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I stopped buying clothing for a year, here’s what I learnt

IMAGE VIA SUKU HOME

WORDS BY ROSIE WATTS

Money can buy some happiness.

In 2018, I bought no new clothes. Okay, I probably bought a few essentials for my trip to Europe but other than that, nope, nada. This was in part a backlash to the overconsumption that characterised my high school years and partly because I needed to save for the aforementioned trip.

But mostly it was because I’d decided to quit fast fashion and thought buying nearly nothing was surely the most sustainable way to live.


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Spoiler alert: it probably is if we’re only talking about reducing waste, pollution and resource usage – all good things, of course. But that doesn’t consider other areas of life like building our unique tastes, identity and self-expression.  

Minimalism and anti-consumerism: a journey 

I’d probably describe my 18-year-old self as a minimalist with a heck of a lot of stuff. The hangover from my school days meant I had an overflowing wardrobe – many pieces unworn and with tags, sigh – and a lot of room decor (read clutter).

Having heaps of stuff aside, I was a committed minimalist at heart, and so I made it my mission to sell, donate or KonMari all these now unwanted items. 

Minimalism, the way I’m meaning it here, is a lifestyle choice and movement that rejects the familiar cycle of a consumerist society: work, consume, repeat. It’s about learning to live with less stuff, while finding value in other, non-material areas of life.

Minimalism is the antithesis to consumerism, which encourages acquiring more goods and is responsible for the relentless demand for fast, new and ever-cheaper things. 

But before we go assuming minimalism was never-before-seen until it took hold in Western societies, it’s important to note that this way of life is not exactly new. Most religions have a long history of alerting us to the ‘dangers’ of possessions.

Buddhism, the fifth largest religion in the world, has a firm belief that material possessions can’t provide long-lasting happiness. Although Buddhism doesn’t encourage us to stop buying altogether, it does advocate for being more mindful, and realistic, about the role of goods in our lives.

It’s true, minimalism helped me sever my mind’s ties between stuff and happiness. I used to see in new clothing the key to being the version of myself I pictured, nay idealised, in my head.

Not buying anything new unless I really needed it helped by slowing down the whole consumption process. No longer could I impulse buy anything on the false pretence it was the secret to self-confidence and happiness. 

I know I’m not the only one who’s found themselves projecting inner hopes onto material goods. Ascribing abstract ideals, like confidence, attractiveness and individuality, to physical possessions is marketing 101. Minimalism helped me to be more critical of consumerist messages, even in their subtler forms like on Instagram or in TV shows. 

Naturally, a major benefit of the no-buying lifestyle is saving money. You might be scared (I was) by how much money you save by being critical about what you buy. But just as concerning as the money we spend is the time wasted.

I’ve certainly lost countless hours in the abyss of online shopping, sometimes only to emerge with multiple carts of stuff and no real intention of clicking purchase. Again, just thinking about owning something could give me that thrill of feeling one step closer to looking how I wanted to look.

Without the dopamine hits and the ups-and-downs of consumption to distract me, I was forced to practice self-acceptance. This helped me close the gap between who I was and who I thought I should be.

But for all the positives minimalism brought, there was always this nagging feeling that something was missing. As it turns out, it was the joy of clothing and its connection to identity – something I’d been denying myself long before I found minimalism. 

Hiding behind the veil of anti-consumerism

From as young as five, I loved putting together my outfits. In the early days, my biggest style icons were the Hi-5 crew members (the original ones, of course). And by 2009, when The Veronicas stole mine and just about every other girl in Australia’s heart, I wouldn’t wear it if it wasn’t black and complete with red glitter detailing.  

Sadly, there is nothing like attending a no-uniform school, adolescent body insecurities and dwindling self-confidence to kill one’s, well, ‘passion for fashion’. I quickly went from looking forward to putting together an outfit to agonising over it.

There were clothes and styles I wanted to try, but in the currency of confidence, I had very few credits to spend. They really only stretched to simple pieces that would help me fit in. And so the dressing for invisibility, or to hide parts of my body I didn’t like began – something that would define my ‘style’ for several years to come. 

When I left school, I knew it was about time I reclaimed my confidence and rediscovered the joy of fashion. But instead, this was when, in a very ‘if I can’t have it, no one should’ way, I swallowed that anti-consumerism pill.

I still believe in minimalism’s value and haven’t really shed my anti-consumerism stance. But truth be told, those things, coupled with starting a long-term relationship, were easy excuses for me not to do the real self-confidence-building work. 

You can have your minimalism and your fashion too 

Since leaving the safety net of that long-term relationship, I’ve realised just how much personal growth I’d put on the backburner. And this has nothing to do with my ex, and everything to do with me succumbing to the dangerous pull of my comfort zone.

A recent video from comedian, actor and YouTuber Anna Akana titled Six Reasons We Self Sabotage made me feel both seen and slightly exposed. Anna neatly summarises self-sabotaging as “actively or passively taking steps to stop you from reaching your goals”.

While this can show up in just about any area of life, for me self-sabotaging has mostly reared its head when it comes to self-expression. This focus on external appearance seems, at first, totally against the lessons I claimed minimalism taught me about disconnecting self-worth from possessions.

But minimalism was actually so successful in freeing me from unhealthy attachments to things, I rediscovered their power as vessels for self-expression. That is, without the unhealthy pattern of idealising material goods, mindlessly consuming, and then self-sabotaging. 

Not everyone feels a need to express themselves through their external appearance. Some are happy to show up to the world with just their personality and good wit. But for many of us, our personality involves a desire to express ourselves outwardly. And that’s okay.

The thing about minimalism I didn’t explain earlier is that it actually doesn’t require you to live an austere lifestyle. It’s less about how many things you own and more about rejecting relentless materialism. There is room within minimalism for mindful and meaningful consumption.

It’s possible, I think anyway, to take pleasure in material goods even if you wholeheartedly denounce consumerism. I know I’ve felt a feeling that can’t be anything other than love for certain secondhand finds or a cool art print. 

What minimalism taught me most of all, and somewhat ironically, is that there can be value in material goods. And for me, that applies mostly to clothes.

When I think about it, we ascribe more than learned societal ideals or marketing ploys to the clothes we wear. That’s where the real joy of fashion comes from – not in the stories we tell ourselves about clothing, but the stories our clothing tells about us.

Brooklyn-based writer and artist Emily Spivack calls these ‘worn stories’. That’s the title she gave her book, a collection of 60 clothing-inspired narratives from everyday people to cultural figures.

Worn Stories has since inspired a Netflix series by the same name that recounts the wondrous way people can discover their true selves in a T-shirt, or encode the symbol of life-long love in a single dress.

Worn Stories reminds us that “so much about who we are is stitched into the fabrics that we wear every day”. Maybe this is the real way to stick it to consumerism and fast fashion’s quest to reduce clothes to merely stuff.

That is, not to say no to goods entirely but to strip back the bad and reclaim the good. Or at least that’s what I intend to do, finally, starting now. 

For more on minimalism and fashion, try this.

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