I won't buy it: Breaking the fashion habit

Her fashion habit wasn't good for her bank balance – or the planet. So could Penny Hancock survive a whole year without new clothes?
Click to follow

It started as a money thing. Why did I never have any left over at the end of the month? Why were we never any nearer to paying off our mortgage? It was time to take a really good look at my bank statements and before long, one thing became glaringly obvious: the unnecessary expenditure was almost all mine. And it was all spent on clothes.

Women (it's still mainly women) buy clothes as therapy and as a treat. Susannah and Trinny and their spin-offs have spawned a generation of women for whom dressing well has become synonymous with good self-esteem, but they have also encouraged a form of consumerism that is hardly ever questioned.

I had it bad. I was popping into my favourite retail outlet (Jigsaw) weekly, in order to view their new delivery before anyone else got there. And I was buying something almost every week. These were my indulgences. The clothes I dropped into my shopping trolley at the supermarket, I didn't even count – they just got swallowed up with the food shopping bill. And because they were so cheap it wouldn't matter if I never wore them. The bigger purchases, the designer boots or the catalogue coats, were there to give me that guilty frisson of delight that will be familiar to most women. But if I wanted to make any inroads ever into paying off our mortgage, I realised this spending had to stop.

It was after a particularly pointless splurge on three new tops that I made the daunting resolution to stop buying clothes for a year. It seemed it was all or nothing – like any kind of addict, I realised I needed complete abstinence if I was going to overcome my compulsion to buy.

I made the decision in January. To my surprise, by the end of February I had already saved £650. During those cold months of the year, it wasn't so difficult to stop myself buying new clothes – I just wrapped up in jumpers most of the time anyway and there was a dearth of social occasions on my calendar.

My resolution was put to the test when I was invited to a friend's big birthday do in March. Friends from my distant past would be there but how could I look my best, without a shopping spree to set me up? I felt my resolve slipping – I would buy just one dress? Oh, and some shoes – which would mean tights – and then lipstick, and earrings, and... the landslide had begun again.

I was going to have to resist the temptation to go shopping and look to what I already owned to come up with an outfit that I would feel as good in as a new one. I spent an afternoon with my daughters trying on clothes and accessories that had sat at the back of my wardrobe for years.

At the party, the resulting outfit (a combination of a dress I'd bought 10 years ago, over jeans, with a pair of shoes I loved but rarely had the occasion to wear, and one of my daughters' cardis) received quite a few compliments. I could have spent more than £100, not to mention hours of shopping, creating this look from new. But one of the general truths about not shopping for clothes is that almost invariably, the item you think you have to buy, you have probably already got somewhere.

As spring moved in, the temptation to give in and buy was wearing me down. A new season begs for a fresh look. There seemed something faintly unsavoury about getting through a hot summer in last year's clothes. How would I manage it?

People suggested helpfully that of course one does not have to spend a lot of money to buy a new outfit every week any more. You can fill a basket at Primark with clothes so cheap it won't matter if you never wear half of them. But my clothes-shopping boycott had by now taken on a new dimension. I was beginning to feel rather puritanical and was aware of a niggling feeling which, in truth, I'd had for some time, that all this consumerism couldn't be good for the planet.

Looking upon clothes as disposable commodities that can be worn once and chucked away seems plain wrong. It is as if we are forgetting that clothes, like all other consumer commodities, require raw materials and energy for their production. Then there is the impact on the environment of transporting them half way across the world. According to the National Consumer Council, we chuck out 80 per cent of what we buy after just one use. Then there's the pollution the manufacturer of textiles is responsible for as well.

As a family, we had started buying local produce, aware of the CO2 emissions produced by transporting food halfway across the world, so why weren't we paying similar attention to the clothes we bought? Although the shop windows, magazines and catalogues were urging me in one direction, my conscience was now helping me to resist. I had plenty of good clothes left from last summer, many of them barely worn. I was going to have to draw on reserves of creativity in order to recycle them for this summer without their looking too tatty or discoloured.

A BBC2 programme on Jackie comic earlier this year helped me with this. In it, former readers reminisced that as penniless teenagers in the Seventies they adapted clothes, adding triangles of Laura Ashley fabric to straight jeans to create flares, customising skirts with patchwork pockets and so on. You can adapt clothes so easily, that once you begin to do so, shopping for new ones seems exhausting in comparison. When I spotted a pair of three-quarter-length trousers in the Toast catalogue that I coveted terribly, I recreated the look by cutting the bottoms off a pair of linen trousers I no longer wore. My mother pointed out that I could even use the chopped off bottoms of the trouser legs as dusters – the return of make-do-and-mend! My eyes began to open. A beautiful dress that had been sitting in a bag waiting for a trip to Oxfam because, although I loved its shape, I'd gone off the colour, could be dyed. I took another dress to a woman locally who does alterations, to have the neck-line altered. And soon I had a whole new summer wardrobe.

I was enjoying things I never thought I had time for – spending a little longer reading books, or gardening, or going to exhibitions instead of into the shops.

The fashion industry frightens us into believing we'll look out of date if we wear last winter's coat or boots again. But storing clothes used to be the rule rather than the exception. My mother packed all her winter clothes in the spring, and got out her summer wardrobe. Then, in the autumn, she would do the opposite. Each season she would rediscover some item she had forgotten. It was like acquiring a whole new garment without spending any money. And, if you hang on to things long enough, they are bound to come back into fashion again. Another advantage is that one day they become vintage – my daughters wear my mother's old Sixties dresses.

At the end of last winter I folded the clothes that I believed had another year of wear in them and stored them in an old leather suitcase that belonged to my grandfather. Now autumn is here again it's time to take a look at them. Sure enough, there are things I'd forgotten I had.

Soon I will have passed a whole year without buying clothes. I still face challenges – going into every designer clothes shop in Covent Garden with two teenage daughters is enough to make the toughest non-clothes-buyer weaken. But I know that if I get to the end of the year I'll get twice as much pleasure when I do at last buy something.

My intention is not to go mad, but to buy fewer, better quality clothes that I really want. Good quality clothes should be cherished and maintained so they might even, like good quality furniture, be passed down through the generations.

Wear it well: how to love the clothes you've got

*Ask your dry cleaners or heel bar whether they also repair clothes or offer an alteration service.

*Try dyeing – a quick cycle in the washing machine with a packet of Dylon can create a whole new item of clothing.

*Contact manufacturers – ethical companies should be pleased to help you maintain your goods. (Birkenstock gave invaluable advice on getting more wear out of my shoes.)

*Before buying, think: have I already got this? A quick tally of my Jigsaw vest-tops revealed that I owned 15.

*Pack clothes away – you might think that you are fed up with the sight of them, but in a few months you probably would have gone out and bought an identical garment – forgetting you already had one. Remember, most of your clothes you bought because they suited you.

*Collect buttons in a box to customise or repair jackets and coats.

*Take a fresh look at your accessories and be creative about how you wear them – you don't really need any more.

*When a piece of clothing finally falls apart, look at what you can salvage from it – there may be buttons, buckles, zips or laces that can be reused. And if you can't think of a better use for the fabric, make it into dusters and polish your jewellery with them!