The following is a guest post from Chau Le, who previously shared her story of recovery back in January 2015. She has gained some new insights and tips since then that she is graciously sharing with us today.
Chau is a globetrotter (14+ countries) and an avid Krav Maga addict. She lived abroad in Taiwan and Spain during her college years, picking up languages and a love for exotic, foreign foods. She relocated to sunny California after graduating from Portland State University and worked in the Communications and PR field. She has recently returned to school (again) to pursue nursing — perhaps the second hardest decision in her life (besides leaving Belgium after just 10 days years ago)!
Up until college, I lived in hand-me-downs and thrift store finds. While I was frumpily dressed in clothing that was two sizes too big for me, I wasn’t concerned and neither were my friends and significant other. You’d think that upon entering college, I’d care even less about what I wore, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. It was in college that my ego emerged, manifesting as a need to be noticed and impressive, as if the typical high school experience that I missed out on was finally catching up to me.
It was in college that I discovered “fast fashion”; Forever 21, H&M and Zara were a Godsend. While I was never a big spender, rarely surpassing $500 a year in clothing purchases, that didn’t mean I couldn’t fit several $5 tee shirts into my closet just for kicks. My shopping habit really got out of hand during my year abroad in Taiwan where clothing was dirt-cheap. In fact, I burned through a third of my living budget on clothes alone! Unfortunately, however, the pieces I bought there promptly fell apart within three months and never made it back to the United States with me.
Years later, after my first post-college job, a wardrobe full of cheaply-made “professional” clothing, and countless hours wasted at the mall, I still found myself trapped in the “I don’t have anything to wear” cycle. I lived in yoga pants and tee shirts and hid from people I knew at the grocery store, lest they see me in my stretched out elastic-waist pants and oversized tops.
Discovering Minimalism and Capsule Wardrobes
I later discovered minimalism and capsule wardrobes and went through several editing and experimental stages after that. I first tried out the “classic wardrobe” (e.g. white collared shirts and trench coats), but I found such attire to be too formal living on the West Coast. My second stage involved buying cheap, brightly-colored basics that were more suited to casual California, but I was still a fast-fashion consumer, which irked me. I was also tired of cycling through cheap jeans every three months because I was too frugal to purchase brand-name items.
While minimalism and capsule wardrobes taught me how to edit my closet and stick to basics, the problem was that once I curated the “perfect wardrobe,” my clothes still fell apart after mere months of wearing them. I had forgotten a key component of what defines a reliable wardrobe, quality. But how does one buy quality without paying designer prices? I returned to my thrifting roots and turned my wardrobe into a mix of high-quality used pieces mixed in with some basic trends. Along the way, I learned a few important lessons which I hope will help you as well.
Only Keep Things That “Spark Joy”
After graduating from high school, my friends and I went backpacking through Europe for three weeks. Armed with a 50-liter backpack (I’m 5’2”, so clearly there was a sizing problem), I “smartly” packed everything I owned with the exception of my grandfather’s collection of dusty brass animal figurines. I may as well have packed those antiques, though, as my hardcover copy of “Twilight” weighed about the same as one of my grandfather’s brass elephants. As expected, my back was warped by the end of the trip and I was begging to be carried home, but my boyfriend at the time refused. Note to self: Don’t rely on your significant other to literally carry your mistakes.
I could have saved my back a lot of pain had I known the meaning behind “sparking joy.” This phrase was coined by Marie Kondo (author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) and is a feeling you should ideally have about all of your possessions, including your clothes. Just because things are good “on paper” doesn’t mean that they will spark joy for you. As an example, you may have a blue blazer that fulfills every category of being the perfect wardrobe item – all natural material, neutral color, and nice fit – but you may never wear it because it doesn’t speak to you. You hold on to it, but like a relationship that seems perfect but lacks chemistry, it doesn’t spark joy.
Do yourself a favor and don’t hold on to anything that doesn’t serve you. While traveling, I wore just two of the eight outfits that I packed for my 3-week trip! If I had packed using my heart (knowing what I actually would wear) instead of my head (imagining what I might wear), I could have gotten away with taking just a carry-on bag – and been a lot happier on that trip.
Don’t Be a “Pack Rat”
Don’t “stock up” and don’t hold on to things just because of sentimental value. I’ve had the habit of holding on to clothes, even ones that had bad memories attached to them, simply because I couldn’t bear the idea of letting go. I didn’t realize that these items were like baggage that was weighing me down both emotionally and physically. I was holding on to monetary costs and “what-if” scenarios, such as:
- “This jacket cost me $100, so I should keep it.”
- “What if I need to go to a black tie event? Perhaps I should keep this ill-fitting black dress for such an occasion.”
I wasn’t, as Marie Kondo preaches, holding on to only things that “spark joy.”
Frankly, if it doesn’t fit in your closet – both metaphorically and physically, it doesn’t belong in your life. And in some cases, that might refer to your entire closet.
Take a Shopping Hiatus
I dislike shopping – or rather, now I do. As my life became busier, I couldn’t find the time to go shopping and I had less and less time to think about clothes. But this wasn’t always been case; I used to spend all of my free time between classes at the mall. While my frugality stopped me from burning a hole through my wallet, I obsessed so much over having the “perfect outfit” that some days I wasn’t able to focus on my studies. I noticed that during the most stressful stages in life, I went to the mall every weekend. Once I realized that I was spending more time at the mall than with my boyfriend, family, and friends, I knew something was wrong and that I needed to stop.
Weaning myself away from weekends at the mall and curbing online my shopping was a slow process, but one day I realized that I hadn’t thought of going to the mall or buying anything for weeks. By taking a hiatus from shopping, I was forced to streamline my wardrobe and find the “jewels” that had previously been gathering dust in my closet.
If You Must Buy, Try Used First
Clothes fall apart. You get bored of the same old tee shirt. These things happen, and sometimes you do have to go to the store to replace basics or buy something fresh. In such instances, I try to buy used items, as there are important economic and ecological benefits to doing so:
- Finding Quality Pieces: If a tee shirt still has a rigid neckline and hasn’t started fuzzing after several washes, it’s a quality tee shirt. Think of buying used as the item already having gone through a “test run.” Good jeans keep their stretch and buying them used means that you don’t have to worry about the dye bleeding into your laundry.
- It’s More Economical: I recently purchased 8 items for less than $50 – all brand-name items! Buying used is more economical for your wallet. Also keep in mind that the money stays in the community. It goes to a charity or to support a local business, which is one way to vote against fast-fashion.
- It’s Better for the Environment: The amount of waste produced in order to make our clothing is astounding! While buying organic cotton and ethically-made clothing are great ways to vote for better clothing standards, many of us simply cannot afford these items. However, by shopping second-hand, you’re not only saving the item from filling up a landfill, you’re also giving it a second life.
Are there drawbacks to thrifting? Of course there are. For one, it’s time-consuming, but so is driving to the mall. Whether you’re buying used or new, you will have to hunt for what you want. I solve the time issue by scheduling certain days of the year when I will hit the thrift stores with a list in hand. When you visit a secondhand store, don’t buy anything you don’t need, but keep an open mind as well. As a recent example, instead of the black skinny jeans I was set on, I found a pair of dark blue skinny jeans that fit perfectly and matched with everything in my closet. Consequently, my “need” for black skinny jeans disappeared.
Thrifting can be tiresome and I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of buying something just because it was cheap. However, with a clear mission in mind and a heavy editing hand, the economic and ecological savings can be highly gratifying.
Learning how to edit my closet through using minimalism and capsule wardrobes, as well as implementing a no-waste, ethical mindset, has improved the overall quality of my wardrobe. I no longer count my possessions, but I know that almost everything I own – for all seasons – can fit into a standard-sized suitcase that I can pack in five minutes if necessary.
I regularly review my closet and for each item, it’s either a “yes” or a “no.” The most important part is to make sure that my items are interchangeable and that I have a proper “canvas,” which for me is stretchy blue jeans. I love blue and white and try to adhere to that color scheme, as it facilitates putting outfits together quickly. I have one formal outfit (dress pants and a white collared shirt) for interviews, but since I’m back in school, I don’t need to dress in those types of clothes very often. By creating a workable wardrobe that suits my real lifestyle, founded on the basics and beliefs that I am trying to live by, getting dressed has never been easier.
A big thank you to Chau for sharing her story! If you have any thoughts or questions regarding this story or wish to share similar experiences, please feel free to comment. If you would like to be profiled in an upcoming installment of the “Stories of Recovery” series (you can be anonymous if desired), please connect with me to share your thoughts.