A YEAR AGO this month my friend Sally decided to go a year without buying clothes.
A successful entrepreneur, wife, and mother with a professional history in advertising and fashion and a personal history as daughter of a retail executive who said things like, "You won’t want to be caught dead in those jeans next season!"—she knew it would be tough.
She also knew it was time. "I was grossed out by the economy, by the fact that I was buying clothes on impulse that I didn’t need or even really want," she told me, her signature character blend—one part princess, three parts principled—on winning display. With characteristic chutzpah Sally whipped up a blog—thegreatamericanappareldiet.com —and recruited a corps of fellow "dieters" to abstain from buying clothes September 1, 2009 to August 30, 2010, while blogging about their experiences. Since its launch the list has grown to some 138 women—and two men—from around the globe.
Clothes could be swapped or handed down. New shoes, accessories, and undergarments were allowed. "Had to have something," Sally confessed. "And, I mean . . . undies." But no new clothes. Nada. Zip. Not even unzip.
And so on Day 284 of the Great American Apparel Diet, Sally and I stood in Barneys. I was there to find out what she’d learned, figuring that if she could tell me in Barneys, T minus 80 days till the end of the diet—she must have really learned it.
Lesson #1: Not buying any clothes for a year is really, really hard. Three months in, she was the picture of insouciance—still stylish in the fall clothes she’d stocked up on before the diet, still having fun reinventing combinations from her enormous collection.
Come May—different story. She’d cheated twice. (Once on pajamas—"perimenopausal night sweats ruined mine"—and once on yoga pants she bought at the gym after forgetting her own.)
Crossing the bar into springtime was hardest, when new fashions started filling the stores and Sally’s friends had the nerve to start buying them. One night she left the house all cute in her put-together ensemble but returned feeling frumpy and pissed off. In between she’d gone to a party with her most fabulous friend, a coffee industry exec whose trips to New York and Asia kept her impeccably, creatively garbed. "I came home and thought, ‘I hate this diet,’ " she grumbled. "That was my low point."
Lesson #2: Having a full closet doesn’t make it easier. Like Sally, many of the dieters started out believing they owned enough clothes to last a long time. They found that life in one’s own closet grows tedious fast. "I learned that it’s not about how many clothes you have; it’s about reinventing yourself with new ones," she told me. "It’s like being a painter and having only five colors."
Lesson #3: Shopping’s not so much about getting new clothes as it is about creating identity. If she’s learned anything, it’s that clothes tell the story of who we are. "Shopping," Sally sighed, "is so much more than shopping."
Complicating that fact have been the unique circumstances of a year in which she worked from home and felt the onset of midlife. "It’s like adolescence revisited," she said. "I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to look like," she admitted, fingering a Barneys filigreed lace top with bold front zipper. "I am sure I don’t want to start shopping at Chico’s."
Lesson #4: Not shopping has helped her find her style. On the other hand, not buying clothes has helped her discover what she genuinely likes to wear. "I hate blazers! I hate blouses! So why do I have a closet full of them?" she wondered. Sally realized that her career and her upbringing had fashioned her into a consumer dutifully responsive to the demands of the marketplace—but deaf to the dictates of her own style.
That’s changing. "See this ring?" she asked, unfurling her fingers to reveal a transparent Lucite bauble the size of a golf ball. "Twenty bucks in Fremont. I love this ring. I’m not sure I would have bought this before the diet."
Lesson #5: A person should never buy something just because it’s on sale. Aka Why Sally Has So Many Blazers and Blouses. Nine months into the diet she was moved to draft a set of shopping rules, including: Don’t buy anything on impulse, don’t buy anything that doesn’t fit you at that moment, and, foremost, if you wouldn’t pay full price for it, don’t buy it on sale. "Thirty-percent off" should never be a garment’s best feature. If it is, the market is having its way with you.
Lesson #6: Cheap clothes are unconscionable. If Sally started the diet concerned about the effect too many clothes were having on her soul, she ends it harrowed by the effect the clothing industry is having on the planet. "You can’t breathe in China," she says, quieting. "Kids there are making our clothes in packed sweatshops, with no bathroom breaks." Wear your discount store uberbargains, she says—but know that you’re wearing them on the backs of those children.
Cheaply made, short-lived apparel has become for Sally more than an aesthetic crisis. Her raised consciousness now regards it a spiritual, environmental, and humanitarian crisis. "I want to challenge the notion of disposable clothing, to find meaning in things that last," she says. "My two most prized possessions are ski sweaters my mom wore in high school."
Lesson #7: Shopping works like a drug. The biggest surprise for her was finding that women the world over self-medicate by shopping. The Great American Apparel Diet had participants from Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Australia, Croatia, and elsewhere, who carried on their shopping trips the same baggage of acquisitiveness, appearance anxiety—lots of weight issues—and buyer’s remorse that we are known for.
"The bloggers articulated that so well," Sally said. "That cycle of standing in the shop, wondering ‘Can I afford this?’ then buying it, then feeling guilty, then gathering debt . . . and you’re still the same person, only slightly better dressed."
"It’s filling the hole," she mused. "Reaching for fulfillment in the wrong way." Sally, no addict, nevertheless knows the inclination. A couple weeks earlier, in the kind of funk that would usually tempt her toward a boutique, she dropped a major wad on her hair. An amount that could buy a person a pretty nice leather jacket.
By now we’d made our way to the Nordstrom shoe department, where she was eyeing a pair of cherry-red patent leather wedges. "Honestly, I am so over this diet," she admitted wistfully. "I’m jonesing for new jeans." As she spoke I was admiring a pair of black gladiator sandals on sale.
Which is how we ended our interview about not buying clothes—by buying shoes. "It’s not cheating," she ventured, 80 days shy of freedom, a flutter of anxiety momentarily knitting her brow.
"So why do I feel guilty?"