How do I look?

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Quiz question of the day:

What’s something we all have, which can inspire both joy and loathing in all of us, but which we can’t live without?

Of course, no prizes for guessing: clothes.

A hotch-potch wardrobe

I’ve been mithering a bit about clothes lately.

In the past year, I’ve bought relatively few things to wear. But, if I’m honest, I feel like I’ve ended up with a ‘hotch potch’ of items. Most I have bought second-hand (and very good purchases they were too). Others were bought in a sale or via a clothing discount store such as HighStreetOutlet. As a result, I’ve maintained my frugal ways, but I never feel particularly stylish. Plus, I’d love to be a little more consistent about what I choose to wear and how I look.

How do I look?

It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. So, I was grateful to have been given a copy of Inger D Kenobi’s How Do I Look: The Year I Stopped Shopping.

This entertaining book is a curious mix of memoir and commentary on fast-fashion,  consumerism and the ridiculous stories we tell ourselves about the clothes we wear (or which call to us from the shop window).

Challenged by a friend to join her in a “shop-stop” year, Kenobi resolved to avoid buying any new clothes for a whole 12 months. The book charts her journey from unintentional clothes buyer to chastened, mindful consumer. Along the way, she provides a number of “Emergency Shopping Guidelines.” These provide a ‘set of rules that will prevent us from making the same stupid shopping mistakes again, and again, and again.’

Emergency Shopping Guidelines

I thought it would be interesting to bring Kenobi’s rules together and to consider them in the light of my not-particularly-well-curated but minimal ‘capsule wardrobe’.

Don’t buy anything you can’t wear tomorrow

Well, I’ve failed at the first hurdle here. We all buy stuff to wear for a special occasion, although I try and avoid this.

In my experience, clothes bought for a particular event don’t always translate into ‘real life’. For my friend, Zoe’s, 50th birthday party in September, I bought a lovely pair of black trousers and floaty shirt to wear over a black camisole. To go with said outfit (which cost all of £11 from the charity shop), I purchased some suedette kitten heels from John Lewis. I wore them for 2.5 hours.

I haven’t worn the clothes since and have already sold the shoes….

Don’t buy anything you don’t need

How often have you gone out to buy a particular item, only to come back with something entirely different?

Here’s where ‘heart’ purchases often trump ‘head’ purchases. I do have the loveliest, seldom-worn but beautifully soft faux-fur jacket. It is absolutely gorgeous. I acquired it a long time ago when looking for something else in my local (now defunct) dress agency. I rarely wear it, but I keep it as something really special, knowing that I won’t wear it tomorrow (see above!) but will enjoy it during the holiday season.

These days, I’m much more inclined to think really hard about anything I buy. I keep a ‘wish list’ in Evernote, which helps me consider – slowly – if a want is also a need.

I also do a lot of research online. It’s easy to forget that there are so many (too many) places where you can buy what you need. A clever search can help you find what you need at the best price, so shop around.

You have to be you. Figure out who you are and dress accordingly

Oh, gosh. Who am I when it comes to what I wear?

Style consultants categorise women into a number of ‘boxes’. Are you an Audrey Hepburn ‘ingénue’ or more ‘sporty’ or ‘natural’ when it comes to your signature style?

Well, I’d love to fall into the ‘glamorous’ category – and really admire others who pull of this look – but that’s really not me.

Over the years, I have – with some considerable enthusiasm – declared myself to be an advocate of a particular brand, in an attempt to simplify and narrow down the available choices.

There was my short-lived (but fun while it lasted) Gudren Sjoden phase. My family pointed out that if you’re going to make this work (it’s quite ‘out there’ when it comes to style and colour), you have to go the whole hog.

There has also been my ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ phase. I am, after all, another Catherine Elizabeth. This clothing personality has been, arguably, my most enduring. I once spent the most I have ever spent on clothes (even more than my wedding dress) when I purchased an LK Bennett suit for an interview. I didn’t get the job, but (at least) I got the suit. Many years later, it’s still my ‘high days and holidays’ outfit when I need something super smart. And I wore it for my current job whose interview took place around a year ago.

My latest obsession is Cos. I love the Scandinavian simplicity and clean lines. I have yet to purchase anything.

If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.

Oh, this is so true. You already know that I previously performed ‘plastic surgery’ on my credit card, so there is no risk that I will ever splurge on something I can’t afford. Indeed, I have spent so little on clothes in the last year that this has not been an issue. But I know it is for some of you.

Recently, a work colleague was describing to my husband that she had lots of clothes on which she had spent so much money, she was embarrassed to admit that she cut off the labels of the unworn items before giving them away. Let’s not be like this.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

I’m all for this and it works really well. Project 333 makes sense on so many levels, especially if you mostly shop at thrift stores (another of Kenobi’s Emergency Shopping Guidelines).

Here’s something I have noticed, however (and Kenobi observed this, too). Clothes worn often do actually wear out. This is where it helps to buy quality over quantity. Less but better is the way forward.

Invest in experiences, not possessions

Yes, yes and yes!

This is where we have to put clothes in their rightful place. Clothes can play a part in our experiences. Love to ski? You’ll need some kit. But they shouldn’t be an end in their own right. Clothes as ‘stuff’ have a negative impact, both on the environment and on our finances. So, let’s see them as a part of our overall day-to-day lives but not to the detriment of other things, which are way more important.

Change your hair, not your clothes

For someone who has limited options when it comes to hair (short, blow-dryed, that’s it), I can’t espouse this guideline. However, lots of women (especially) enjoy experimenting with different hair colours or styles (in her book, Kenobi reveals her expertise in plaiting, braiding and in ‘up-dos’). A colleague of mine rocks a wonderful short wig and looks amazing in it. But that’s not for me.

One of my own

Beware the Diderot effect

Remember those black trousers I bought for Zoe’s party? To wear them again, I would need more tops. This is an example of a phenomenon known as the Diderot Effect. This is where the purchase of one beautiful item leads to dissatisfaction with the other things you already own. In my case, I don’t own anything suitable to go with the trousers, so do I invest or let them go? This is something that Juliet Schor mentions in her book, The Overspent American, about which I wrote a post here.

Stop mithering

Since reading Kenobi’s little book, I’m glad to say that I’ve stopped mithering about clothes. But I think I need to be a bit more intentional – as in other areas of my life – when it comes to what I buy to wear.

And whilst Shakespeare wrote that ‘clothes maketh the man (woman)’, there is another truth that’s worth remembering. There are only some occasions in life when this really matters. How do I look? No-one really cares.


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No learning is wasted

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Just over a week ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend a talk given by Emma Kennedy. An all-round high-achiever, Kennedy is arguably best known for her work as a writer, actor and author, but she is also the winner of both Celebrity Masterchef and Mastermind. She is also a self-confessed conkers expert!

Inspiring women

The talk was part of an ‘Inspiring Women’ series, arranged by the Careers & Skills team at the university where I work. Although aimed at female students, Kennedy’s message applies to anyone who has tried, failed and tried again: follow your instinct; explore the things about which you are curious; be prepared to try (and fail); and never give up.

Starting out…

In a number of ways, Kennedy’s journey resonated with me a great deal. Like me, Kennedy left school at 16. Her first job was a washer-upper in a local hotel (later, she was promoted to vegetable peeler). Mine was for a well-known high street Bank where I ultimately worked for 4 years.

…At the bottom

My very first task in the Bank involved sorting what my supervisor called ‘rems’ and ‘giros’ into specific pigeonholes. I didn’t have a clue what a ‘rem’ was. It turns out, a ‘rem’ was a ‘remittance’ – a cheque/check to you and me. A ‘giro’ was a paying in slip. So, I was effectively handling ‘money out’ and ‘money in’ for customers, albeit in proxy (paper) form. These slips of paper, once sorted, would be collected for onward distribution to their respective banks. Exciting, huh?

London life

By the age of 20, I had moved to London where I worked for 8 months prior to embarking on my next life adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and honestly remember London as a city of blue skies and sunshine. My experience was a bit like being at university, but with the bonus of a monthly salary.

In those 8 months, I did a lot of growing up. I learned about cultural differences and customer service, improved my mental arithmetic, got a bit drunk at the Long Island Ice Tea Bar in Covent Garden, and developed an idea that meant I might actually resume my academic studies and eventually go to a real Higher Education Institution (as opposed to the university of life).

Moving forward

After a gap year in Switzerland, I returned home where I became the oldest 6th former in town. My pals at college had come straight from GCSEs. I arrived with 5 years’ experience, 7 O Levels (ranging from the very good to the mediocre) and an exceedingly good Swiss-French accent. Most importantly, I was ready to learn.

Loving learning

Like me, Emma Kennedy took a little longer to achieve her ultimate goal of going to university. She had been unwell during her A Level studies and it was through the encouragement and tutoring of her former English teacher that she managed to secure a place at Oxford. In my case, it was through the inspirational teaching of my own wonderful English tutors, which meant that I was finally able to get myself a place at university.

Like Kennedy, along with own sister, I was ‘first in family’ to go to university. Although my parents (and grandparents) had been teachers, their route into this profession had not been via Higher Education. My own parents had gone to teacher training college before embarking upon their careers.

What next?

On completing my degree, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So, I decided to follow in family members’ footsteps and train to be a teacher. For me, teaching wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it wasn’t going be my life’s work either. Like Kennedy who decided to leave her post-university profession as a lawyer, I worked out quite soon that there were other things I wanted to do.

Listen to your gut

This time, I started to truly follow my instinct and that’s when my career trajectory changed. I was suddenly able to flourish, to develop and to try new things. I wasn’t on an obvious career path, but I started to enjoy myself.

Each job I’ve had post-teaching has enabled me to develop and grow. Like Kennedy, I may not have ‘failed’ at what I tried, but I developed a self-awareness that meant I knew when I was a square peg in a round hole.

Along the way, I have learned an incredible amount from my experience and from the terrific people I have met along the way (many of whom are still good friends). I always say this – especially to those I mentor professionally – no learning is ever wasted.

Living minimally

Now, minimalism is an integral part of my life and I wouldn’t go back to living in a way that was unintentional. That said, my career trajectory could not really be described as ‘intentional’. It was more a series of experiments. Try something? Not sure it works for you? Then, try something else. In some ways, it takes courage and resilience to make these changes, but nothing worth doing was ever easy.

With minimalism and simple living, there are many different ways you can adopt a more intentional approach to life. Take a look at my previous post on the types of minimalism you might consider. The point is that you can take some time to experiment; to learn; to follow your instinct; to explore the things about which you are curious; be prepared to try (and fail); and never give up.


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