The Uniform Project – One Year, One Dress

Goodlifer: The Uniform Project - One Year, One Dress

Sometimes, getting dressed in the morning seems like way too much work. I know I have at times wished I could just wear a lab coat or something to work and not have to worry about matching colors in the early morning hours. With The Uniform Project, Sheena Matheiken decided to show us all that it is possible to wear the same thing, yet reinvent your look every day. Starting in May 2009, she pledged to wear the same black dress for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion.

With the help of fashion designer Eliza Starbuck, seven identical dresses were made, one for each day of the week. Every day Matheiken reinvents the dress with layers, accessories and all kinds of accoutrements, the majority of which will be vintage, hand-made, or hand-me-down goodies. She says about the project: “Think of it as wearing a daily uniform with enough creative license to make it look like I just crawled out of the Marquis de Sade’s boudoir.” And, truly, her style is anything but boring.

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Eliza Starbuck & Sheena Matheiken.

Eliza Starbuck & Sheena Matheiken.

The Uniform Project is also a fundraising effort, with Matheiken herself leading the way by donating a dollar a day to the Akanksha Foundation, a grassroots movement that is revolutionizing education in India. This is enough to sponsor uniforms and other educational expenses for one child living in India’s slums. Fans of The Uniform Project are encouraged to contribute as well, and to date $27,200 have been donated.

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On why she chose fashion as a vehicle for fundraising, Matheiken states: “Fashion is such a visual and subjective medium, it offered an intrinsic draw. I consider style very much a part of self-expression and I wanted to take the daily act of dressing up – a routine everyone relates to – and make it part of something bigger, something more consequential. The repetitive model of a 365 day project makes it addictive and brings viewers back on a regular basis, which made it a great platform for fund-raising.” The viral response thus far has been great, three months into the official launch the site had received over half a million hits, and connected with over 100,000 Twitter and Facebook users. The Project is now looking to further boost the fundraising efforts by both making the dress available for sale and holding online accessory auctions. There has also been talk about turning the project into a collectible design book.

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About her inspiration for the project, Matheiken says: “I was raised and schooled in India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality. Boys rolled up their sleeves, wore over-sized swatches, and hiked up their pants to show off their high-tops. Girls obsessed over bangles, bindis and bad hairdos. Peaking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare. I now want to put the same rules to test again, only this time I’m trading in the catholic school fervor for an eBay addiction and relocating the school walls to this wonderful place called the internet.”

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The main challenge before starting the project was how to design a highly versatile dress that can be worn all year around. The mastermind behind the uniform dress is my friend and designer, Eliza Starbuck. Matheiken and Starbuck met by chance at a subway platform when Starbuck fell in love with the unusual, quirky socks Matheiken was wearing and decided they should be friends. The pair took inspiration from one of Matheiken’s staple dresses, adapting it for seasonal versatility. The dress is designed to be worn both ways, front and back, and also as an open tunic. It’s made from a durable, breathable cotton, good for New York summers and good for layering in cooler seasons.

Eliza Starbuck working on the pattern for the Uniform Project dress.

Eliza Starbuck working on the pattern for the Uniform Project dress.

Seven identical dresses were made.

Seven identical dresses were made, one for each day of the week.

Matheiken expertly accessorizes with distinct flair. She wears a lot of hats, funky jewelry, plumes, slips, belts and brooches, many of which were procured on eBay and Etsy, as well as at local vintage boutiques, thrift stores and flea markets. She also likes collaborating with other designers and friends to create original pieces to complement the black dress. Many of the accoutrements were donated by friends, fans and young designers who identify with the project.

Sometimes the best path to unbound creativity is to impose limitations on oneself. “By illustrating how creative you can be with one simple dress, Matheiken is standing up to today’s culture of fast fashion.” – The Times of London.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. I love the Uniform Project! Wish I could buy the pattern for that dress somewhere, too.

    Note, however, that she is not the first person to try this challenge. See littlebrowndress (dot) com for another such project – although the littlebrowndress project was not to benefit a charity, as I recall.

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