The Little Black Dress That Could

The Little Black Dress That Could

by Karen Brown

black dress with crazy leggings

Photos: The Uniform Project

In 2009, New Yorker Sheena Matheiken pledged to wear the same dress every day for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion. And she had ambitions greater than just proving a point about consuming less.  As Sheena recalls, "I knew I wanted to do something of consequence, something that mattered. Without that, it would just be another 'look at me' exercise."

But first she had a problem: She didn’t own the kind of dress she wanted to wear and she didn't know how to sew it herself.

Enter Eliza Starbuck, who spotted Sheena waiting for the subway. "I was doing a sustainable fashion blog at the time," said Eliza, "And she was wearing crazy socks. She was adorable and I had to talk to her. So I went over and said, 'Hi. I’m Eliza, You’ve got amazing socks and I think we should be friends.'" 

black dress with 350 sign

Sheena and Eliza began discussing the idea of a little black dress so versatile that it could be worn every day. "I proposed the idea almost as a barter,” said Sheena. “If you help me make this dress I'll help you have a story for your blog."

Eliza designed an original black cotton dress and made seven identical copies of it, one for each day of the week. The duo planned to maintain a daily photo blog of the dress for one year—The Uniform Project <>—using donated and recycled accessories, including many vintage, handmade, and one-of-a-kind pieces. They also wanted to support an open, collaborative dialogue on fashion and sustainability with the users who would comment on their blog.

black dress with striped pants

But there was more than just fashion at stake.

 A friend in India, where Sheena was raised and schooled, told her about The Akanksha Foundation. "The majority of kids who live in the slums and need to earn money for their families get totally left behind," said Sheena. "And now through Akanksha’s work kids who otherwise would have never seen anything resembling an education are outperforming the kids in public schools. When I heard what this organization was doing, I knew I wanted to get involved." 

black dress with sari

And that's how The Uniform Project became a fundraiser for Akanksha.

Since its launch in May 2009, The Uniform Project has attracted over 1,000,000 visitors and raised over $50,000 for the Akanksha Foundation. That’s enough for about 150 scholarships, and growing. 

David Brower <>, the Founder of the Sierra Club, once said, "Have fun saving the world, or you are just going to depress yourself." With all the good work that it is doing, The Uniform Project has never stopped having fun, like in the photo below from Halloween. Said Sheena, "We used all the packaging material lying around from all our accessory donors and handcrafted the flowers that turned me into the evil sea sprite in the garden."

black dress with scary halloween outfit

What would Socrates do?

Inquiry for the classroom using Socratic dialogues

• Fashion is often experienced as something designers do for the rest of us. Do you think that handmade, vintage, and recycled clothing like what you see in The Uniform Project is a realistic alternative to buying fashion ready-made? What advantages or disadvantages do you think these alternatives might have over traditional design or the ways we usually get our clothes?

• Sheena and Eliza used their interest in fashion to launch a fundraiser for school children in India. Do you have a talent or creative interest that could be used to help others? Could you do this entirely by yourself, or would you need or want to work with other people to make it possible? If you worked with others, whom would you like to work with, and why?

• Does your school have a uniform or would you like it to have one? What would you design as the perfect uniform for your school? What kinds of materials would you use, and why? Whom else would you want to work with to develop the best design for yourself and other students?

• Do you think students should be able to accessorize their uniforms the way Sheena does, or do you think accessories defeat the purpose of having a standard uniform? At school, what do you think is the right balance between a standard uniform and self-expression, and why?



10 comments posted


Submitted by Jane (not verified) on Wed, 2011-12-07 21:45.

Wow! This is really amazing, all the money you guys have raised in such a short time. Thanks for all the hard work.


Submitted by Anonymous on Wed, 2011-08-31 01:56.

There clothes are very beautiful and different. They give me a fashion feeling. Like them!


Submitted by Anonymous on Fri, 2011-08-26 00:09.

These clothes that are shown in this article are so special! I found there are so many good articles on this site. Coming here again:)

Thanks, I've been hunting for this

Submitted by Anabel Meline (not verified) on Fri, 2011-08-19 09:43.

Thanks, I've been hunting for info about this subject for ages and yours is the best I have discovered up to now.

Dressing up

Submitted by Chloe Merish (not verified) on Wed, 2011-05-04 22:39.

Fabulous site! I love to dress up!

Chloe Merish

Congrats on your acheivement..

Submitted by Era Muss (not verified) on Mon, 2011-02-14 00:13.

I want to congratulate you on your success..really great way of helping kids. Hope you undertake more such projects and are successful.
Please let me know if I can help you in any way.


Submitted by AT (not verified) on Thu, 2010-12-09 02:52.

I like your dresses nice collection..

litle black dress and sustainability

Submitted by jenninthehills (not verified) on Mon, 2010-05-17 10:46.

This is great I think it should be s must see for every highschool student to have a look at and think through the socrates process of reflection From a black dress aholic.

thanks jenni!

Submitted by karen on Fri, 2010-05-21 21:48.

Since this blog was posted, the Uniform Project has raised just under $100,000!

You can see all 365 of the dresses here:


Submitted by Peter (not verified) on Wed, 2010-03-31 09:37.

Fashion is not my area of expertise, but this reminds me that sustainability issues are present in every realm. It is great to see people acting outside the mainstream patterns of behavior and creating new paradigms for the rest of us to consider.

Thanks to Karen Brown for another thought-provoking post!

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