Faced with a bulging wardrobe, non-existent budget and a growing sense of unease about her place in the material world, Sally Watkin decided to put her clothes habit on hold. Would she wear the challenge well or fall at the first taupe-cashmere sale?
I love clothes. Soft cashmere jumpers, worn denim jeans, wispy tops of cotton, silk and lace. Butter-soft leather boots. Neutral shades of grey, biscuit and navy; flashes of moss green and bubblegum pink. I love them all. I go into shops to stroke clothes, smell them (shop assistants don’t like it) and often try them on when I have no intention of buying anything.
Last year I attempted a 12-month clothes-buying ban, starting in January. Clothes shopping hadn’t been much fun in recent months. I’d made a few disastrous purchases (Ebay I’m looking at you) and was feeling a little bulgy around the midriff.
Dressing for my time of lifeI’m in that no-woman’s land of the peri-menopause, which does strange things to both my body and state of mind. I used to feel confident about what I wear. I’m naturally slim but if I put on a few pounds, my belly protrudes like a six-month pregnancy. I daren’t camouflage the flab with tunics: they magnify my mummy tummy. I don’t even have the boobs to provide balance and proportion.
Plus, my small wardrobe was bursting at the seams. Jumpers with holey elbows and fraying wrists. Tops I’d had for decades. Skirts so short they could only be worn with trousers underneath (cue: “You’re not going out like that,” from my teenage daughter). She’s long viewed my ‘fashion’ choices with scorn and pity. I suppose I should be grateful at least that’s one aspect of parenting I’m getting right.
Green clothes?I was also feeling increasingly guilty about spending any money at all on inessentials. I was trying to get Logarty off the ground so my earnings were miniscule. It seemed unfair to spend any more of our single household income on clothes when I already had enough to last a lifetime. As my brother – not known for his sartorial elegance – says: “I’ve got a pair of trousers; why do I need another pair?”
Like most people with green aspirations, I feel uncomfortable about the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill. I recycle relentlessly, to friends, charity shops and the Co-op clothes bin, but before my ban I had a nagging feeling I’d already purchased more clothes than I’d ever need. Plus, I was fairly certain that removing certain temptations and distractions would enable me to get more work done.
Shopping around the clockIn a previous life working on women’s magazines in London, I was surrounded by serious shoppers, many of whom regarded working through lunch as a missed retail opportunity. I still own some of the clothes I bought during that time. They are lovely, but far too smart for walking my neighbour’s dog or cleaning out the woodburner. In my fantasy life, I pick clothes off the catwalk. In reality, I'm wielding a pooper-scooper. These days, I’m mostly home alone and ‘meetings’ involve me and Maya on Skype with a mug of tea. Jeans, a jumper and the warmest slippers in the world are my work wear now.
I also wanted to find out whether I was addicted to buying (or thinking about buying…) clothes. Since the internet enabled those of us who are so inclined to shop around the clock, I’ve spent more hours than I care to reveal ‘window-shopping’ online, selecting garments of a particular style, size and colour to place in my cyber basket, only to abandon the ££££ acquisition at the 11th hour. I very rarely click ‘purchase’. Because I never spend more than I can afford, my virtual vice is well hidden, but I still feel bad about my fantasy fashion splurges.
Cold turkeyMy clothes-shopping ban started well. For the first time ever, I resisted the January sales. Despite the festive ‘offers’ that pinged into my email inbox, I wasn’t tempted. Normally, the prospect of discounted cashmere has me reaching for my debit card, but I didn’t come close to breaking my pledge. Clicking the unsubscribe link helped. Hush, Brora and Celtic & Co? Deleted.
As the second-wettest winter on record segued into spring, my knees poked through the patched holes in my jeans again. My much-washed Marks & Spencer cashmere was threadbare. I stuck another almost identical navy jumper on top and tried to forget about the holes.
In with the old clothesOnce the sun came out, I ransacked my wardrobe and discovered lots of clothes that hadn’t seen the light of day for a long time. I had plenty to wear, but I was missing the whole experience of looking at the new season’s offerings. Imagining how my life would be transformed by the perfect pair of jeans. Drooling over frivolous designer ‘pieces’ that cost more than my annual fuel bill and are more appropriate for ladies who lunch than women who refuel on leftover cheesecake washed down with a mug of PG tips. I’m nearly 50, not 15. I know I should be over this (the fashion stuff, not the cheesecake). It’s embarrassing to admit how much I lust after new clothes. Not even my husband is aware of my clandestine love affair.
By May, I was longing for a new-outfit fix, but my birthday was approaching and I was quietly confident that my subtle hints – “I haven’t a thing to wear; I could really do with some new clothes,” – had worked. I was wrong. Books, books and more books. Good thing I love reading.
Rather than fall off the wagon, I bought the latest issue of Vogue. Just £3.99 for fashionista heaven. Next, I decided to adopt a strategy I’ve used on and off for many years, when trying to curtail my habit. I find the best way to avoid buying clothes is to try them on. Usually, they don’t suit, fit or flatter me, which makes it easy to hand them back and leave the shop.
This worked for a few months, but by July I was bored of wearing the same things every day and was desperate for a change. Handily, I live near one of the charity shop capitals of the universe. Reminding myself that my ban applied to ‘new’ clothes, I hit the shops, giving myself a price limit of £5 per item. The spoils included a White Stuff linen dress (£4.50) and a pure silk flowery frock from Boden (£3), both in perfect condition.
These boots are made for workingThat spending spree kept me going until the weather turned. Like Ian Dury, the only items I insist on buying new are boots and underwear. I only have a few pairs (of boots, not knickers): wellies; walking boots; one pair with a small heel that I can’t walk in; Birkenstocks and some wonderful hand-made boots I’ve worn almost daily since buying them.
I invested £165 on these (brown, not purple: I’m not that old) in 2007 and had them re-soled at vast expense only 18 months ago, but in September a small but ominous hole in the leather was pronounced ‘terminal’ by the shop’s expert cobblers. After six years’ service, there was only one solution: a new pair. I justified the expense – and my transgression – by telling myself that boots aren’t really clothes. I live in the shadow of Dartmoor, where it rains a lot. Having wet feet makes me miserable.
Shabby underwear is pantsTowards the end of the year, I started to get my knickers in a twist. The elastic on my best pairs had seen better days. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been well endowed, which has been a blessing for my bank account. I must have saved thousands of pounds by not buying bras. But knackered knickers? Depressing. I convinced myself that half an hour in M&S was justified on the grounds that body confidence starts from within. And, like footwear, undies aren’t really clothes.
My resolve was slipping by this point, but somehow I made it through 2013 without buying a single new item of clothing. The biggest surprise to me was that it was nowhere near as difficult as I’d imagined to simply stop buying new clothes. It’s all down to willpower.
I know this sounds self-indulgent and, in the scheme of things, new clothes are pretty unimportant when you look at what’s going on in the world today. But a little daydreaming does no-one any harm. It’s my secret guilty pleasure.
The top 10 ruleA very glamorous and well-dressed friend told me that she never buys an item of clothing unless she’s certain it will become one of her favourite garments. Her theory is that it’s a brilliant way to stop yourself wasting money on clothes that aren’t quite right: jeans that aren’t exactly the shade of denim you wanted; shoes that pinch just a fraction. If you don’t want to wear it out of the shop, it’s unlikely to make the top 10, which means you shouldn’t buy it.
This year, I’ve resolved to follow the top 10 rule, which is why after spending three hours hunting for jeans (too tight; too short; too mumsy), I went to Waterstone’s instead. It’s March already and so far, I haven’t bought a thing to wear.
Update!Strolling past my local charity shop yesterday, I saw a flash of denim that looked promising. I've been looking for the perfect pair of jeans for so long that I can spot a good fit at 20 paces.
I was right: Benetton skinnies (but, crucially, not drainpipes – I'm not 17) in exactly the right shade of denim, without any holes or even any worn patches (ditto) and enough Lycra for comfort. I slid them on: bingo! The perfect pair for £3; the search is over. Happy days.