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10 things I’ve learned in my year of no new clothes

by | Oct 12, 2020

For an entire year, I have not bought new clothes, driven by evidence of the harm the fast fashion industry does to the environment and the people who work in it. This was a big deal for me: I’ve always loved clothes, browsing and inevitably buying them too.

Well, it’s been a lot easier than I feared. And I’ve gained a lot – not just a fuller wallet and the knowledge that my choices help lessen pressure on our planet and take a stand against abuse of factory workers (according to this editorial in The Guardian, one in six people worldwide work on producing new garments and only 2% of them earn a living wage).

These are the 10 things I have learned in my year of no new clothes:

1. My relationship with clothes and consumption has changed – forever

As I eased into my year of no new clothes, the first thing I noticed was that I felt lighter and freer as I resisted wandering into clothing shops “just to look”. My shopping trips were quicker and more focused on their purpose, such as stocking up on groceries and essentials. I had more time.

It became clear that I did not need most of what I’d been buying. That also applied to other items. Yet another vase or coffee cup? Gifts, too – they can be handmade or found, like a piece of treasure, second hand.

2. I know more about myself

I recognised that my clothing consumption habit was a lazy way to fill gaps in me. Maybe it’s got to do with a tendency to low self-esteem (it’s more common than you think). Each time I bought that new dress or pair of jeans, there was a brief sense that this would make me a better, more accepted, more successful person. Understanding this makes me feel even more light and free.

There are remnants of the old. As I pack my bag for a trip, I worry slightly because I wore those same shirts last year. But then I remind myself, it’s good that I’m wearing them this year, too. It’s a long process, this freeing ourselves from causing harm with our consumption habits. But I’m taking control and moving in a healthier direction, and that’s what matters.

3. I am part of a community

At the start, I tentatively challenged others to join me in not buying new clothes for a year. We set up a Facebook group. We’ve just renamed it from the unwieldly “We’re not buying new clothes for a year” to “Threads lightly”. Here, we share our experiences and celebrate each other’s creativity; not buying new fosters all kinds of creativity.

I recommend joining hands with like-minded men and women. I’d love to know exactly what impact my choices have made. In an average year, I may have bought a pair of jeans, three shirts and a dress (okay, I admit, that’s an underestimation). Just avoiding buying those new jeans and a shirt would have saved around 20,000 litres of water (depending on your source). That’s what it takes to produce them from cotton production to dyeing – the same amount of water you’d drink in 13 years. Multiply that by the size of your community. And, yes, we understand that some brands are cleaning up their acts; we welcome it.

4. Clothes gained a deeper meaning

South Africa reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic by imposing a military- and police-enforced lockdown. For weeks, we were not even allowed to take a walk for exercise. Clothing became a special bridge to the friends and family I missed so much. I’ve shared pics of some of this clothing in this post.

This bridge extended to other items. It gives me a special connection when I look at the painting of a long, swaying, dreaming woman that Alice and Vuyo chose for me because, they reckon, it looks like me. Same thing when I stroke a raku vessel made by my potter friend, John Steele. And there’s a special painting by Kathryn, who knocked at my door and asked me to pose for her for a commission. Long story short: this was how I met a woman who would become one of my closest friends, and the painting somehow made its way back to me.

5. My wardrobe started making sense

While I was not buying new clothes, I was becoming more aware of what was in my bulging wardrobe. I rediscovered hidden gems. And I found a bunch of stuff that I won’t wear again. These have gone to charities or are set aside for our next Clothes with Karma clothing exchange. I will never have a “lean” wardrobe, but I am closer to knowing exactly what’s in it, to a wardrobe that makes sense.

6. There are many ways to shop without buying new

Clothing exchanges are a great way to “shop”. Take our Clothes with Karma events under the milkwood trees in my garden. About 20 people gather for an afternoon with items of clothing (as well as books and household items) that we love but no longer wear. We walk away with faces aching from laughing and armfuls of “new” clothes. Bags and bags of items go to charities.

Charity shops are troves. I still enjoy browsing for beautiful things, and I am perfectly at home doing so in charity shops. There’s a real sense of adventure as you explore off the beaten consumer track. Sometimes, items need a touch of editing to get them as you want them. I’ve attacked jeans from these shops with scissors, seam rippers and scraps, and my plan is to sell them under my new label, ReCreate Clothing. And I’ll get there. Meanwhile, I’ve applied to technique to some of my old favourite jeans.

My sister-in-law, in a big job in New York City, swears by hiring clothing. She always looks fabulous: stylish and at ease in what she is wearing.

7. Sewing is the new sexy. Upcycled is the new black

Sewing (and knitting and crocheting) were once the naff things we pretended we had no interest in. No more. This is how we create items that are uniquely us and ours, whether from scratch or upcycling. Visible mending is super sexy: now, we don’t toss out clothes with a few holes; we embroider or use bright fabrics and rich textures to draw attention to them.

The art of sewing, I wrote in The power of needle and thread, is stepping out of the closet as we take a stand against mindless consumption of damaging fast fashion.

8. We set our own trends

COVID-19 has forced us to free ourselves of trends – at least, trends as we have known them, decided on by some god-like people to prepare us to spend our money on just this coat, just this piece of furniture.

Right now, I don’t know what the gods have deigned the trends to be: what colourways, lengths and fabrics they have decided I should be seeking. And I don’t care. The trend, for me and my community, is that our clothing choices don’t help kill the Earth and support appalling factory conditions.

Perhaps it’s even the end of seasons (seems there are far more than four a year in fashion-speak). As this article from InStyle explains, the “coronavirus-induced plunge in sales” signals a “radical shift of a cycle that has been spinning and overproducing for decades”. It continues: “Between the combination of readily available trends and the pressure to wear a new outfit for every post on social media, we have been trained to expect and buy new things. This is hurting our wallets, the people making our clothing, and the planet.”

And: “If the industry went seasonless by getting rid of the fashion calendar entirely, allowing brands the time and space to make collections that work for their customers and pushing fast fashion to do less, we could change things for the better. Seasonality and trends don’t need to define how we dress, and they certainly shouldn’t be contributing to a labor and waste crisis.”

9. Basics are in the eye of the wearer

A wardrobe that makes sense rests on basics, on classics. But my basics are likely not the same as yours. I looked at a list of basics prescribed by a flurry of fashion editors and stylists recently – and I won’t wear most of them (when last did I choose to wear a plain white T-shirt or a “smart” jacket?). Another list included high heels – puleeze! Let’s not get into the “must-haves” for women over 50 (can you believe people actually put these lists together and they are not joking?).

My most basic basics are comfortable jeans that fit well and look good. That slips onto some lists, but so do “tailored trousers”, which are not basic for me. Black ankle boots often make the gods’ lists – I’ve always had a fabulous pair because I love them, but I also love my unlistworthy flowery Doc-style boots. My basics work for me because I live half in the bush and I’ve worked from my own home office for the past 20 years.

What I am trying to say is this: choose items that you will wear and will last a long time, but be sure that they work for you. Define your basics.

10. I will buy new, but I’ll do it mindfully and minimally

Mostly, I’ll buy second-hand items, take part in clothing exchanges and create my own. When I buy new, I’ll choose local designers, most of which operate on a small scale with intimate knowledge of their fabrics and good relationships with the people who sew for them; local production also reduces the carbon footprint. I’ll choose “sustainable” brands when I can afford them. And I’ll buy what I need – mostly. I may choose something purely because it is beautiful and I will wear it over and over again.

Viva, slow fashion. Viva.

  • This article originally appeared on UNDER THE MILKWOOD on 8 September 2020
  • Anna Utochkino / Unsplash 
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