Friday, September 10, 2010

How soon is now?

And how much is enough?

DISCLAIMER: this loooong-ass post contains endless musings on consumption. If you do not care feel free to skim over and look at the pretty pictures.

The ever insightful Waves recently wrote her miniature memoirs on the shopping habits of others, gleaned from her experiences in the world of clothing retail. Now, if you're at all interested in cerebral musings on woman nature, do check out her blog.
I love her blog and this particular post piqued my interest. In fact, as Carrie C*******ing Bradshaw likes to say: "I began to wonder; What kind of a shopper am I?"

For many of us the question may seem a little bit redundant in comparison to the turbo-charged shopping habits of many a Swedish-chain-clad fashion blogger.

For me at least, it's been a good three years since my last real purchase from a real clothing store. Most of my things are thrifted, free-cycled, hand-me-downs, or swapped. I spend less than a dollar a day on clothing each year, including outerwear, fancy dresses, socks and even delicates.

Like I've said before, I've been a thrift shopper all my life, but part of my coming onto my own was definitely marked by buying new, a sort of a hippy-kid-coming-of-age-ritual. I never really got out of the habit of thrifting though, and after the initial adjustment, store shopping was pretty easy to give up. The world of thrift offered more options, a more unique style, which is something I've always been drawn to, as well as good quality favorites that lasted for many more moons than the store bought rags. In fact, I consider myself lucky to have such a cheap, versatile and high-quality wardrobe. And yet.
And yet I keep adding to my already sizable collection. Pieces like this "new" 70s denim dress appear in the closet weekly. Like Waves has previously written, I too have pondered whether thrift shopping makes you more susceptible to buy things, not less. With most things in thriftstores and fleamarkets being both cheap and one of a kind, it's easy to fall prey to getting things one does not need, but wants.

The difference between needing and wanting is not always easy for us modern humans to distinguish. We need things to make life easier for us, to make us beautiful, to deliver us from the grind that many of our lives have become.

We need things to deliver us from the oblivion of not knowing who we are. Things we own, define us. And as one fictional anarchist philosopher, with rather sculpted abs, once pointed out; things we own end up owning us.

Simple living, or the counterculture life-style, or whatever you want to call it, is often no exception to this rule. More often than not you buy the basket, the teepee, yogapants, because they're convenient and suit what you're trying to do (carry things, live in a teepee, go to yoga), which is why its called a life-style. Cooking in dutch oven is convenient when you have an open fire, and oil lamps are a handy equivalent to flash lights. Regardless of convenience, and their re-use, recycle and even reduce habits, often times the values of conservative consumers (conservative in the sense that they do not like to consume), are still aesthetic, as well as purely practical.

No matter what you do, you're buying a life-style, unless of course you're not buying a thing. People like that actually exist in our first world, folks so removed from consumerism that they transcend life-style. This, of course is in itself a life-style, but one to which it is impossible to sell anything. The rest of us, no matter how low-impact, or alternative we try to be, are firmly place in the word of things. Owning them, lusting after them, consuming them.

This, for our family as well as others, extends far beyond the realm of clothing. Living in the country where goods are not as easy to get, and where at the same time there's an abundance of free materials in the form of discards, bartering and simply there having always been bit of a hoarding mentality, we all house quite a bit of could-come-in-handy someday.

Add to this that we are not wealthy by any means, and the relative abundance of space living in the country affords, and suddenly having a mount of scrap iron in your back yard, perhaps in the form of an old roto-tiller becomes (in the immortal words of our friend Christopher) "a resource pile".

Now, nothing wrong with that. It's called being thrifty. It's just that the turn side of it, at least for us, has been that we have become slight hoarders. We own 6 ocean-going vessels. I have 35 tea mugs, 3 clothes racks, more books than even I could read in five straight years, 5 tea pots hubby has 12 hats, it goes on and on...
See you back there
To bring this back to clothes; I have never been nor aspired to be (except in the occasional nothing-to-wear-fit) a minimalist, leaning instead towards complicated outfits and multiple pattern-mixing. I wouldn't much care (or dare) to participate in the 6 Pieces A Month-Challenge, and have never understood why a person would pay any kind of money for black clothing. I love all the pieces of clothing I own, and try to cull the less loved ones frequently with the Dump and swaps.

The thing is though, that a girl only really "needs" one Gunne Sax dress, a single pair of beat-up leather shoes, no more than a few pairs of jeans, and certainly less than 39 floral dresses. Clearly I have issues separating a clothes "want" from "need". When it comes to my wardrobe (as well as my bookshelf) I, apparently, am a glutton (if The Fancy Fruit Company hadn't invented iplaymusicinamachine I would also be sporting a teetering record tower in the corner of the bedroom).

Perhaps I ought to put myself on The Great American Apparel Diet, just as Waves and countless other amazing women have. Why am I hesitant to do this? According to the rules I could probably still shop at the Dump. Because I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it. This of course indicates I have a problem, which brings us back to the original point of this whole meandering post: what kind of a shopper am I?
I certainly don't fit squarely in any of the groups that Waves mentioned, though I am occasionally a mood shopper in the sense that I enjoy it, and sometimes, sadly a therapy shopper, who tries to belay her own insecurities with clothes. Thankfully those days are pretty much far behind. In actual reality I think I would call myself an opportunity shopper, and a collector shopper.

I buy things mostly if something I've been lusting after appears, or if I see something so good it's impossible to pass it up (like a perfect 70s denim jumper), and naturally this leads me to buy a lot of things I don't necessarily need. I'll definitely pick stuff up just to pass it on, because if it's good and the price is right, and I know I can find someone to gift it to. Which brings me to the collector shopping. For years before I truly defined my style, I would buy things I had absolutely no idea how to wear, but loved them anyway. That is how I bought my first prairie dress, at a time when it was a ludicrous notion that anyone would wear one outside of a costume party and it turned out to be a wonderful decision.
This is how I ended up with so many odd pieces that I love, but rarely wear (and with no less than 16 prairie dresses). They bring me joy. I guess I like to think of them as an ill-organized butterfly collection, or the perfect pencil set that rarely comes out of the box. And let's be honest: when that 17th prairie dress comes along, I'm probably going to buy it, given that it doesn't cost more than 10 bucks.
70s kid square dance party
Now if you made it this far in the post, you might as well tell me about your conspicuous consumption.


  1. wow, i wish my brain was functional enough right now to fully answer the interesting questions posed in your post, milla! i have been thinking about all of this a lot lately too, and going through my closet.

    i was raised by parents who couldn't care less about fashion, style or shopping and so now that i am in my (early) thirties, i feel that in many ways i am just learning how to shop (yes, this is something that one can learn, i have discovered! :) and how to cultivate my own style. i think in the past i was very tomboyish and too timid to make much of an effort.

    it's only been in the last, oh, 6 years that i have really begun to blossom, i think, and to hone my eye. that said, i have thrifted since high school, though i rarely shopped at all, to be honest. something like prom was met by me with much disdain and fear (about dressing up!)...though i did go...

    so in that regard i feel a tad as though i am making up for lost time when it comes to shopping as it were. i thrift about 70% of the time, the rest i buy new. i am also a collector of sorts, always have been, of shells and feathers as much as stuff to wear, and i never placed much value on my appearance until more recently. i still had in rotation many of the clothes i wore in high school and college. by slowly finding more self esteem, i have found the gusto to dress myself with pride and found the joy in wearing something that truly makes you feel beautiful or even somehow at home, such as in these praire dresses you speak of.

    anyway, too much rambling...hope it made some sense. basically, i have finally discovered the value of dressing to please and express ones' self, and while i know i shop more than i have in the past, i don't beat myself up about it cause i still don't shop as much as most "typical," mall-going people, i don't think anyway. :)

    you are right to contemplate and pose these questions. it's important to think about and challenge such things fairly often, i think. and i think we are on the right path. :)

  2. I have come across these same questions myself overtime but I think as a Designer of clothes, my goal is to emote something special through the styles. When you don an outfit it speaks in great volumes to you and others, it's a special connection and communication we have amongst each other that need no words.
    Often times I get so excited when I initially have an idea for a design and in the middle of it ,something wonderful comes into light that inspires a change, be it the mood or the music,etc., I think it's the same when we are getting ready for events, or how we feel that day -it's a reflection of our souls. In most cultures it is a sacred act to have certain styles and colors be known and seen by others. So I think, is the truth, in a small way, for the rest of us.

  3. Goodness. I'm glad I could start my day with your post.

    I'm a bit younger than you, so I don't have very many years to discuss, but I'll start with when I first became interested in clothing. That happened probably when I was 15, about to turn 16. I was very tomboyish as a child, and still am to an extent. That said, I didn't really have too much of an interest in clothing other than hugely oversized t-shirts with wolves on them. I didn't want to be like all the other girls, and that was the only way I knew how to be different.

    Anyway, when I became interested in clothing, I became a very irresponsible buyer and was actually kind afraid of thrift stores. Ridiculous, I know. Consequently, I bought new things. Since I've moved to this country, I've learned to dislike clothing stores because of the lack of quality, high prices, and general wastefulness of the clothing's production. In the beginning, I bought a lot of stuff from this one little place called MGM. It's essentially a really inexpensive graveyard for clothing- all the stuff that didn't make it off the assembly line without some kind of mishap. I also bought a lot off of Etsy. Unfortunately, many of the items ended up not fitting. Sometimes it was an impulse buy and I ended up scratching my head, wondering why I bought it. Really, what am I going to do with tie dyed fisherman's pants?

    In the last six months, I've really made an effort not to buy anything that I won't use 100% and for a very long time. Essentially until I've worn it to pieces. What I'm trying to do is develop a closet of totally wearable pieces that I love and that I'll always feel comfortable in. Things I don't wear often and that don't fit can't stay. And I've been culling them from my closet, selling what can be resold on Etsy and altering what can't, then selling it.

    I used to have a really bad book habit too, but the absence of any kind of good book store with affordable prices has really forced me to drop that addiction. I used to buy mostly new books, but now if I had access to some great used book stores I would shop there instead. There are some with a great selection, possibly better than big chains because they carry more obscure and out of print texts.

    Long story short, those are my two addictions that I've learned/been forced to control. I might see something I like in the store and say "Do I really need that?" The answer is almost always "no" and I pass it by.

    I don't want to be wasteful. I mean, I've already made enough of a negative contribution by just being born and raised in the USA (disposable diapers, etc). So keeping my consumption down to a minimum, and have that consumption be of used/vintage items is one of the ways I want to make a positive contribution.

    Imagine if we actually followed guidelines like only possessing what we need...

  4. Thanks for such a great post, I love your long musings! I definitely feel myself working towards a "new" free lifestyle, though it's only been about 4 months since I purchased something new, not your impressive 3 years. I definitely think a lot about how just because we are recycling and reusing we're not necessarily being non-materialistic. There's a lot of confusion in our culture that results in equating money-spending with materialism. A funny story: I bought a bed from someone on craigslist 3 years ago, and when I came to pick it up the guy's house was abandoned and full of furniture and electronics and just about anything you could outfit a home with. I called the guy and was told that yes, he and his roommates had split town, and that I could feel free to loot to my heart's content. I was moving into my first "all-to-myself" little shotgun shack at the time and didn't have anything - I got a bunch of furniture and my entire kitchen set from this gig. I called my former roommate to ask for help moving a bookshelf, and he turned looter too. While I tried to only take things that I both needed and felt were quality things I would enjoy looking at every day, ex-roomie took it as an opportunity to upgrade pretty much all of his possessions - his feelings were: this is nicer than my stuff and it's free. Which resulted in him owning 2 desks, 3 tvs, 5 end tables, etc. Don't get me wrong, I love this person dearly, but I was so relieved about the EX factor in our roommate situation. Yes, all of the abandoned stuff might have just ended up in a landfill somewhere (ick), so maybe it's just as well ex-roommate decided to go big, but I personally couldn't handle looking around my home and seeing so much excess, no matter how free it was.

    I started thrift shopping in high school - my girlfriends and I would flock to Haight-Ashbury every weekend to escape the boredom of our suburban homesteads. I would buy bags and bags of clothes, and then return to sell them and buy more. Since then I've definitely toned it down. I try to really narrow it down - do I absolutely love it? Is it a perfect fit? Will it add something really special to my wardrobe? I once had a friend who got rid of everything he owned that wasn't "fabulous" - his theory was, why would you ever want to be anything short of fabulous? I like to take this approach (defining "fabulous" is entirely personal, of course). The bulk of my clothes were handmade by my mom in the 70s, and most of my accessories belonged to my Grandmas. So while I definitely have a full closet, I try to only own things that I cherish (i.e., I would prefer to barf than own the same H+M tee shirt in every color). But yes, it's still materialistic and out of wack with a more harmonious, need-based consumerism. Just the fact of being a "conscientious consumer" implies that you're taking more than you need, just not as much as others.

    And as one final note about books - I am very very fortunate to be a perpetual student/perpetual library worker who always has access to books. My rule with books is I only buy used and I don't buy anything that I haven't read, and then only if I love it and know I'll return to it again and again. But then, not everyone has that privilege.

  5. this post is brilliant!

    actually since reading your blog i've been inspired to thrift more and more, which is great. it's taking some time to see clothes in a different way, but i'm enjoying the challenge of reworking items.

    i bought a floral skirt the other day in a charity shop (it's tricky thrifting in the UK, it's very hit or miss) and turned it into a dress. i also finished knitting my first scarf, which i intend to wear loads too!

    i love the feeling of making something myself, and it also makes me feel more confident in what i wear, because i know it's unique and i've thought about it - plus i'm proud to have created such a bargain outfit!

  6. What type of shopper am I? Well, that’s pretty easy. I am a treasure huntress when it comes to shopping, which is why I think turning to thrifting as my sole means of shopping for clothing (and often other things too) happened as more of a natural progression rather than something I consciously decided and made a big effort to do. You were also a huge inspiration to me, and still are!

    I'm largely motivated to shop by the thrill of the hunt and the element of chance that comes along with walking into a thrift store or flea market, you just don‘t get that at the mall. That possibility of finding something really great… unique, rare, beautiful, an item I’ve been hoping to find, or better yet, didn’t think I’d ever find but magically do… I’m looking at you Saltwater sandals ;) and the “high” from such finds and the fact that they can be found so cheaply is a big draw.

    Also, putting together outfits is a major creative outlet for me. I’m not an artist and I always wish that I would put more effort into being “crafty” but I do get really into gathering and arranging with a certain aesthetic in mind (you’ve received packages from me, you know this ;)

    Whether it’s putting together a care package, arranging things in my home, or putting clothes on my body, there is definitely a creative zone that I enter. Because of this, thrifting can also feel akin to purchasing art supplies… the tools and materials I need to be creative, as silly as that may sound.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t get dressed every morning feeling as if I’m creating a work of art, in fact more often than not, this is not the case, but when inspiration does hit and I’m able to translate it into an outfit that I‘m happy with, it does feel creative.

    So those are big motivations for the type of shopping that I do. As for consumption, there is definitely that element with thrifting of being more likely to buy things that you probably shouldn’t just because they are cheap. I’ve gotten so much better about this though and have reached a point where I am actually getting pretty picky about what I do buy. I find myself now leaving behind lots of things I once would have felt compelled to buy.

    The other thing with thrifting is that you don’t so much have the option of leaving an item in the store to go home and think about whether or not you really want to purchase it. If it’s something that you like enough to consider buying it then chances are it will be snatched up by someone else pretty quickly. I’ve had this happen to me enough times to know that if I leave something, there is a very good chance it won’t be there even if I come back later that same day. In this sense, buying things new allows you to take your time and really think about a purchase because it’s not the only one in existence! Like I said though, I’m a huntress and the risk involved is all part of the fun ;)

    Speaking of which, it is FUN for me, I find browsing through a thrift store totally relaxing and enjoyable. I can lose myself in it, again this may sound sort of silly, but it can be almost meditative. Hey, I should start a cult based on the notion of spiritual enrichment through the act of thrifting! A bunch of happy hoarders living together commune style… haha, it’ll be a total mess!

    Actually, that could never happen, because in spite of my own tendencies toward becoming a horder, I somehow chose to marry and pro-create with the anti-hoarder. Lucas has zero inclination toward any sort of shopping that does not involve 1) the utmost efficiency and 2) focus on procuring a predefined item. He has no concept of shopping for the sake of, well shopping. Needless to say, he keeps me in check big time!

  7. I have aspirations for a minimalist/uniformy kind of wardrobe. I wish I would dress better but don't want all the variables or the thought that goes behind it. Seeing as I love black and hate color, you'd think it'd be easier but I'm still not quite there.

    I also struggle with buying:
    - things I love
    - that are appropriate for work
    - and also appropriate for regular life (not costumey, appropriate length, etc.)

    But I'm an emotional/impulse shopper so, while I'd love to be one thing, I end up being the other and end up with stuff I like but won't use. And with a NYC apt closet, that's NOT a good thing.

  8. Milla,
    I didn't read the whole post, this time I just came here to say that I bought the book "I am also a you" thanks to your post about it a couple of months ago, and I LOVE IT. And I love your pictures, you seem to have a wonderful life, and even though I myself live on a small farm in Sweden (but I work full time outside the farm), I believe I envy your life a wee bit... The island! Everything seems so beautiful. And you and your husband are beautiful. Sometimes I wanna run off and live on an island like you do.

  9. Hi Milla! Thank you for your sweet comment and welcome back cheer :)

    I read this post and somehow my nice long comment got deleted. boo.

    It went something like... I love your Carrie ***** Bradshaw posts, sans the really bad relationship advice. I especially feel like you are in my head too often. Recently this has been a big issue for me and us. Having moved 3 times in the last 3 months I've paired down my life and the "things" that sometimes consume it. Now that we are somewhat settled and my house is kind of clean... I find myself falling into old patterns. Thrifting items that may very well end up in a donate pile. Sometimes its just so hard to pass something up because of 1) the price 2) the "it's so unique" I have to have it mentality 3) its hard to find and I need a backup (I'm like this with old lady shoes--even if I don't need a pair I'll buy them just because they are hard to find). Prepatory buying if you will.

    So, while I don't have any whitty musings to add, I will say its something I've become more conscious of, and I think it may be a step in the process from the consumers that we (atleast in the US) have been trained to become and the new consumer that is being created by a different movement.

  10. I actually thought of you when I wrote the post about shopping, because I knew that if anyone, you wouldn't probably fit any of the four categories! I even considered adding a disclaimer regarding hard-core thrifters - I can't even remember how many times my customers would express disgust toward fleamarkets and second hand shopping - because I actually know very little about the shopping habits of thrifters (except that they tend to buy lots).

    Anyway, I truly enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for the link! :)

  11. I am lost for words and am going to go and contemplate on your post for what could be anywhere between a few minutes and eternity until I find the answer! I too share you thoughts, fears and confusion about how i becomes what it does (thrifting, that is) and the reasons behind it.

    On a happier note, I adore your blog and enjoy following your adventures and outright questioning.

    Hannah xx

  12. It's absolutely true you can end up buying more stuff in second hand shops than you ever would new.

    Thats why I have given up thrifting for this autumn, hoping it will lead me to buy only a very few quality items.

  13. Huh. Very interesting post. I found your blog through a link trail a while ago and read it now and then, but this is the first time I've thought to comment.
    I like reading fashion blogs, but I have to admit I've never been able to understand where all the money comes from! I like that your blog is more of a 'life blog' with some 'fashion' thrown in.
    Also, about thrifting, I think you're right that sometimes it conditions us to buy more, not less. If a dress in the store costs fifty bucks and I find four dresses for eight dollars each at the thrift store, what stops me from buying all of them whether I need them or not?
    Thanks for posting. I'll keep checking in! Gunne Sax were my first vintage love, by the way- I was in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals in school, and all the girls wore Gunnes. I thought they were the most beautiful dresses I'd ever seen.
    I haven't worn one in a while- maybe I'll do that. :)