This post has been a long time coming, but I wanted to follow up on my year-long experiment of only purchasing used clothing.
When I moved to New York City in autumn of 2016, I made a commitment to live with less. I'd anticipated a smaller apartment, minimum closet space, and less income to spend on "wants." (Ironically, I actually have more of all three of those things. Funny how life works.) Having no idea what my new job might demand attire-wise, and still nursing a pretty strong attraction to all things thrift store, I decided to let myself continue to shop for clothes; but I made two rules for myself:
1) If I wanted more / different clothing, I had to acquire it secondhand (via thrift / consignment shop, clothes swap, or passed on from a friend.)
2) Exceptional necessities like work uniforms and undergarments could be purchased new, but only from a brand with ethical values.
Between October 2015 and November 2016, I became well-acquainted with New York's thrift shops. I researched ethical brands and poured over library books and blog posts comparing eco-conscious options. I committed myself to improving my capsule wardrobes and added the challenge of vlogging my seasonal collections. This helped remind me (and exemplify to others) just how far a small closet can stretch. When I found myself sighing over dresses and shoes in shop windows, I made notes of their brand, style, and silhouette -- handy keywords for the next time I found myself on Ebay. The fast fashion shops I'd sworn off became research fields; places for me to sample new trends without the pressure of making a purchase. With this information, I could make better-informed investments at my secondhand locales.
A few months in, I was excited to find that my clothes were holding up remarkably well. Even more exciting, between working part time and taking my number-one distraction off the table, I had a truckload of free hours on my hands. The time I might have spent shopping was instead passed at the library and pouring over my borrowed treasures. I learned how to properly launder clothes. I identified my style icons. I educated myself on the history of American clothing production and the emergence of fast fashion. I defined my chosen values under the umbrella of ethical fashion. Over the course of the year, I read the following:*
- Women in Clothes (Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and Sheila Heti)
- The Style Mentors (Elyssa Dimant)
- The Wow Factor (Jacqui Stafford)
- How to Get Dressed (Alison Freer)
- The Truth About Style (Stacy London)
- The Imperfect Environmentalist (Sarah Gilbert)
- The Lost Art of Dress (Linda Pryzbyszewski)
- You Are What You Wear (Jennifer J. Baumgartner)
- Wear No Evil (Greta Eagan) - review here
- How To Have Style (Isaac Mizrahi)
- Brooklyn Street Style (Anya Sacharow)
- The Joy of Less (Francine Jay)
- The Cool Factor (Andrea Linett)
- The Curated Closet (Anuschka Rees)
- How to be Parisian Wherever You Are (Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Sophie Mas, and Caroline De Maigret)
Maybe educating yourself on personal style isn't the most academically impressive pursuit, but I'm pretty proud of that list. Especially when I consider it kept the fashion-obsessed part of me happy without spending money and polluting the environment.
OBSTACLESOf course along with these triumphs came struggles. Below are some of the issues I ran into on my journey, and the ways I dealt with each.
Problem: The Desire to, well, SHOP!This was, naturally, the trickiest habit to shake. You may be a practical planner or live carefully inside your budget like me, but chances are if you suddenly impose limits on your regular outlets, you'll immediately start craving what you can't have.
Defense: Knowledge of Your Personal StyleBecause NYC thrift stores and consignment shops are abundant and fabulous, this wasn't as difficult as it could have been. That said, secondhand shopping is a whole different beast than buying new -- the most obvious difference existing in these three little words: All Sales Final.
It takes adequate knowledge of your personal style -- or real fake-it-til-you-make-it alacrity -- to make secondhand decisions you won't regret. Real talk? I possessed neither of these before beginning this experiment. It took a lot of trial-and-error, plenty of personal examination, and a whole lot of reading (as evidenced above) to develop.
Worth mentioning is the prerequisite openness to exploring this in the first place. If you're the kind of person who opens their closet and is happy with the choice of a black t-shirt and jeans everyday, rock on with your bad self (and do so sustainably, please!) If you make this same selection and secretly sob into your cup of morning coffee, check out one of the books mentioned above (The Style Mentors, You Are What You Wear, and The Curated Closet would be particularly helpful) and invite your inner badass on your next shopping expedition.
For more tips on smart shopping and discovering your personal style, check out these posts:
7 Savvy Tips for the On-Trend Shopper
How Purchase-Tracking Can Help Define Your Style and Save You Money
Problem: BoredomLet's face it: everyone gets bored with their current closet from time to time. I may put on my best smug-bitch face in my capsule videos, but even the most beloved dress can become monotonous after you've worn it five times in one month.
Solution: ExperimentationAccessories offer a quick fix here. These are typically cheap and therefore a low-risk option at secondhand shops. I couldn't believe how the addition of a new-to-me fedora livened up my wardrobe last fall. Hats especially have a strange power to make me feel like a whole 'nother person.
Interestingly, hanging my clothing by color lead me to notice combinations I might previously have overlooked -- especially print pairings.
A more involved and decidedly nerdier trick I developed was creating "cheat sheets" for my capsule wardrobes. Essentially I built an Excel flow-chart; starting with shoes and branching out horizontally with corresponding bottom, top, and outerwear options, then worked my way through the possible results throughout season. Ideally, your wardrobe is fully mixable and you can skip this sort of overthinking by pulling things at random out of your closet and putting them on. The important thing here is to challenge yourself to avoid pairing the same thing over and over. Unless you like that, in which case, again, ROWYBS.
Many bloggers have sworn by the 10x10 challenge. I personally found this project best lends itself to normcore, neutral-palette wardrobes, which aren't really my style. But it's a great place to start!
For more style fun, check out these wardrobe experiments:
Use Inspiration Photos to Create the Perfect Wardrobe
Build a Capsule Wardrobe
Cull Your Closet
Problem: Damage & DisrepairAs mentioned above, this wasn't a huge issue for me. Perhaps that was largely thanks to starting off with a few high-quality garments; merino blend sweaters, leather boots, a steadfast silk dress, and trusty topcoat, for instance. Still, that didn't mean I was exempt from the occasional oil smudge, pitstain, or straight-up bad investment (Ralph Lauren cashmere-blend gloves, I'm looking at you...)
Solution: Mend, Hire, and Make Good ChoicesIn terms of sustainability, replacement should be a last resort. Ideally, you'll find a way to fix or reuse damaged garments and avoid mindless substitution. After all, the most environmentally-friendly option when it comes to your closet is always wearing what you already own.
Over the course of the year I paid several visits to my sewing box, mending moth holes, busted toes, loose hems, lost buttons, and torn seams. I called on the cobbler to resole my favorite boots (for the third time in their long life), and will soon make another trip to doctor three other pairs. I have yet to find a tailor here in the city, but that's on my list of to-dos this season!
Of course, none of this would have been feasible had I not made quality choices in the first place. Whenever possible, strive to choose items that will be worthy of repair when they finally give out. One of my proudest thrift store investments this year was a pair of gently worn Frye knee boots. These shoes have been known to last a lifetime, and I've been coveting their classic styles for years now. The price point wasn't what I'd spend on just any shoe, but it's been well-worth it. For my work wardrobe, I purchased a like-new Equipment silk blouse, which I launder by hand with Castile soap every second wear. My Rag & Bone wool toggle coat didn't come cheap, even at consignment value, and I'll probably need to dry clean it before storing it this spring. In short, choosing quality over seasonal doesn't always mean cheap and easy, but in the long run, it's likely to save you a lot of time and mental energy. (Who enjoys the agony that comes with replacing a favorite bra or discontinued jeans? NO ONE, THAT'S WHO.)
For more info on fashion ethics and eco-fashion experts, check out this post:
My Style Journey: Sustainability
CONCLUSIONHopefully I've shed some light on this process and encouraged some of you to try it for yourself! It was interesting to finally conclude my experiment last November, what with Christmas right around the corner. Admittedly, I did accept new gifts and make a few purchases for some badly-in-need-of-replacement items, such as my work shoes and winter gloves (dammit, Ralph Lauren.) As much as possible, however, I've tried to carry on these practices. Buying secondhand is still my go-to option when I need or want new clothes -- and I do find myself "wanting" less now. I inspect care labels and steer clear of items that contain synthetics (EXCEPT bras, for which I have yet to find an adequate sustainable replacement.) I'm gravitating more toward transparent brands, quality products, and ethical production values.
Whatever sustainable decisions you make, remember: the choice is yours, and the time is now. There's no "more right" way to do this thing; everyone needs to decide what's suitable and productive for their lifestyle. You'll learn unique truths on your own journey, I'm sure. And when you do, I hope you'll return to share them below!
*It's also worth mentioning the book that started me rethinking my shopping habits in the first place, which I read a year prior to starting this project: Elizabeth L. Cline's Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.