TO THE CASUAL observer, the world of fashion gets the reputation for silliness it deserves. Even if one were to cast a withering eye at the arts as a whole, fashion gets extra marks for frivolity compared with higher pursuits like sculpture, painting, music, or poetry. It's muddled, ironically, by its own practical usage, plus a reputation for vanity, waste, snobbery, and fickleness. Nonetheless, for those who pursue it, fashion is serious business. Appreciated or not, apparel designers invest research, care, and theory into their work, as any expert is expected to in their chosen field.

There's a reason why even people who claim not to care about fashion will protest when it's suggested they wear something they're not comfortable in. What we wear plays an important role in how we communicate on an immediate, nonverbal level. As designer Gretchen Jones writes on the website for her new project, Neutral Territory, "It's hard to express yourself, and it's hard to find your tribe; doing either—well or poorly—are signal challenges of being alive, in fact. Fashion is a readily available reference that lets us advertise what tribe we belong to, or wish we belonged to. Our clothes are pretty much the best means we have to identify ourselves externally, and to identify other like-minded travelers."

Neutral Territory is the kind of project only a seasoned fashion nerd would attempt: Jones, who is settling into a job designing for Pendleton, challenged herself to a year of wearing only designated "neutrals." In the world of clothing, neutral is a debatable term that goes beyond black, white, gray, and brown to include navy, blue denim, metallics, and simple patterns. Over the course of 2014 she will gradually eliminate these one by one, all while cataloging how the process affects her, documenting her weekday outfits, and blogging about color theory and art while name checking everyone from Goethe to Ad Reinhardt. Also spliced in are surveys and interviews with other designers, boutique owners, and related professionals who weigh in on the boundaries of the definition of neutral.

The result is surprisingly rich and thoughtful, at turns funny and insightful, and sometimes surprising—she has some stern words for the color black, that old favorite among fashion folks, and had what can only be described as a breakthrough concerning navy blue. A lifelong collector and practiced thrifter, Jones has a lot to work with (which keeps her "outfit of the day" posts from getting too repetitive), and following her process is inspiring, tempting the reader to reconsider their own relationships to clothing and their approach to organizing a wardrobe.

Read along on Gretchen Jones speaks at Portland Sewing, 2111 NE 43rd, Wednesday, March 26, 6-9 pm, $75,