MY STYLE JOURNEY (II): Smart Shopping


The mundane act that nevertheless shapes us.

You may remember the childhood trauma of going on errands with your mom -- which of course seemed endless and never involved enough cafe rice-krispy treats or toy store detours. Or perhaps you recall the preteen significance of receiving an invitation (via landline, naturally) to to "hang at the mall" with fifth's grade's top queen bees. Or the sacred bonding, however materialistic, that blossomed between you and your mother when she unexpectedly agreed to buy you that Paul Frank tee (which you knew was vastly overpriced, but which you also knew would surpass even the Bearers of Gum on the junior high great chain of being.) Trying on hideous prom dresses with your friends at the Macy's clearance center in the years before selfies; learning what it meant to be a woman in the hands of a troublesome society; nitpicking the oddest parameters of your body in mournful imitation before your confidants' reflections. Discovering yourself in the process of combing through discarded fashions at Value Village, realizing you're the type of soul who takes comfort in the anomalous, who even finds beauty in it.

Whether the mall is your church or your throat gets itchy just thinking about it, we've certainly all had to shop for ourselves at one time or another. (And if you haven't and your age includes two digits, it might be time to reexamine your relationship with your parents.) Chances are, whether you're a man or woman and whether you like shopping or not, we've experienced some amount of universal clothes-buying experiences. Pondering from the safety of a fitting room cubicle whether we can "pull off" a new trend. Feeling like the seams of a garment weren't sewn with our bodies' best interests in mind. Inducing a headache from weighing prices against budgets against wants against worries.

Long story short, shopping can be a total pain in the ass.

While there are certainly marathon, curatorial, and psychotheraputic shoppers out there, the majority of us would like to spend less time thinking about what to wear and where to buy it. We mostly want to look the best we can for the least amount of money and have a merry old time making it happen. (This and this, amiright?)

Personally I've always enjoyed the shopping process, and, largely thanks to my mom, I've always been a fairly mindful buyer. I never had to deal with shopping addiction, credit card debt, or designer fever.* Regardless, I still fell victim to the occasional impulse buy and all too often I'd stand before an overstuffed closet with the age-old quandary of having "nothing" to wear.

My parents provided almost all of my clothing through high school, and I waltzed through college in a combined wardrobe of Christmas-gifted items from them and secondhand clothes I purchased myself. This is when I truly learned to budget, setting aside 10% of my campus job income to cover my purchases. When I graduated and started working full time, I immediately fell victim to that seductive temptress Fast Fashion. (More on her later.) With time on my hands and money in my pocket, I was more inclined to buy new than to thrift, and I'm pretty sure my wardrobe suffered from it. Fast fashion garments (that is, quickly-manufactured on-trend styles often made with cheap materials and cheaper labor) rarely hold up for more than a season, let alone a year. As sweaters pilled and dresses lost their shape, my closet was constantly in need of replenishment. I found myself needing to shop more and more and enjoying it less and less. It was exhausting, it was wasteful, and it may sound all too familiar.

In line with my new interest in minimalism and my decision to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle (a topic I will address in my next post), I decided to stop purchasing new clothing. While I have not eliminated secondhand shopping, I have made far fewer purchases even in that arena than I normally would. With the exception of Christmas gifts my wardrobe has not seen a truly "new" addition since I made the move to New York -- and if you've ever stepped foot in SoHo or taken a stroll down 5th Avenue, you know it's not for lack of opportunity!

As it turns out, New York is also the perfect place to become a dedicated thrifter. Between the plentiful Housing Works, eclectic Beacon's Closets, and hidden gems like the East Village's Cure, I've been want for nothing here. Besides, there's a city's worth of fashionistas (and -os!) to keep refilling my stock.

In places where exclusively thrifting might prove more challenge, here are some other approaches to try:

1) Limit yourself to a budget or number of items, then make a clear GAME PLAN. Yeah, yeah, you're spontaneous. Having a roadmap cramps your style... But if your end goal is a cohesive, uniquely-you wardrobe, this is an essential part of the deal. Sit down and get real with yourself about what will support your current wardrobe. Not what Zooey Dechanel was wearing on the last episode of New Girl (unless that happens to fit your style, of course) -- not what you want, but what you need. Take time with this, and let it marinate awhile. When you're getting dressed in the morning and you realize you could really use a fill-in-the-blank to achieve the look you want, make note of it. Once your list is complete, copy it into the Notes section of your phone or onto an index card in your wallet. Reference it before you leave to go shopping, while you're in the store, and while you're in the dressing room. Reference it to the sales people who have commission lasers beaming out their eyes. Whatever you do, don't stray from that list.

EDIT: As your wardrobe takes shape and your sense of style becomes more clear, then by all means relax these guidelines a bit, and don't worry so much about following "the plan." Until then, however, I'd advise learning the rules before you break them.

2) Just don't shop for a while. Arguably the most challenging, you can always just quit shopping cold turkey. For a time. Try a year, six months, or a three-month season. Maybe keep a journal of what items you find yourself wanting, and how you feel throughout the process. The times I've taken shopping hiatuses have always been something of a stress-relief for me. Just one less thing to think about!

3) Wait a week. This is a tough one for sale shoppers and thrifters, as there's always the issue of scarcity at hand. Still, if you struggle with impulse splurges or buyer's remorse, this is a great remedy. When you see something you think you'd like to buy, but you're not really sure you need, leave it there and do your best to forget about it. If you're still thinking about it in a week or two, give yourself the green light.

4) Try a Wardrobe Challenge. In addition to the links I posted in Part 1 of this series, the following challenges are particularly structured to limit superfluous shopping:
  • Project 333 - I haven't tried this challenge myself, but it seems straight-forward enough! Another one you can find various versions of in several bloggers' archives.
  • 30-Day Winter Wardrobe Challenge (Who What Wear) - While I wouldn't advocate trying to recreate all of these (doing so would only serve to further enable unnecessary spending), these monthly challenges offer great suggestions for building of-the-minute looks from pieces you probably already own.
You may be wondering why any of this matters. You may love shopping, have the funds for it, and wonder why you'd want to limit this pastime at all. There are a number of benefits I see in evaluating our consumption habits -- learning to value experiences over "things," taking stock of our privilege, understanding our own psychological habits, encouraging civil rights, appreciating craftsmanship and function over novelty, challenging double standards of the fast fashion industry... But the most important reason lies beyond these concepts. The fact is, the shopping-obsessed, capitalist-driven, mondo-consumerist lifestyle embodied in much of our world today is simply not sustainable for the planet we call home.

Kind of brings a new weight to "Shop til you drop," doesn't it?

Other Useful Shopping Resources:

*If you do struggle with any of these, and/or if the concept of budgeting is mind-boggling to you, I encourage you to check out this series for tips on how to deal!

**One mystery I have yet to solve about this challenge: Once the season is over and you're left with these 5 key items, where do they go? Do you store them for next year? Do you sell them before they're out of style? Do you integrate them into your basics and donate 5 old things? Or is your closet just supposed to expand by 5 pieces each season until you cull again? If anyone wants to hazard a guess, PLEASE SHARE IT BELOW, because I'm desperately curious!!

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