It was April 2019. I was 7 months pregnant, and I was in Topshop, looking for something big to get my body back.
I was wearing a maternity dress that, if you had seen me pregnant, you would have known – cheaply wrapped, pleated in a red floral print that expands as it expands. I imagined Issey Miyake, but increasingly looked like an armchair. It worked out well for me, but I was determined to buy anything, anything, to see me over the next few months.
I stayed inside for 20 minutes, slowly moving between the bars like an icebreaker, when I began to feel short of breath, then nausea. Neither of them was unusual in my pregnancy, so I left the shop looking for a seat. There was no need – as soon as I walked out, I suddenly felt calm. I realized it wasn’t the baby making me sick. It was Things – Rows and rows of things.
I couldn’t explain what happened until I read Mark O’Connell’s 2020 book, Notes from the Apocalypse. In it, O’Connell described a similar experience at the Yo! Sushi, while watching a conveyor belt spin and spin: “I thought about how much human and animal flesh would be required to keep the system going,” he wrote. Suddenly, he, too, gasped, “experiencing a kind of abstract terror…in the delirium of commerce.”
While sushi was what O’Connell did, it was the mass-produced dresses that did mine. Everything is a commodity and nothing is sustainable. This fact overwhelmed me. Two years later, this cheap red dress was one of the last new things I owned. The only clothes I buy are used clothes.
The operative word here is new, for what happened in Topshop was not so much a Damascene moment as a correction to something already in motion. I really like clothes, but I always tend to buy used clothes. As a student in Leeds, it was fashionable to dress as it was in the past, so I bought Levi’s 501’s worn out clothes in antique stores. At my first job in journalism, in 2007, I was underpaid, so I went to charity shops out of necessity. When I started to earn a little more, I upgraded to a vintage from Beyond Retro, because the jeans had the high waists I wanted.
Every once in a while I felt the call of sirens from Main Street, or when I got into the fashion press in 2013, I felt like models for sales. But in the end, I always come back to eBay or more recently the fashion resale site Vestiaire Collective. I’m not looking for vintage, an amorphous term that usually means it costs more, and I’m not sure about the marketing terms “resale” and “pre-loved”, which sound loaded. I prefer the term “used”, because that’s what they are. Generally speaking, second hand clothes, even designer clothes, are good value – old Chloe last longer than new Zara clothes and cost about the same.
I helped make a plan that was clear, but not so severe that I would immediately give it up – I could buy new underwear, or sneakers for sports, but nothing else. If you really want a new dress, it has to be an old one. I realized that the key was to value appetite over principle, and go along with the carrot, not the stick. If it cracks – which I did, twice – I will simply move on.
It also helped me give birth to a baby. He hadn’t gained much weight, but my stomach had become souffle and the thought of buying clothes in between clothes – returned clothes, if you will – bothered me. Plus, there are few things that keep you from wandering around the stores like having a small baby. Needless to say, my son only wears old clothes or handmade clothes.
The shutdown has helped, too. Over the past six months, I’ve had more time to look at what I already have, to re-sew the pants, or just iron things so they look better. I do inventories, weigh what I need (pants, thermal jackets) and what I don’t (everything else). I’m trying to run a one-on-one policy, donate to clothes banks, or sell stuff on eBay.
It also helps not to look. Over Christmas, I wanted a yellow hat that I saw in a shop window. I have a Navy hat, but it was…yellow. I thought about it a lot and then, all of a sudden, I didn’t – and now it’s summer. Once you get past the urge and are honest about the need, the craving dries up very quickly. “Capitalism is for children,” says author and psychotherapist Adam Phillips, meaning that it preys on how easily our desires are exploited. “If people are not given time to figure out what they want, they tend to grab things.”
If I land on something attractive (usually in an Instagram account), I simply notice the designer and take a look at eBay. I find this has the beneficial effect of either sharpening or weakening that craving. There is excitement in the chase. You really have to want something to bid on for days on end. Not everyone has time to do this – I do it while cooking, waiting for the kettle to boil, sitting on the bus – but I often lose interest, which for me decides.
The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. At first, buying used clothing was financially necessary, but working in fashion gave me a growing awareness of the carbon, water, and waste effects of clothing production, as well as the working and living conditions of many of the people who make clothing. It has become difficult to circle a square. At some point, resistance to consumerism becomes the only moral option.
This situation is not limited to fashion. It defines our economic system. With its own supply chains, the factories of the developing world, and the constant creation of trends, fashion is at the sharp end of 21st century capitalism, but it is no exception.
Some clothing companies are beginning to adjust their practices. Sustainability has shifted from buzzwords to normalcy. That’s commendable, but sometimes it can feel like a loophole – new things are still new things, no matter how sustainable their style may be. On average, 40% of the clothes in European wardrobes are unworn.
It may seem unusual for someone until recently who had spent seven years as a fashion editor to give up new clothes, like a drug-averse drive. In some ways, it’s about separating church and state – I write about what people wear and why, not what they should do. The role of fashion is to reflect the world and provide visual clues about someone’s identity. Fashion should be fun, as a form of self-expression, while clothing can reveal cultural trends, even social and political ones. That’s why we care about a Trump Maga or Billie Eilish in a corset at Vogue. Even if you don’t have an interest in what you’re wearing, you communicate often.
Photographer Kate Friend is one of the best people I know, but they have very little. “I don’t like a lot of things in any aspect of life,” she says. Like wearing an old mink coat while condemning fur, she believes that buying any clothing, new or old, is counterproductive to sustainability, because it creates desire. “A greener product is one you don’t buy. By not buying, you are trying to reconnect the need for new hardware,” she says.
A friend buys two pieces of clothing a year and wears underwear every six months. “Last year, I got two acne jackets, one short that looked like a shirt, and one that was really long and oversized. You’d wear one or both most days of the week on something very basic,” if those items met certain criteria (“I have to make sure that I I’ll wear it weekly, if not daily, and it has to be adaptable to all kinds of situations”), you’ll wear it until it falls apart.
Her thinking stems from her work as a nature photographer. “I like to wear a uniform that I can move around in and is easy to pack,” she says. “And if spending time among plants or landscaping tells us what we really ‘need’, it’s definitely not a ton of clothes.”
Of course there is a difference between not buying things and not being able to. Rebecca May Johnson, an Essex-based writer and academic, has bought one thing so far this year. She spends most of her disposable income on her allowance. When she has the money to buy clothes, she prefers to buy from the old town of Holt, Norfolk, which “makes the clothes to order (not made to measure), so there is no waste, and the clothes are sent to you after six weeks. They last long and are beautifully made.” The clothes aren’t cheap, but they “really fit how I live and feel in my body,” she says.
Johnson says this is simply her choice. I don’t attribute any moral value to buying or not buying things. People enjoy as much as they can the ways they can do it, especially if the choices are limited by income and working conditions.” “Buying beautiful things is a beautiful thing, nothing more.”
I told my story in Topshop to Patrick Fagan, a behavioral psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Have you overshadowed the absurdity and nihilism of consumerism? I’d say so,” he says, referring to “a change in thinking going back at least to the 1960s that says we are becoming consumers, not producers, and have less control over our lives.” This has created, he says, a chasm that consumerism cannot fill.
“There is a general rule in the subconscious that if something is new, it must be good, and in some cases it is true,” Fagan says. “But it’s also about gaining independence — buying new things fuels that.” Make something new, but familiar, and people will buy it.
There are times when it “failed”. The first was when I returned to work from maternity leave during the lockdown. I wasn’t home and only had a few breastfeeding T-shirts with me, so I bought a flashy blue silk T-shirt, which, upon reflection, was a panic-buying “Zoom” T-shirt. (I rarely wear it.) The second time was late last summer, when I was caring for my sick mother during lockdown. Shopping was impossible, but also, because of my mom, it was unimaginable.
On one particularly dark day, as she lay dying upstairs, I went online and bought a coat. It was a large sea fleece, not unlike a blanket. I don’t know why I bought it–now I imagine it was some kind of salve–but when it arrived, wrapped in crisp white paper, knowing my mother would be dead by the time it was cold enough to wear it, I could hardly look at it afterwards, and then really The fantasy of easy possession unfolded in all its emptiness.
Instead of buying new clothes, I dressed her up for the funeral (it was beautiful and we were the same size). This is common, says Fagan: “When people experience annihilation, they want to hold on to the nostalgic things.” By getting dressed, I felt a connection with her.
Paola Lucati is a fashion consultant who has worked in the industry for over 20 years, but has barely bought anything new in five years. Like me, it was a wonderful storm of personal events—when she turned 50, her weight gain, and her mother’s death—that changed her outlook. “You’re thinking: Ah, I’m going to buy clothes in hopes of losing weight, but it’s the wrong economy,” she says.
Now, Locati follows some arbitrary rules. You buy clothes only to replace worn out clothes. She reuses clothes you already own. She tries to wear the clothes she inherited from her late mother.
I know I’m still scratching the consumer’s itch, but in dispensing with the new, I appreciate what I already have. As Samuel Delany wrote in his 1979 memoir Heavenly Breakfast: “It’s nice to have most people walking around in something that was a nice day, with comfortable wear.”