What I learned from a Year Without Buying Clothes (hint: it wasn't about the clothes.)

(Edited to add: This is an old post from a previous blog. Since I first wrote this post, even more changes have happened. Massive ones. Follow up post HERE.)

When I decided to try going a full year without buying clothes - not even second hand or op-shopping - it was motivated by a discovery. I came across a small cupboard in my house. It was in the living room. At the time, it was serving as a makeshift TV stand. Even though my husband and I had been teachers for a few years at this point, we still hadn’t graduated out of impoverished student mode, where your furniture is mismatched and make-do, and not infrequently claimed off the side of the road during hard rubbish season. (Which I still do, anyway...)

So I’d like to point out, that even at this stage, I was living within my means. I didn’t consider myself a materialistic person.

But then, in the process of packing up the house to move, I came across this small cupboard. And apparently I hadn’t opened this cupboard in a while, because I had completely forgotten what might have been inside it. I think that’s why it shocked me. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the discovery of this cupboard’s contents. I wasn’t even aware I could forget my own possessions so entirely.

And before your imagination completely runs away with you, the cupboard contained… shoes. Perhaps ten pairs of shoes.

**crickets**

I know. Not a big deal?

Firstly, I already had a cupboard of shoes I didn’t wear. That on it’s own was a conscience prick – how much do I really need these things if I could forget them for months and not miss them? But it’s not just that I’d forgotten the number of shoes I owned.

And by many standards, it was not an excessive number. I’m certainly no Carrie Bradshaw.

What really made me pause was a story I’d just read.

There was a man who owned only two pairs of shoes. And then a friend, in trouble and needing help, came to him with none. No shoes. His feet were bare. So this first man gave away one of his two pairs of shoes. And the second man, the recipient of the shoes was a criminal. And one who was in trouble with other criminals and on the run.

And then I open my cupboard and see my shoes. My (in comparison) excessive collection of shoes.

And that was it. I couldn’t get this story out of my head. And I started looking at my whole wardrobe full of clothes and wondering.

Wondering, what is all this stuff compensating for?

Because clothes are never just clothes. Excess is never just about the stuff.

Why did I think I needed all this?
How could I still go to my wardrobe and declare I’ve got nothing at all to wear?
If someone in need came to me without shoes or a coat, would I give them mine?

Would anyone even come to me? Did I even know anyone in need?

And so it began...

The year-without-buying-clothes-experiment was born of a pricked conscience and a desire to explore so much more than just an overstuffed wardrobe – but the clothes was a practical place to start. The only place I knew to start.

Everything else was just murmured whisperings at the back of my brain at this stage, unarticulated but unrelenting.

The actual experiment itself ended up being entirely unscientific and life had it’s own plans - as life tends to have.

When I decided to do this, it was near the end of 2011, so I planned to start in January, 2012 just for the cleanliness of the deal. But once I’d decided to do it, I couldn’t just ‘stock up’ in advance. That would defeat the purpose, if I just did 12 months of shopping in one weekend. So it really ended up being about 15 months in total.

But, also, pregnancy happened. So I broke my rule for just a few stretchy skirts and maternity pants. But then add into that: horrible morning sickness, exhaustion, and the fact that I couldn’t buy normal clothes anyway, and shopping was really the last thing on my mind.

And all the grand experiments and additional projects - or even blog posts - I’d envisioned went out the window.

So I don’t even know if what I did qualified as an experiment. It was just, kind of, life.

And it affected everything...

In the way that nothing is ever just one thing, this was the start of rippling change through every part of my life.

It turns out I’m not the life-experiment type. Not in the way that some bloggers are, starting projects and following them through, with actual rules and accountability and all that jazz.

Set plans and me, well, we don’t jive so well.

But while I may not stick to set challenges, my whole life is a social experiment. And even the failed, fizzled projects that don’t seem to go anywhere have profound effects on my future. Even if it takes years to see it.

From here, from this vantage point of the future I couldn’t even imagine back then, I can see how it was my mind and not my wardrobe that was going through the biggest changes. 

Since that time, I have have shed my skin – metaphorically, emotionally (and, well, literally but don't think about that...) – in so many ways, so many times over.

Downsizing, unpacking, lightening the loads. We have moved from a four bedroom, two-storey house to a two bedroom flat. We have donated, sold or thrown out trailer loads and trailer loads of our stuff.

And still we look around and wonder why we have so much that we really don’t need.

We are still in process.

And then, we are going to be moving back to the bigger house we still own… but with a lot less stuff and a completely different lifestyle.

And the real issues appear...

Because in the middle of this process we are realising, it isn’t even the stuff that’s the issue. Stuff is just an outward symptom of what’s going on beneath our skins. The emotional baggage we are shucking is a whole ’nother thing.

And at the same time, exactly the same thing. Everything in life is intertwined, inextricably. Too many shoes, too much fat, too much negative thinking, too much unprocessed trauma. It’s all the same thing.

Cause and effect isn’t as simple as we think it is.

Life is the big experiment. We don’t know half of what we think we do. But at the same time, we are in tune with far more than we think. And in every moment we are doing our best, even when our best looks like someone else’s worst.

So, you want to try and stop buying clothes? Be prepared to feel like your whole life doesn’t even make sense any more.

Want to deal with that emotional pain? Be prepared for that shopping addiction you didn’t know you had to rear it’s glitzy head.

If you’re actually doing something right, everything might just feel like it’s all falling apart for a little while.

Just let it be. The destruction has to come before the reconstruction. The demolition before the rebuild. Sometimes you have to take something apart to put it back together the right way.

And your life is a complex construction. It’s never a simple process. Every thread, every cog, every coil of experience, personality, and belief is wound and tangled with every other. If you start picking at one thing, get ready for everything to feel a little raw.

But don’t go digging. That’s the best part. You don’t really even have to do anything most of the time. You don’t have to have a hundred-point, colour-coded, five-year plan with sub headings.

You just have to be willing to live one moment to the next.

And be open. Just be open. Be open to the little promptings and signpost in your life, one step at a time. The things that need to come to the surface, will - in their own time. In their own way.

When I responded to the prick of conscience over my forgotten shoes, I thought I was just assessing my spending habits. Maybe my generosity - or lack of it - if I dug a little deeper. Maybe my social awareness underpinning that.

Little did I know I was follow a thread that would lead to the unravelling and reworking of my entire philosophy of life and existence. (Several times over.)

But that was the way it was meant to be. I wasn’t ready then to think about everything I’m navigating now. I was ready to not buy clothes for a while. And the next step and the next, and the next, followed naturally at the right time. Like peeling an onion layer by layer. (With just as many tears.)

So take your next step. Even if that means donating one piece of clothing this week. Or clearing out one cluttered cupboard. Or learning one cake recipe without sugar. Or meditating for one minute tomorrow morning. Or reading one book on that topic that’s been playing on your mind but you’ve been too afraid to think about it.

Just do that one thing, and let it be. Don’t pre-empt where you’ll go next. Don’t beat yourself up for what you should be doing, or compare your life to someone else's.

A short exercise:

Don’t censor yourself. Don’t think too hard. You can change your mind later and it doesn't have to be noble, lofty or world changing - no-one’s assessing you. Ready?

  1. Take a deep breath.
  2. Pick up a pen and a piece of paper. (Or the digital equivalent.)
  3. Now I want you to write down the first thing that you skim off the surface of your mind in answer to the following question:

What’s pricking your conscience right now?

Just let that sit for a while. I want you to think about how you are feeling about that thing you wrote down. Are you feeling guilty? Tired? Annoyed? Agitated? Afraid? Like you need to do something?

I want to tell you right now, you don’t have to do anything more with this. You don’t have to act on it. You don’t have to start a project. You are not supposed to feel guilty. You are not obligated to care about it at all.

If you do act, if you do care, let it come from a place of freedom and choice.

If you’re not ready to make any changes yet:

Let it be. Let it percolate or simmer. Let it come into your life or fade away as it needs to. Just wait. Just live.

If you are ready:

You can. You have permission. You are allowed to have this passion, this desire, this energy to act. You are allowed to fail. You are allowed to succeed. You are allowed to enjoy it. You are allowed to take a step then change your mind. You are allowed to make big plans. You are allowed to experiment, make mistakes, learn the hard way and start without knowing what the hell you are doing.

And you are allowed to be great. 
In fact, you already are. You just might not know it yet. And that’s okay.

Life is a great experiment. We hope, we dream, we imagine, we create – but we never quite know. And so we trust our gut, we read the stars, we make lists, we weigh the options, we play the odds. But it’s all an experiment.

And big or small, whatever is in your focus right now in life, it’s yours to play with. It’s yours to discover. It doesn’t have to make sense or seem sensible to anyone. Not even yourself, sometimes. Because not even you know where this next little step might take you. Not even you know the extent of the intertwining parts of your life.

But trust yourself. Trust your instincts. Trust that little whisper that tells you this is something you need right now.

Be open. Let it be. Live.

 

 

*** Follow up to this post several years on: HERE.