‘I think we need to leave knickers on the list,” I say to my editor down the phone. It’s not a conversation I had ever envisaged us having, but we are thrashing out the rules of this project, in which I will record a year of not buying clothes.
t’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time – not purchase anything for a certain period. For almost two decades, I have worked in fashion in some guise – first as a buyer, then as a journalist. As such, I own more, many more, clothes than the average person. “Is that all yours?” a far more frugal friend once asked in horror at the sight of a packed rail in my bedroom. That and the three wardrobes, I had to confess.
I could easily never buy another item of clothing again and not run out.
A quick scan through my wardrobes reveals I own 40 floral dresses; my best friend regularly tries to stage an intervention at the sight of me purchasing yet another. Twenty-seven pairs of jeans currently sit, unworn, on a shelf in my bedroom.
Why now? Last year, I wrote a shopping page for this magazine. Collating pages of the High Street’s weekly new additions while abstaining entirely myself seemed a little tone deaf. That is not to say I’m swearing off fashion for good. Rather, I plan to pull back in a dramatic full stop, in order to reassess what, and how, I purchase.
Obviously, we all need to concern ourselves with being more sustainable, but this is a personal experiment; I do not intend to preach, or judge. As a person who owns three pairs of her favourite pink adidas trainers (in my defence, the second and third pairs were on sale) I am the last person to grandstand about such matters.
I also think there needs to be a grey area here. When the crash happened in 2008, I remember, on occasion, people almost gloating at the closure of some shops. There would be comments about how we’d all gone a little bit mad; mentions of Celtic Tiger vulgar excess. Yes, I remember thinking, but these are also people’s jobs being lost. The Irish retailers and designers we cover in this magazine work incredibly hard.
Also, clothes bring joy to people, something we all need more than ever, given the times in which we we live. Existing in a pandemic, we take our moments of happiness wherever we might be lucky enough to find them. If that is a new purchase, so be it. If you are supporting an Irish business when you do that, good for you.
For now, though, I feel as if I’m in a sort of mindless cycle of buying, fuelled in part by a treat mentality – I work hard, so I deserve something new. Let’s buy another midi dress which, particularly now we’re all working from home, will quite possibly just disappear, unworn, into the existing morass of my wardrobe.
“We have all of these reasons for why we buy certain things,” explains psychotherapist Sarah Crosby, author of 5 Minute Therapy, identifying the notion of aspirational consumerism.
“That idea of identity. We’re attributing identity to objects; we’re attributing it to acquiring another dress, or to the membership of that gym. We’re attaching a fantasy to the purchase. As humans, we’re inclined to do that. We believe it will make us happy. We’ll feel more secure.
“Sometimes we have a genuine need, but sometimes it is for that quick boost,” Crosby continues. “There is something in that. In the short term, it feels good, and we like to feel good.”
Shopping can also be a coping mechanism, she adds. “It’s a form of escapism. Something to distract us from the reality of what might be going on. But it’s short-term relief. Particularly, last year, there’s something around grief. The possibility of what could have been. This blueprint of what we’d envisioned for ourselves. It is a great distraction from that. Buying, and fast-buying, that impulse reaction, is an effective way to distract us from having to sit with what is actually underneath.”
In the case of me and my three packed wardrobes, buying has nothing to do with the reality of need, but rather a temporary hit of pleasure. While there might be a short-lived high at the moment of purchase, in fact, there is a larger, negative impact. Which brings me to my main motivation for embarking on this year-long project, which is far less altruistic than saving the environment: the financial angle.
As a self-employed single mother, my finances are my biggest source of anxiety. Buying more stuff feeds into that, and yet still I do it. So I’d like to look at that- how not spending helps my general sense of well-being, and why we do it in the first place – continue to engage in things we know don’t really serve us.
“We need to be more conscious of our choices,” reflects Crosby. “We can’t change something if we’re not aware of it. Start to bring some curiosity to it. When that impulse is there, it’s worth getting curious about what’s going on through some self-enquiry. What is it that I’m actually buying? What is the fantasy I’m attaching to this purchase? What do I believe this will bring to my life, and is this realistic? There’s something about creating the pause.”
Usually, when we’re impulse shopping in order to feel better, Crosby explains, something within us has been triggered. “Rather than reacting in the moment, take a second to respond. Can I create another pause? And usually, if we can create a second pause, we can build from there.
“It isn’t an easy remedy – we will slip, fall into old patterns. ‘Oh, I’ll just buy that, and buy that, and it will be only be after the fact that we realise ‘I’ve done that thing that I wasn’t going to do’.”
It is important we don’t let these slippages become things with which we berate ourselves, Crosby says.
Already, I’ve noticed a small impact on my peace of mind. When an ad pops up on Instagram, instead of jumping down the rabbit hole of discovering Rouje’s new-season prints of the Gabin » » dress, for example, I simply scroll on. I clock an immediate sense of relief, entirely connected to knowing I’m not going to be spending money; that I am not giving in to the ‘but I must have this, it is somehow different to all the others I already own’ line of thinking.
In a monthly dispatch for Life, I intend to examine how we can enjoy the clothes we have, but also consider how we can shop, and enjoy fashion, in more sustainably conscious ways. To look at letting go of all the clothes that represent your past selves, sitting unworn in the wardrobe; and to stop the cycle of buying for some imaginary, future, better you.
To consider how we dress now, as the world around us is changing. What we really need in our wardrobes. How we can repurpose what we have. And how we can use our clothes to lift us up.
A friend said recently: “I’m sick to death of the bloody black puffer coat and gym gear – they’re bringing me down.” She described going back to her wardrobe and pulling out a favourite coat a friend had given her, not as practical or quite as warm as the obligatory pandemic puffer, but colourful and joy-bringing. Wearing it on her daily walk that day had made her feel just that little bit better.
I intend to do the same, to start wearing all the stuff that has mostly hung for the past year (or more) in my wardrobes. To commit to the project, I will document it on my Instagram. I remain baffled as to how I will break into wearing dresses (tights necessary in current temperatures) or jeans – working from home and dealing with waistbands just seems like an unnecessary punishment when things are so grim.
I do not subscribe for one second to the notion that the pandemic gave us needed time to slow down, stand in our bare feet in our gardens and take stock, and therefore in some small way wasn’t all negative. This seems to be like a very privileged way to have experienced what Covid-19 has done to our world, and one that ignores the devastation wrought by the disease.
But, the thing is, as utterly rubbish as last year was, and this year is proving also to be, having everything cut away, as is the case when living in lockdown, does make you realise what it is you actually need to be happy. None of that, for me, is to be found at the bottom of an Asos haul.
“There is an optimism to it in some ways,” Crosby says of impulse buying. “We’re holding on to the hope that tomorrow will be different. I will be different in some way. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is a short-term relief.”
As I was taking the pictures for this piece, of my 40 floral dresses, I realised a few things:
First, many of the dresses are from Penneys, and, man, I’m going to miss Penneys. Secondly, in my defence, a number of them were very kindly gifted by designers or brands. Thirdly, I have often bought a version of something I essentially already own; this is a symptom of the kind of repeat, mindless buying – rather than wearing what you already own – I want to knock on the head.
However, what I found most revealing, as I trawled through my wardrobe, was the realisation that a large percentage of these dresses were bought as an act of bringing joy back into my life.
In the year after my marriage ended, as I began to come out of the worst of the grief, I started abandoning the black gym gear I’d spent most of the last year in, and instead started buying colourful, usually floral, dresses. It was a sign to myself that I was ready to stop heavily grieving, and ready to get on with enjoying life again.
These clothes were joy-bringers, both in the moment of wearing them, and, in my case, more than that. I started writing an online column about putting your life back together after things fall apart – the first instalment was about the floral dresses, and how seeing my little daughter’s pleasure in dressing up had inspired me to start taking an interest in those things again. That column turned into a book. And that book led to, well, lots of other lovely things. So the floral dresses helped me out of the hole I was in.
But a person only needs so many floral dresses. I’m happy with where I am now, I don’t need to buy more to add joy to my life.
In fact, spending money mindlessly on things I don’t need makes me anxious. It actively takes away from my happiness. What makes me happy is what I already am lucky enough to have in my life. I just need the pandemic to end so I can get on with enjoying it. By ‘it’ I mean the people I love.
“If we can create some pause before we buy into the fantasy, before we project that aspirational self into the next thing, that’s a good way of cutting into it,” Crosby says.
With that in mind, I will be buying nothing but knickers for the next year, I confirm with my editor.
Follow Liadán Hynes @liadanhynes and #LifeLightly on Instagram.
‘5 Minute Therapy’ by Sarah Crosby, €14.99, published by Random House, is available now
Sunday Indo Living