Clothes have been the hardest thing for me to tackle in my minimalism journey. I remember when I first started to embrace this path, I looked at my overstuffed closet and thought “But what do you do when they ALL spark joy?”
Growing up, me and my sisters were neglected. Our medical needs were neglected, there was no food in the house, and there was bare-minimum clothing. As a kid, I was bullied mercilessly about this. I remember, even at that age, intellectualizing the situation. I mean, it’s not like the other kids were buying their own stuff with their own money. Their parents were buying it. It seemed odd to bully me on my clothing before I was legally old enough to hold a job. I thought, even then, that I would like to have a rematch some day.
As soon as I was legally old enough to get a job, I did. I dove into workaholism, violating various child labor laws by working 60 hour weeks. I remember when I cashed my first paycheck. I immediately took my money to AJ Wright (This was a store similar to TJ Maxx, but even more discount) and spent absolutely all of it on clothes. I left with a veritable mountain of clothes and felt the best I had ever felt in my life. The next day I was instantly treated differently. It was like night and day. Even the teachers treated me like I had suddenly morphed into a respectable young lady that was going places in her life.
Just a few years later I would visit my sister who went away for college. I remember her opening her closet to me and proudly announcing “I have 22 pairs of pants”. She felt like she had finally made it. I wanted to have that feeling too.
You think about the story of Cinderella. What is the moral of that story? She was treated like crap until she upgraded her outfit and then the world immediately started to treat her differently. This all may sound very materialistic and superficial, but for a lot of us these are very real experiences in our society.
I remember going to an Ann Taylor after work one day. I had had a big meeting that same day, so I was all dressed up. I had been in that Ann Taylor before and I had been there with that same store clerk before, but this time was different. This time I wasn’t ignored. This time she followed me around the store like a personal shopper, picking out outfits for me to try on and giving me recommendations. As I tried on clothes in the fitting room, she switched out items for different sizes as needed and came back with additional things she wanted me to try on. This was the closest I have ever felt to being a real life Princess. I liked the way that felt.
Our purchases fulfill deep-seated emotional needs. When we buy an object, what we’re really buying is a feeling. Maybe people never treated you with respect. Maybe people never made you feel valuable. We learn at a very early age that respect and value are all things that can be purchased. Clothes especially are an example of this. I was going to work hard, work VERY hard, to be allowed to be a member of this club.
At some point though you begin to get tired. The spell starts to wear off and you start to ask yourself “Why do I even care what these people think of me?” I used to think I was so different from everyone else and so damaged and unworthy. For a long time it made sense that I had to “prove myself” and do whatever I needed to to fit in. Now I know that a lot of these people that I put in the “worthy category” are just as damaged as I am. Maybe even more so. I didn’t want to emulate that anymore. I didn’t want to keep playing this game. As I got older my values shifted and I found spirituality and environmentalism to be more important than garnering the approval of strangers.
I was reading that the average woman in the United States spends between $150 and $450 per month on clothes. I never kept track of how much I was spending, but yeah, I was probably up there. I mean, just cancelling my Prime membership added an insane boost to my checking account. It was easy to justify all my purchases when I was still paying all my bills. I would go to TJ Maxx and say “it’s just a $30 shirt”, but all those $30 purchases add up. I actually feel sick when I think back on all of the money I wasted.
Things didn’t change for me until I really started to look at my purchases as hours and years of my life that I had sacrificed. And for what, something that would immediately end up in a landfill? I really started to feel cheated. I was working a job where I was not being treated fairly, in order to buy clothes to wear to that job. For once in my life, I started to do the math. How much was I making at this job, and then how much of that money was essentially going back to that job in the form of clothing purchases? Let’s also not forget about the expensive entertainment and vacations needed in order to “unwind” and “recharge” from the job. Was I even breaking even?
So what do you do when you find yourself stuck in an unhealthy pattern or addiction? You detox. For me, that detox was minimalism. As part of that detox process, me and my husband started decluttering. This was NOT an overnight process. Just doing the basement took us a whole year. Eventually though we got rid of about 70% of our belongings. I remember a neighbor who hadn’t been in our house in a while commented that our house look “very staged”. I took that as a weird compliment.
Even still, clothes were the hardest thing for me to declutter. I remember pulling everything out of the closet “Marie Kondo style” and then only removing 2 items for donation. I just couldn’t do it. I really loved my clothes and actually took a lot of pride in the wardrobe I had built up over the years. But the fact remained that I had an overstuffed closet plus several bins of clothes in the basement. Logically I knew this had to change, even if emotionally it made me feel safe to have so much.
A trick I’ve learned during my minimalism journey is that it’s okay to stop and then come back to decluttering later. Maybe even much later. I needed time to resolve the feelings I had attached to my clothes. Yes, even to clothes I didn’t wear. Maybe I could only declutter two items from my closet right now, but in a couple of months I could revisit it and declutter a little more. I found that with time it got easier and easier. If I had tried to rush this process it wasn’t going to work for me.
So often we’re trying to skip ahead to the finish line. We want things to be easy. We want the “one weird trick” rather than to take the time to learn the lessons we’re meant to learn. The lesson was that it was never about the clothes. It was about a very hurt inner child that wanted to feel valued and accepted. And instead of taking the time to heal and nurture that child, all those feeling were projected onto clothing purchases. And that’s why it was so painful to get rid of them, because once they were gone there would be nowhere left to hide. I would have to face the truth.
Detoxes aren’t meant to be easy. The difficulty of the experience becomes motivation to be more intentional about purchases in the future. I tried the whole “I’ll only buy things that I absolutely love!” That didn’t work because I had to face the facts that I’m the kind of person that will always find something I think I can’t live without. I realized that a period of abstinence was necessary to break the chain and so I didn’t buy any clothes for two years. I had to go through a period of mourning.
When I started I actually figured I would probably go a good 5 years before I needed to buy any new clothes. The thing I learned is that when you have less clothes they actually wear down faster. I also moved from the city out to the country and find my city clothes to be absolutely ridiculous now. I’m in a different phase of life and want clothes that reflect that.
Here’s the thing: I still enjoy shopping. I still enjoy fashion. I still love going to TJ Maxx. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Clothes were never the problem. The way I felt about myself was the problem. And now that I love myself more, I want to love my clothes more. I want to really value what I have and take better care of my clothes and to be more intentional about my purchases.
I decided that I would allow myself to make one nice clothing purchase per month. Instead of many $30 purchases, I would make one $100-$150 purchase each month. My thinking is that after about a year I should find myself with a pretty nice capsule wardrobe. One that reflects the real me, not the me I think society wants.
One interesting side effect I’m finding is that I’m actually having a hard time finding stuff I like. Obviously this was never a problem before. I liked everything. Now I browse clothes and just find so much of it to be ugly or contrived or poor quality. I’ve actually started making some of my own clothes. I don’t know how realistic it’s going to be for me to make even one garment for myself per month, but we’ll see how it goes. Maybe if more of us move in this direction we’ll find that there is a market for ethically-made quality clothing.
It’s not about feeling bad about yourself. It’s not about trying to be perfect in order to justify your existence. For me, that kind of thinking is what led to the problem in the first place. Unfortunately this is just the way our society is set up, and it has been that way for a very long time. I don’t think there is anything wrong with enjoying fashion or shopping. I still love shopping! I also don’t think there is anything wrong with changing your mind about things that used to be very important to you. I think changing your mind is a sign of having very high emotional intelligence. It’s okay. You’re okay.
My advice is to allow yourself the time to figure things out. If you’re having a hard time decluttering your clothes, there’s a reason for that. My path is not necessarily your path. But I can tell you this, you’re actually very close to finding your path. And that path is going to change your life. Happy travels my friend.