Sally Hall: My year without clothes shopping

In January Sally Hall made a New Year's resolution to wear what was already in her wardrobe. Almost 12 months on she says stepping off the fashion treadmill has been a liberation.

Sally Hall who made a New Year's Resolution to give up clothes shopping at her home in Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Like many decisions taken around Christmas and New Year, it was rather rash and spontaneous. But almost 12 months on, I’ve managed to achieve the goal I set myself – a year without clothes.

As New Year’s resolutions go, it could have been worse. At least there was no physical pain involved (that marathon will have to wait another year...). And although the vow was made on the spur of the moment, I’d been harbouring niggling doubts about my clothes-buying habits for months.

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With one survey finding that British women spend up to £1,200 per month on fashion, eschewing the pleasures of retail therapy certainly goes against the grain. But the environmental impact of cotton growing, the exploitation of workers in the clothing industry and the fact that 1.5m tonnes of clothing goes into landfill in Britain every year are all compelling reasons to avoid hitting the high street for a while.

Sally Hall with a red dress picked up from a charity shop after she landed a new job. Picture by Simon Hulme.

For me, the issue was also more personal. I have an 18-month old daughter who has better things to do than watch me try on jeans. Our time together is precious – so why waste it hanging around in town ogling pretty dresses when we could be burying ourselves under autumn leaves, playing pooh sticks or baking peanut butter cookies?

A friend I caught up with soon after making the resolution revealed she’d vowed to do the same thing several years ago when her own little girl was a baby. “I didn’t want her to grow up thinking this is what women do,” she explained. “Shopping for clothes should be a necessity rather than a leisure activity.”

Since I still harbour several items of clothing from the Nineties, I was already on-trend for 2016 – and with a wardrobe accumulated over 20 years it wasn’t a question of running out of things to wear.

However, I didn’t bank on the obstacles that might scupper my good intentions. In January, just one month after making the resolution, I got a swanky new job in an office that requires smart threads as standards.

Sally Hall with a red dress picked up from a charity shop after she landed a new job. Picture by Simon Hulme.

After years of getting away with scruffy work clothes, I was in a spot of sartorial bother. But the get-out clause of charity shop purchases had been written into the imaginary contract of my ‘no clothes’ resolution, with a caveat of only buying what was truly necessary.

So a smart suit jacket from Next and a postbox red business dress from M&S, plus a pair of tailored grey trousers from Whistles were all picked up for less than a fiver each at charity shops in Horsforth, Headingley and Skipton. Deep down I knew I was still allowing myself to experience the thrill of retail therapy – the bargains, the novelty, the browsing-with-intent all got my pulse racing a little bit faster.

Then again, it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime. Like most women, over the years I’ve turned to shopping to help heal a broken heart, shore up confidence after a setback or just to combat boredom. But as the months have worn on (and the clothes have worn down), the urge to shop has faded.

My friend warned me I might start to feel a bit overwhelmed by shopping again after a year away from the thrill – and I totally see what she means.Without a reason to browse, I just never go to the shops – and on the odd occasion it’s been required, I’ve felt a bit sickened by all the excess and waste.

Which has not always been an easily shared observation. I’ve certainly been greeted with expressions of abject horror and desolation by some (usually very glamorous) women. “No new clothes... for an entire year?!” comes the screeched response. “I could never do that.”

In contrast, other friends have been shocked that this is even a ‘thing’. “I go for entire years at a time without buying new clothes,” one (male) friend said. “I just don’t think about it. What’s the big deal?”

Despite the dismissive attitudes of some, by July I was feeling rather proud of the achievement. Then two things happened. Firstly, I was shamed out of complacency by someone who pointed out that such decisions aren’t a matter of choice for many.

“I just can’t afford it,” he told me. “When each month comes to an end all the money has already gone on bills, essential stuff for the kids – there just isn’t anything left for clothes. I’d love to have some new clothes. It would be great to take the kids shopping. It’s not about principle for us, it’s more a question of economic survival.”

Then I discovered, to my surprise, that I was pregnant again. Not expecting to have another baby, I’d given away all my maternity clothes.

What to do now?

By the time I’d got a bump big enough to make squeezing into my skinny jeans impossible, I was saved by several acts of charity.

Over the months, it was leggings and tights that had taken the biggest hit – but I was determined to stick to my guns and avoid replacing them. (Second-hand hosiery is not a popular charity shop option, or a particularly pleasant prospect).

After a trip with one friend to Brimham Rocks wearing my ‘golf course’ leggings (so-named because they were riven with 18 holes – and that was just at the beginning of the day) I think she was so mortified on my behalf that a lovely pair of maternity leggings arrived in the post the next day. I’ve been wearing them day-in-day-out ever since.

Then a friend of the family donated a bag of maternity clothes. As she is in her early twenties (and I’m in my forties), I’ve had to muster up courage to strut about in the cut-off denims and skin-tight pants that made up her maternity wardrobe, but I am actually embracing this new youthful style. It’s been an opportunity to find a new look I would never have gone for if I’d shopped for myself.

A year without clothes may not be realistic for some (or all-too-real for others), but a less extreme version of this vow is advocated as the future of fashion by Fiona Bennie, one of the authors of Fashion Futures 2025, a report commissioned by Levi Strauss & Co on behalf of think-tank Forum for the Future.

Explaining the report’s ‘Slow is Beautiful’ concept, Fiona says: “The world will become more moralistic, more risk averse when it comes to fashion. Most consumers will be willing to pay more for a smaller number of high quality items. When we have finished with clothes we’ll take them back to where we bought them to be remanufactured. Demographic change, the rising cost of key resources and the impact of climate change will all affect how we experience fashion as people try to live more sustainably.

Just days away from the January sales, the prospective orgy of consumption makes me feel a bit queasy after a year of cold turkey.

Fiona’s vision of the future makes lots of sense, and I’m determined to avoid the pull of retail therapy as 2017 unfolds. But maybe, just maybe, I could go and buy some new tights first?