After I went off the Great American Apparel Diet last year, I decided to write all of my spending down to get a better idea as to what might be wrong with the way I shop. I've had problems with shopping for several years. I've gone from trendy high street shopping to hoarding second hand, then back to high street, then investing in more expensive items, then back to thrifting. I've tried budgeting, splurging, shopping strikes, moderation, and everything in between. And still, at the back of my mind, I've known that whatever I was trying to do at a given time, things were not making sense. I was a bad shopper. My notebook and I were convinced that keeping track of spending and buying for an entire year would be my best bet to figure out what the underlying problems really were. 2011 is long gone, and here we are - except that posting about this topic is more difficult than you'd think.
I tend to write critically about fashion, personal style and consumerism, and after a year of what was supposed to be conscious buying, the end results are horrendous. I actually thought about not writing this post to save face, but at the end of the day, I thought that perhaps it is a good idea to just face the situation publicly. If I let you guys know what's happened in my end, maybe it could help me consume more carefully in 2012. And perhaps, just maybe, I'm not alone in this. So let's cut to the chase.
Your eco-conscious, critical consumer spent over two and a half thousand dollars on clothes in 2011, $2,520 to be exact. What's way worse, I accumulated 90 pieces of clothing. 90. Nine-zero. How could this be?, you ask in horror. Well, here's the math regarding the money and what it was spent on:
On things I bought brand new, I spent $1,274. This includes three pairs of Fluevog boots, a Diesel bag and a hat (all of these were bought during our January trip to New York City), two pairs of jeans from the Gap, a bunch of jewelry, new underwear, and a top and a hat from Marimekko. That's it; well over a thousand dollars gone, just like that. But the good thing is that this group is a hands-down winner in wearability. Everything I have bought new, I have worn actively. Could it be that I choose more wisely when I have to spend more money?
On things I bought from eBay and Etsy, I spent $455. This includes a couple of pairs of second hand Fluevog shoes/boots (yes, it has been the year I got to know and love Fluevogs), a handful of vintage dresses, a pair of cowboy boots, a sequin suit, jewelry. Apart from the eBay'ed Fluevogs, my online purchases were mostly flukes, or to be fair, just not very wearable. The items may have been nice, and I still like them, but they simply haven't found their way into my value-for-money daily wear. Also, there are issues here with fit. I am more likely to make mistakes if I don't get to try stuff on before buying it.
On things I thrifted on my two trips to Finland, I spent $365. (Sweaters, skirts, jewelry, belts, tops, dresses, trousers, jackets.) The volume that comes from this group is very high. A lot of the items are wearable, but there is just way too much stuff. More on that later.
On things I bought at antique/thrifty shops, auctions and yard sales in the US, I spent $266. (Skirts, jackets, jewelry, purses.) Considering how much money I spent in antique/thrifty shops and yard sales, the value for money is very bad. The winners in this group were two skirts and a pair of Converse, in all of which I spent $3 in total. The rest of that $266... nah. Just not worth it.
On things I bought at the Salvation Army thrift shop, I spent $160. (Flannel shirts, sweaters, skirts, dresses.) This group carries a fair bit of the volume, but I bought practical things. I wear my Salvation Army thrifts all the time.
Now let's talk about the dreaded 90 items. We are talking 3 pairs of jeans, 4 pairs of trousers, +25 tops and sweaters, 5 jackets, 4 belts, 11 dresses, 4 handbags, 8 pairs of shoes, and 12 skirts. Add random tunics, vests and what have you, and we've reached that staggering 90 items of clothing. That's 1.7 pieces of clothing every week.
Clearly, what got me into trouble volume-wise was thrifting, and more specifically, thrifting in Finland. I took two trips to Finland, and on both trips I visited as many flea markets and thrift shops as I could. Thrifting in Helsinki offers a lot more variety compared to my usual day-to-day life. There are lots of shops to visit. When you visit one, you think that it would be a good idea to visit another. Before you know it, you're thinking to yourself "why not visit them all, since you are here anyway?" In addition, clothes in thrift shops in Finland tend to be much nicer than in our little town in New York, and then there's the flea marketing. It's an affordable way to score great things, and we don't have flea markets where I live. There is just an awful lot of temptation around me in Helsinki, and since trips there are "special occasions", I give myself permission to shop more freely.
Well, it is not fair to put the blame on Finland, because thrifting at home in the US is equally problematic when it comes to the sheer amount of the clothes I have bought. The real culprit behind my shopping, I find, is the price tag. It is evident that I will keep buying stuff if it's cheap. The problem: I buy multiples. If I like a certain look, I am more likely to buy 3-4 variations of that look because it feels like a great deal. "3 skirts for 3 bucks! Why not!" I currently live in my thrifted black skinny jeans, and I keep thinking that I should find another pair, because they are so great. But the truth is that I already have the one pair that works, so why would I even need another? The sad thing here is that even if I have multiples, I am more likely to wear the same thing over and over. Among the multiples, a favourite will quickly emerge, and the rest of the items are left unworn. The mistake here, is 1) giving into the idea that I need many of the same, and 2) not knowing beforehand what I will actually end up wearing.
Here's the thing that really gets to me: honest to God, I really didn't think that I had gone all crazy in 2011. I thought that I had mostly bought - dare I say it - rationally, things that seem like basics, things that I really care about. Yes, there were some obvious mistakes: I spent $60 on an ill-fitting vintage army coat, and that still unworn sequin short suit cost me $30. I bought two vintage purses at an auction ($27), and yes, they are pretty, but I doubt if I'll ever use them. I splurged $29 on an on-the-shoulder cat brooch, and I haven't worn it once. Overall though, my feeling is that I've also made some great investments. I've bought great sweaters at Salvation Army for a couple of dollars, all of my Marimekko purchases (some new, some second hand) have been worth every penny I spent on them, and yes, those Fluevogs, too. I've worn my thrifted velvet skirts and dresses, my flannel shirts, and those Salvation Army sweaters on repeat this past fall. So yes, I've bought some great items along the way, and everyone makes mistakes, and learning to shop wisely isn't as easy as it sounds. So why do I feel so awful?
Well, the answer is pretty simple, and it comes in two parts. First, $2,520 is just way too much money to spend on clothes. This is not a universal statement by any means - it is a statement about the way I feel about money, and what clothes are worth to me. As you might guess, I don't belong to that group of people who believe that it is okay to spend 10% of one's income on clothes; heck, even 1% is pushing it for me. So let's put this in perspective: the truth is that my two-and-a-half-grand couldn't even buy me that wonderfully pretty Burberry Prorsum raffia trench coat that I saw in an issue of Vogue recently. (I'd be about $400 short.) The point is not that I could have bought two pairs of Prada pumps with the money - I don't need or want Prada pumps. What I need is the feeling that I've spent my money well. Yes, it could have been worse, and when I worked in clothing retail, I am sure it was much, much worse. But the simple fact is that the clothes I've bought this year don't seem like they were worth the money I spent. Some individual pieces, yes. But as a whole, no. I'd rather have money in the bank than 90 new pieces of clothing.
And that brings me to the second part of the answer: I guess it's no surprise to anyone when I say that no closet can hold 90 new items of clothing a year. It's just crazy. For the first time ever, I've actually had to put some of my summer clothes away for the winter. There simply is no space, even after I've donated some of my old clothes to Salvation Army. No matter how you go about it, there is absolutely no justification for buying 12 new skirts in one year. Buying so much in volume is unsustainable (and by unsustainable in this context I mean something that has no longevity): aside from the question of space, the cost-per-wear gets surprisingly high, even if you've only spent a dollar here, a dollar there on your clothes. It is simply not very smart to buy clothes that are left unworn due to something as weird as "too many clothes, not enough time".
The partial solution here, as many thrifters would say, is to donate or sell the back end of the wardrobe. Some thrifters choose to buy one thing and get rid of another on a constant basis. Others do an annual closet clean-up where you either sell or donate the clothes you no longer wear (I have previously fallen into this category). This works for many thrifters. They are willing and happy to keep their wardrobes in a constant flux. But if are interested in creating a sustainable wardrobe that works, if you are tired of going back and forth between what to keep and what to donate, if you feel uncertain about your shopping habits, if you feel overwhelmed or somewhat uncomfortable with the amount of clothing you are accumulating (even if you do the annual culling or what not), and if you find yourself in the situation where your wardrobe just doesn't make sense, I have a suggestion for you: observe yourself for an entire year. Write everything down: what you buy, how much you spend, when you buy, where you buy, what you donate or sell. First, you'll realize that you are buying a lot more stuff than you'd think you were even capable of, and second, your cost-per-wear is much higher than you think it is. You are most likely buying things and wearing them just a handful of times before you get rid of them. You'll soon notice that it's not just about the money you've spent, but more about the amount of clothes you buy and whether your system of recycling and wardrobe flux is actually working for you or not. It is about cost-per-wear, and it's about your peace of mind.
And I'll say it again: a lot of thrifters are perfectly happy with the way their wardrobes evolve with time, and for some, the culling process is fun and liberating. It used to be that way with me, too. But I think I've just reached a point where that process just doesn't make sense anymore. This doesn't mean that I'll stop shopping altogether, or that I'll stop thrifting - thrifting is, at the end of the day, the only environmentally sustainable way to shop. I'm willing to admit that I've been in this situation plenty of times before: I've decided to spend more wisely, and then I've fallen off the waggon before too long. This time, I hope, things will be a little bit different. You see, I have a plan, and I have new rules for shopping. More on that next time.
Next: Shopping plan for 2012, and Five rules of shopping