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The Uniform Project: How to wear one dress for 365 days

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
  • Sheena Matheiken of New York started The Uniform Project last year
  • She wore the same black dress 365 ways by accessorizing with donated jewelry
  • She wanted to raise awareness about sustainable fashion and raise money for children in India
  • She advises people to accessorize to update or change an outfit

(CNN) -- One outfit at a time, Sheena Matheiken was determined to make a change

She sported a simple, tunic-style dress for not one, two or three days. She did it for 365 days in a row.

The New York resident gave herself the fashion challenge of reinventing the same black dress. She did it by adding colorful tights, funky shoes and patterned tops, all donations from eco-friendly designers, thrift shops and mail-in leftovers from strangers.

Her outfits varied. Some were random, others organized; some bright, others muted; some classic, others modern. For example, she dressed as an intergalactic goth mermaid one day. The next, she became a modern hippie adorned with a floral bandana and cutout tights.

See Matheiken's outfit on Day 1, Year 2

Matheiken completed her yearlong Uniform Project this month; the effort started a year ago to raise money for the The Akanksha Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit helping children in India's slums attend schools. She raised enough money to send 233 children to school for a year.

Matheiken also wanted to bring awareness to sustainable fashion. That's not a bad lesson for those of us feeling the recession's pinch.

CNN spoke to Matheiken about the Uniform Project and her eclectic style.

CNN: Why did you decide to pick a uniform?

Matheiken: First, giving yourself a creative challenge requires giving yourself a constraint. I wanted to recreate one dress for 365 days and have that test. I also have a personal connection with uniforms. I grew up in India and went to a Catholic school where we had to wear uniforms.

The cool thing was that even with uniforms, there are so many subtle ways everyone reinvents it so that all the idiosyncrasies of teenage adolescence come out. Their personality came out in how you roll up the sleeves or add a few accessories. I was very fascinated by all of this.

CNN: I think we all have that white T-shirt in our closet. How do you jazz up something plain?

Matheiken: Accessorizing can go a long way to elevate something. Just a pair of tights or maybe if you have a jacket, you can wear it over, and it will look chic and upscale. A white shirt doesn't have to look like a white T-shirt.

CNN: For some people, it's hard to mix and match. You seem to do it so effortlessly. How?

Matheiken: There is so much of fashion that is prescribed by magazine trends and looks that are seasonal. I think that's the biggest problem with fashion. And some people really are stressed about getting ready.

The starting point needs to be identifying who you are and what do you like. Some people are hat people, others are belt people and skirt people. You have to try things out and see what you like yourself in.

CNN: How did you choose the dress?

Matheiken: I designed it with a friend of mine, Eliza Starbuck. I had a few prerequisites. I wanted short sleeves and pockets. I wanted the dress to be a button down so it could open. I wanted to be able to wear it in reverse. We had to keep the material light enough for summer.

CNN: Did you wear the same dress every day?

Matheiken: No, I had seven identical copies so I wouldn't have to wash it every night.

CNN: How would you get ready each day?

Matheiken: I didn't plan the outfits ahead of time. That was very important to me to keep it spontaneous because that's how I usually get ready. I wanted to keep it that way because that's how normal people get ready that way.

You sort of look around, and I sort of gravitate to a few things like a hat, belt or shoes. I'm a big tights girl. I build off of one piece and add onto it. You go with what you feel like and throw things together.

CNN: Did you ever get bad reactions from your outfits?

Matheiken: Some days I walked out of the door with stuff you never normally wear, and I'd say, 'This is kind of crazy I have no idea how they will react.' But that's the fun.

I realized it didn't matter what people think. There were days where half the crowd loved it and half the crowd hated it. Those turned out to be the most exciting days. Those are the days I valued the most because then you are doing something on your own.

CNN: I saw on Halloween, for example, you dressed the black tunic up to look like a sea creature. Did the outfits ever reflect your life?

Matheiken: I did a lot of references to what was going on politically and culturally. Like when Michael Jackson died, I did a MJ tribute with the gloves. Those were a lot of the days that became meaningful to me.

When the volcano happened, we did a crazy poster of me hovering over the Icelandic volcano.

CNN: What do you hope this project does?

Matheiken: I want people to see the value in their closet. I've gotten people writing on my website that they went to a wedding and recreated an old dress and that it was so much more gratifying.

Depending on where you live, there are amazing vintage and thrift finds but if you don't have that, there is still online. EBay is one of the greatest sources. The items are perfectly usable, and they are often one-of-a-kind, which is better than a mass-produced good. Why not use what's already on the planet in perfect condition?