You know that shirt that just goes with everything? Well, could you make it work every day for a whole week – without washing it once? Yuck, you may think. But this was the challenge presented to me by my editor to see whether you could indeed wear one single garment for days on end and still look – and smell – presentable.
And it was all for the sake of the planet. Unwashed clothes, it seems, are the new black. Just ask fashion designer Stella McCartney. She recently confessed she rarely does laundry and lives by this rule of thumb: if you don’t absolutely have to clean anything, don’t. "I’m incredibly hygienic myself but I’m not a fan of any cleaning, really," she said.
"I was told by the tailors on [London’s] Savile Row when I worked there and it’s true – clothes last longer if you wash them less and care for them more. And less washing saves water and energy." Some people might go green at the thought of this green approach. I, however, was sold on Stella McCartney.
I figured if she could do it, so could I. After the Day Zero scare in Cape Town I’d become used to filling the washing machine less often anyway, and for good reason. The average South African household uses up to 100 litres of water in one load of washing – and then there’s the pollution aspect as well.
Each cycle releases more than 700 000 microscopic plastic fibres into the environment, filtering through into the water we drink and some of the food we eat. So off I went to take one for the team and prepare for my week-long pongy uniform. First things first: I put together a little list of things to do to prolong the freshness and appearance of my garment of choice – a light grey cotton T-shirt.
(In hindsight I realised the fit and colour probably weren’t the wisest choice, but I figured it was winter and I wouldn’t be perspiring much.) Part of my preparation is to have some DIY tips ready for worst-case scenarios. Since my boyfriend lives in another city and I don’t have kids or pets, I have only solo-person problems.
You know, the usual coffee/wine spillage, melted chocolate bits, make-up fingerprints, cooking splatters, take-away curry stains and so on. One tip I come across in my online research is to hang your clothing item on a hanger near a window or in the sun if you can. This airs the fabric and helps fight odours and bacteria.
Another easy way to combat smells is to buy cheap vodka and spritz some on your clothes. The first two days go okay but by the second evening I can start smelling antiperspirant on my T-shirt, so I start leaving my shirt out to air overnight. I also realise I get dressed too quickly after I shower in the mornings. I should wait for my antiperspirant to dry so it doesn’t stain my shirt.
On day three I decide to up the ante and go for an afternoon walk with friends in a park. This turns out to be a mini-forest hike. My super-fit friends don’t seem to break a sweat but alas I get a little flustered. And damp. By day four my shirt is decidedly less snug-fitting and I’m starting to detect a musky whiff.
I decide to test out the vodka hack and my new drywash spray for clothes I bought at my local Woolies for R59,99. My shirt is soon smelling like fabric softener again thanks to the dry-wash, and the vodka helps to remove creases and soften the material. Much later in the day however that pleasant floral scent starts to blend with the four-day worth of antiperspirant, and I can’t wait to go home to shower.
That evening I hang my T-shirt out to air again and the next morning it seems to have had a bit of a Lazarus moment because it looks and smells like a just-washed shirt again. Then Bolognese-gate happens. I'm feeling quite pleased with myself. It’s day five and I’ve managed to avoid any major disaster.
But spaghetti bolognese is a sneaky little number and as I’m tucking in, sauce splatters onto the front of my shirt I dash off to consult my DIY list and decide to go for the bicarbonate of soda paste solution: I mix a tablespoon of bicarb with enough water to make a thick gloop and rub it over the stain.
I’m supposed to leave it for 15 minutes – but after five I’m not sure it’s working so I lay into the spot with soap and water and plenty of vigorous rubbing. It works okay: by the next day you can just detect a little mark. On day seven I’m starting to feel like I’ve put my pyjama top back on to go to work.
I’m also starting to watch for people’s reactions when I get in the lift. Are they avoiding me? Are their nostrils flaring? Oh, the shame! That evening I turn on my car radio and a Paul Simon song starts playing. I relate to this line, "The poor boy changes clothes and puts on aftershave to compensate for his ordinary shoes."
Only in my case its bicarb, cheap vodka and clothing dry wash to compensate for my smelly shirt. Bottom line: not washing your clothes for a week is doable but it depends on your cleanliness threshold, the clothing item and how committed you are to aftercare. You’ll have to treat your clothes like a high-maintenance plant – plenty of fresh air, some sun and little to no water. It’s not for the faint-hearted.