A few weeks ago, I spent a whole evening trying to buy a dress for a wedding. “I’ll just pop to Topshop and pick up some darling little slip of a frock! I’ll probably be home by 7pm!” I told myself, like an idiot.
Three hours later I was blistered and dehydrated, pounding up and down Oxford Street like a woman possessed. Soon places started closing and I was down to the 10pm openers, growing glassy-eyed in a deserted House of Fraser, increasingly frantic with each pastel lace skater dress I flicked through.
Eventually I ended up back where I began, Topshop, where I bought a dress at 9:55pm that I hadn’t tried on and wasn’t sure I even liked.
“Why can’t you wear something you already own?” asked a friend, gently, like the opposite of an idiot. Well, I began, BECAUSE! Reasons! Because I… I… nope, I had no sensible answer. I couldn’t wear something I already owned because I already hated everything I owned. I had to shop. Shopping is what I do.
Shopping for me is a habit, not a joy. I shop often, and I shop hard. Even when I’ve set out to do something completely different, I somehow find myself shopping. Put me up a mountain in the Outer Hebrides and I’ll somehow end up with a souvenir tea towel. Sometimes I feel as though adult life is just shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping and shopping and then you die, only to find you don’t have the right shoes to wear in the afterlife.
I’m not even really talking about the evils of consumerism or compulsive spending addiction, though they deserve plenty of column inches in their own right. I’m just talking about life as a dedicated follower of fashion. A person who likes clothes and likes trends and therefore lives on a perpetual treadmill of shopping missions, continually jogging towards a horizon that never gets any closer.
You know how it goes. “All I need,” you tell yourself after an especially splurgy haul, “is some shoes to go with the dress and then I’m DONE, done for months! Done until Christmas!”
So you buy the shoes but then you're all “oh actually I ought to have a new bag too and THEN I'll be done.” So you buy the bag. But then your old jacket doesn’t look great with the new bag, so you need a new jacket so you buy a new jacket, by which point you've gone off the dress a bit and really need a different pair of shoes to go with the next dress and maybe a hat and actually no, you are not done. Of course you're not. You will never, ever be done.
Am I alone in this? I might soon be. Last week the Office for National Statistics announced that clothes shopping in the UK has gone into decline for the first time in more than 20 years – down 4.4% on average over the last five months, despite an increase in other types of retail sales.
But if the steady stream of ASOS parcels and shiny new purchases that comes through my office is anything to go by, plenty of us our still doing our bit to prop up the high street economy – and in a week where a Zara coat can ‘go viral’, fashion shows little sign of relenting. When you’ve been Instagrammed three times in the same dress and an army of must-buys is haunting your every step round the internet, buying new stuff seems not so much optional as obligatory.
So, how? How does a person slam on the brakes, hop off the treadmill and stop the endless cycle of shopping?
When life coach Holly Smith realised she was spending all her money on credit and store cards, she took the cold turkey route, giving up shopping (for everything except food and everyday toiletries) for a whole year.
“I couldn't see that I was spending it all on cheap tat that I didn't need. I knew drastic action was needed in order to change my habits,” she says. “The mental benefits were huge. Not buying stuff made me appreciate the things I did have, and getting rid of things I didn't want or need any more was so addictive – I felt a weight lifting off my shoulders with every bag I took to the charity shop.”
I’ll admit, it’s appealing. Every so often, buzz phrases like ‘shop your wardrobe!’ and experiments like Sheena Matheiken’s Uniform Project make me think that maybe I could just opt out altogether. But then – then, my bag breaks. My jeans sag. I see the seasons changing and trends shifting and I get the urge to mark the week with a nice new jumper. I remember that I bloody love clothes, and that while unthinking consumerism might be bad, it’s not necessarily worse than spending all my money on booze or drugs or lining FIFA’s pockets.
So what else? Helen Fielding and my friend Daisy both advocate the same grown-up shopping philosophy; that it’s better to spend a lot on one really great thing than not much on 10 slightly shit things. See: designer Tom Cridland, whose simple £65 sweatshirt is supposed to last for a whopping 30 years. I’ve had moderate success with this approach – there was the Whistles leather jacket, the suede ankle boots, the posh pink coat I’ve worn for three winters and counting – but the trouble is that good quality doesn’t kill that desire for volume and variation in my wardrobe. I still get bored, just with a bigger price tag.
Likewise Marie Kondo’s famous philosophy, of only buying things that “spark joy”, sounds very lovely until you realise it means you’ll live a life crowded with sequin tutus and backless jumpsuits but never own a plain black top. Kondo is right about not shopping with friends, though. Friends are enablers. They will always tell you to buy the ridiculous thing, because then they can live it vicariously through you and save themselves £59.99.
More helpful, I think, are Dr April Lane Benson’s tips on mindful shopping. A psychologist who specialises in treating shopaholics, Dr Benson encourages shoppers to “build in a pause” between changing room and till, to examine the real reason you’re reaching for your wallet. “Ask yourself: a. Why am I here? b. How do I feel? c. Do I need this? d. What if I wait?”
“It’s important to realise that shopping is an equal opportunity, all-purpose mood changer, but works only temporarily,” she warns. “What you really need is related to the mood that’s precipitating the shopping binge. If you’re angry, for example, and your shopping is a form of revenge, what you need is a healthy way to manage those feelings so you can let go of them.”
Which all makes sense. It’s not following trends that’s the problem, it’s letting them drag me around. When I’m feeling frazzled, shabby and inferior at the end of a hard week, buying yet another £30 embroidered shirt is never going to be as effective as just going home and having a big long bath.
Then there’s the opposite to mindfulness: blissful ignorance. If you don’t know the clothes are out there, you can’t want them as much.
“Start by removing temptations,” advises Holly. “Unsubscribe from mailing lists, delete shopping apps, cut back on magazines.” The thought of a digital declutter is always soothing, but it’s not till now I’ve noticed how many of my ‘treat’ distractions from work involve browsing and buying stuff.
For Holly, giving up shopping gave her time to become a better cook. She says, “if you've always thought about writing a novel or learning a new skill, use your shop-free time to do just that.”
And maybe I will! Maybe I’ll write a fantasy novel about a woman who finds the perfect black cashmere jumper to wear with her new skirt and jacket and last season’s ankle boots, and with it achieves perfect happiness.
Because I might not be ready to jump off the trend treadmill altogether, but if I can swear off the Friday night Oxford Street marathons, that’d be something.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.