I love browsing in shops for clothes, but recently I’ve become confused. Sartorially, I no longer know who I am. I’m drawn to the colourful prints and jersey dresses of Seasalt, White Stuff and Fatface, but I’m not a yummy mummy with a Labrador and a husband who works in finance, and I can only justify buying the stuff on sale. The online catalogues trigger the same imposter feeling that I get from my weekly copy of The Economist, with its advertisements for MBAs, private jets, UN jobs and luxury property developments for people unconstrained by visa requirements.
I don’t know where I should shop any more. H&M is cheap and tacky; John Lewis is only affordable on sale and caters for a middle-class life I don’t quite have; Gap went bad and closed down; Monsoon, which I used to love for its colour and boho flair, has turned into a parody of itself. Marks & Spencer is for old ladies wanting fleecy stretch trousers and puffa jackets. Every second person on Buchanan Street is carrying a Primark bag. I went through a brief Primark phase, but I can’t face the scrum and I feel a bit sick buying clothes so cheaply.
During the first lockdown, my wardrobe shrank to tracksuit pants, t-shirts and fleece, a few sets on rotation. I changed into jeans to go shopping, a matter of keeping up standards, even for the Co-op around the corner. Eighty-five percent of my clothes were redundant, and it’s not as if, as an editor working in a university, I had a completely separate set of career-woman clothes for the office. (A high-achieving child of the 1980s, formed by career-woman feminism, I used to fantasise about wearing suits and carrying a leather briefcase, puce-coloured.)
In a strange inverse relation to my need for clothes during the first half of 2020, I went on an online clothes shopping bender. The full cost of a walking holiday in Andalucia, due to start a few days after the Spanish government declared a state of emergency, had been promptly refunded (shout-out to Ramblers Holidays). As the prospect of any holiday for the foreseeable future was wiped out, I indulged myself materially: a Boden dress (full price, I think); a pair of gold Clarks slides unwearable by me in a Scottish summer; two short-sleeved cardigans in different, delicious shades of green, because I couldn’t decide; an exquisite pea-green tea dress from a specialist nouveau-vintage online shop; outdoor gear for the walking I wasn’t doing; dance wear for the classes I wasn’t attending; and books, so many books, because all the libraries were shut.
And then I put an offer on Solo HQ and recreational consumption ceased therewith. My online shopping was for furniture, insurance, a reliable boiler engineer.
Packing up clothes to move, I rediscovered all the outfits I’d forgotten. A pair of Zara stretch trousers I’d bought at a tango weekend in Nijmegen. (My dentist has the same pair.) All the pretty dresses. Silky shirts for wearing out. (During lockdown, there was no out, only in.) Wool cardigans, abandoned for the washable ease of fleece. Shoes with heels. Fitted black capri pants, which I used to wear to work, and fitted shirts. Clothes that belonged to another person, who had a full life, out in the world.
I missed this person. Other people wrote or spoke of radically downsizing their wardrobes in spasms of aesthetic zeal. For me, this would’ve been a renunciation of a life I hoped to regain.
I’ve had to radically downsize my wardrobe before, in fact, several times in the last decade. Moving countries on a budget (no diplomatic or corporate removal allowance), you have to consider carefully what goes into your 23kg baggage allowance and what you will pay to send, and what is worth putting into storage, to be exhumed later, occasionally to some astonishment, like the opening of King Tut’s tomb.
Compressing a whole year’s worth of clothes, including winter coat, exercise and hiking gear, some smart wear, every possibility of footwear, if you are moving to a country where people have smaller feet than you, is a challenge, especially if it requires imagining your life in a new place with as-yet unexplored possibilities. I’ve become adept at designing capsule wardrobes, cutting my life down to the absolute minimum. Invariably, the capsule wardrobe will repopulate after arrival, often with astonishingly speed, and a new cull is needed before departure. In countries without charity shops, this is another challenge.
In April this year, when charity shops reopened, they were overwhelmed by the onslaught of donations. All those pandemic-purged wardrobes, stuffed with fast fashion and unworn online purchases that people couldn’t be bothered to return because the post office queue was too long. As the backlog is sorted and sterilised or quarantined (three days in a plastic bag in the corner?), all sorts of prizes will emerge.
The other weekend, I found a Seasalt dress, my size, for £6, in the Cats Protection shop in Edinburgh. There was no confusion at all as I whipped it off the rail and handed it under the plastic hygiene shield on the counter, along with a 2022 ‘Home Sweet Rehomed’ cat calendar for my mother.