearing the same thing every day, she’s enhanced her perspective on how the myriad choices that we make with respect to our clothing—from textile choice to frequency and method of cleaning to where and how often we acquire and dispose of it—all have implications for our communities and planet.

A Born Designer

CLOTHING DESIGN HAS been something of a throughline for Matthews’ life and career. As a child in Charlotte, North Carolina, she crafted her first set of sartorial creations for her dolls. Inspired by the classic films she would often watch, she concocted elaborate scenarios in which to place her dolls—scenarios that would, naturally, require the creation of new costumes using any available materials. “I can remember one time sculpting a warrior breastplate for my Barbie doll out of Play-Doh,” Matthews says, “because that’s what I had.”

Like many children, Matthews enjoyed playing dress-up. She liked it so much that she initially had designs on becoming an actor. “I wanted to wear the costumes,” Matthews says with a chuckle. When she got a little older, Matthews’ grandmother taught her to sew. By the time she was in high school, Matthews had developed her skill enough that she made both her own junior and senior prom dresses and dresses for her friends.

In college, Matthews realized that she did not like acting after all, but found joy in the costume shop—and the ongoing proximity it offered to the garments that so enthralled her. Despite her passion for theater, Matthews worried “that [she] wasn’t going to be able to eat” and embarked on a series of unexpected jobs—including working at a cigar shop, a magic shop, and finally at a fabric store—before rediscovering her calling in a staff position in the costume department at Winthrop University. That position afforded her the opportunity to work with students and even teach a few classes, which cemented her interest in pursuing a graduate degree and ultimately a career in theater within higher education.

Backstage Considerations

FIVE OR SIX YEARS AGO, Matthews began to think critically about the operations of Sewanee’s costume shop, particularly with regard to the amount of waste created in it. “We make these beautiful costumes,” she says, but, “most of the time, it’s really hard to reuse them.” The reasons are many: A production might have a very specific or limited color palette, take place in a unique period or setting, or a costume simply might not fit the next actor who needed to wear it. The costume shop also finds itself with a surplus of offcuts, or leftover pieces of fabric, that are usually too small to be of significant value.

Matthews and her team have implemented new practices to reduce and control the department’s waste. “We still save everything we can,” says Matthews, sharing that offcuts are kept and reinspected to see if any further processing could give them a second life. When possible, some costumes are donated, freeing up space in the shop without adding to a landfill.

Perhaps most crucially, Matthews makes a great effort to source costume materials from secondhand shops and thrift stores. Matthews’ love for thrifting dates back to her time working at a vintage clothing store while in college. At the time, it was not an especially lucrative business. “Mainly our clientele was the punk kids and drag queens,” Matthews laughs. But the store, which would often repurpose old clothing into Halloween costumes, gave her insight into the journey that clothing takes after its first wearer parts with it.

Yet what to do with apparel after it’s been worn is just one of many considerations when it comes to manufacturing and dressing sustainably. For Matthews, determining what constitutes Earth-friendly clothing is complicated, as each potential fiber raises a host of issues to examine. Much of our wool, for instance, comes from Australia and New Zealand, requiring international transportation to get it in the hands of a dressmaker. There’s also the diet of the sheep providing the wool (Do they eat grass? Was any rainforest cut down to make room for that grass?), comfort level with using animals to provide human clothing, and the general treatment of the animals to keep in mind.

Other natural fibers inspire similar questions, like cotton (which requires significant pesticide use to grow and water to process) and silk (which is labor intensive to manufacture and involves a processing mechanism that silkworms cannot survive). Synthetic fibers, like rayon and Lyocell, require wood pulp and chemicals to process. Microfibers like polyester break down differently, shedding into water sources and disrupting natural ecosystems.

These concerns, and more, are compounded by human practice regarding consumption of clothing items. The more items we acquire and the more frequently we launder them, the greater our potential environmental footprint. The 30-day dress challenge, then, seemed to Matthews like an unparalleled opportunity to confront these issues head-on by taking a single item of clothing and proving its versatility—and true cleaning needs—over an extended timespan.

Keeping It Fresh

MATTHEWS IS WELL AWARE of what the skeptics have to say about the challenge. “I’ve had a couple of people be like, ‘That’s kind of gross that you’re wearing [the dress] every day without washing it,’” she says. For the record, Matthews washed the dress twice during the first three weeks of the challenge, waiting a full 10 days before first throwing the dress in the washing machine.

But that infrequency was the point, as Matthews made use of other techniques to keep the dress clean, fresh, and presentable. Rather than run an entire laundry cycle for one minor food stain, for example, a targeted spot cleaning was all that was needed. Small spots of dirt could be allowed to dry and then simply brushed off. Washing by hand, hanging the dress outside of the closet overnight, and ironing touch-ups also proved useful. And to address the common concern about smell, Matthews deployed an old theater trick: a near half-and-half mix of vodka (which leaves no scent and helps to eliminate odor) and water, spritzed on the dress as needed.

Beyond embracing new hygienic practices, the challenge also forced Matthews to tap her creative reserves as she sought new ways of wearing the same basic clothing item. Supplemental pieces like jackets, shirts, and pants gave the dress a new look, as did accessories like scarves and jewelry. At the Sewanee Commencement ceremonies, her academic gown took care of the accessorizing. Those supplemental items also, in their own way, helped to extend the life of the dress between washings by protecting it from the elements.

Another key factor for Matthews’ success in the challenge: merino wool. Though often thought of as a colder weather textile, merino wool is breathable, soft, and can absorb around 30% of its own weight in water before it starts to feel wet. “Everybody’s sort of like, ‘You’re wearing wool in the South in the summer?!’” Matthews grinned before noting the unexpectedly varied contexts in which wool can be worn—including, perhaps relatedly, when hiking and rafting.

Be Better, Not Perfect

THE LESSONS LEARNED FROM the 30-day experiment were of significant value to Matthews, whose profession dictates that she spend a more than average amount of time thinking about clothing. For starters, the repeated wearing of the same dress drove home the point that we tend to overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to our clothes or appearance. “We’re way more caught up in thinking about what we’re wearing and what we look like,” she says. “It’s just not a big deal to other people in the way that it is to us.”

What was truly revelatory for Matthews, however, was the freedom that came from having one thing settled each day before she even woke up. “I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should wear, what other people should wear,” she says, “so it’s like a little vacation” to be liberated from that concern.

Matthews hopes to see others embrace challenges like this one as a means of challenging their mindset with respect to clothing. “A lot of people initially said, ‘I could never do that,’” she says. “And I hope now they’re thinking, ‘Maybe I could.’” She has already inspired a colleague to embark on the challenge, and is hoping to involve a wider group, including students, in the fall.

At the same time, Matthews recognizes that wearing the same thing for 30 days straight is not a realistic choice to make on a regular basis. Her larger takeaways from the experience center on the smaller, consistent choices that we can all make to be better stewards of our apparel and, consequently, of our planet—embracing spot cleaning, questioning our concepts of “dirty” and “clean,” and making a conscious effort to do more with less.

That last idea, in particular, resonates with Matthews as a designer. “The important thing about costume design is not just creating all these beautiful things, but having the right clothing for the person wearing it,” she says. “So maybe it’s a little less. Maybe we can all do with a little less if it’s the right thing.”