Could You Give Up Clothes Shopping For A Year? Ethically Kate Talks Us Through How To Do A Wardrobe Freeze

The dreaded process of moving house has woken Emma Clifton up to just how many unworn clothes she’s accumulated over the years. She chats to Kate Hall, from Ethically Kate, about her own year-long wardrobe freeze and the freedom of owning less things.

Writing a story about how you’ve given up discretionary spending after signing up for a mortgage feels a little bit like announcing you’ve given up dating after signing up for a marriage. Like… no kidding?

But if you have recently moved house, you’ll probably understand the existential crisis that comes with having to unpack all of those drawers and closets jammed with the items you’ve put away for another day.

When that day arrives, it is shocking. Somehow, despite being someone who would genuinely rather wear a uniform than pick out clothes, I found myself with a wardrobe comprehensive enough to fill four boxes and four suitcases. It was a sign to me – it’s time for a change.

But how?

Kate Hall, who runs the sustainability platform Ethically Kate, knows how. During a frantic ‘how to stop buying clothes’ Google in the wee hours of the morning, I was reminded that she had done a wardrobe freeze in 2022. In her first story, she detailed the complicated emotions that come with being an influencer passionate about promoting sustainable choices, while also being someone who loves fashion and has a business model partially funded by partnering with brands.

“The purpose of this challenge is to metaphorically slap myself and confront the consumer inside of me,” she wrote then, and after unpacking my seventh floral dress, I knew this feeling well.

A year later, after completing her wardrobe freeze, Kate wrote a follow-up piece where she spoke about the freedom that comes with not buying clothes. We’ve written in the past about breaking up with fast fashion, but it’s one thing to read a story, it’s another thing to commit to the move yourself. All it took was one 30-minute conversation with Kate to push me from ‘should I do this?’ to ‘Oh, I’m doing this.’

Why Do A Wardrobe Freeze?

While Kate says she had never been someone who considered shopping a weekend hobby, she was well aware that she had a lot of clothes and that she ‘wasn’t giving them the life they deserved,’ she says.

When she and her husband Tim did the minimalism challenge in 2018, she found that a lot of what she was giving away was mediocre second-hand clothing. “It was cheap, fun, and fulfilled that human urge to own something,” she says.

“On a personal level, I wanted to consume less. I know those moments where you’re bored, and you think, ‘Hmm, something new and shiny would be nice right now,’ when you want to look and feel different.”

That was on the personal side, and then on the business side, being known for working with ethical, sustainable brands, Kate says she felt uncomfortable with the amount of stuff she was still consuming.

“Even if it’s amazingly made and has incredible supply chains, and hugely positive social impact in communities… I still got to the point where I was like, ‘how can I keep consuming more when I know that, at the end of the day, it’s the amount of stuff we consume that is the horrible, underlying truth of the fashion industry.”

Her wardrobe freeze still has business ramifications for her one year later, as while some brands supported her, some had an issue with it. “It was a huge business risk – if I’m telling people not to buy clothes, why would they want to work with me?”

But it did show her which of the brands she was working with really did work from a sustainable mind-set, and the overall impact of not buying any clothes for a year far and away outshined any problems.

“I feel like I learned more about myself than I could have ever expected,” she says. “I surprised myself with how many times I was pulled towards buying something, at the start of the year. But I also felt this huge sense of relief, because I didn’t have to make a decision around if the marketing tactics would work on me today, or not.”

The Power Of Marketing

It’s an incredibly human urge to be distracted by new, bright, shiny things and the associated emotions of how a new dress will make you feel, improve your entire life and make everything better. That’s why Kate says it’s key to strip all of that emotional side back, and be aware that it’s marketing, not magic.

“When you walk into a store, when you turn on your phone, when you expose yourself to media, you’re letting your conscious and unconscious drive to purchase things be tested by really clever marking tactics,” Kate says.

“When you’re doing a wardrobe freeze and you’re absolutely determined – and in my case, you’ve told the whole fricken’ world – you feel a sense of relief, because you know that those tactics won’t work on you. The pretty colours, the lovely terms… there’s just no option, I just will not be buying something.”

Surprisingly, she said it made shopping more of an enjoyable pursuit. “I could walk into a store and treat it like an art gallery, I came to appreciate clothes so much more because I could just look at them, the colours, craftsmanship, the design, without the nagging in the back of my mind of ‘should I own it?’ I found that so, so liberating.”

The Freedom Of One Less Decision To Make

Former US President Barack Obama had a running joke that his dream job was running a clothing shop that only sold one thing: white, medium-sized t-shirts. It was his fantasy escape from a world where he was required to make multiple hard decisions daily. Avoiding what is called ‘decision fatigue’ is the same reason tech giants Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg swore by a kind of ‘work uniform’ – one less decision to make. Kate says this was another surprising realisation from her year of not buying clothing.

“It taking one less decision – and quite a big one – from your mind,” Kate says. “Again, it’s not even on your radar, it’s not even an option [to buy]. I don’t think we realise how heavily that option can hang over us until it’s gone completely.”

A Wardrobe Freeze Can Spark Your Creativity

Nine months into the year-long challenge, Kate says she was still putting together new outfits and it completely changed her attitude towards getting ready for big events. “I could choose to buy a new dress, put it on and go to the event,” she says. “But to me, that is buying clothes – it’s not fashion, or style.”

Her wardrobe freeze, Kate says, made her feel far more cemented in her own personal style, and far more confident in it. She also grew a whole new appreciation for how to look after her clothes. “When you have a big wardrobe, you can become detached to the clothes you have – almost treating them like a disposable second skin,” she says. “Now, because they are all my favourite things, I treat them so differently… almost like investments.”

Avoiding A ‘Spring Clean’ Trap

The fact that Japanese organising consultant Marie Kondo became such a worldwide sensation for her ‘sparks joy’ decluttering process shows that many of us are looking to lead simpler, less stuff-orientated life. But it’s very hard to maintain that when you live in a society that pushes us to buy more, more, more.

While she’s confident a year of no clothes shopping has changed her buying habits, Kate says she will always love clothes and she’s still not immune to the pull to buy new things. She jokes about finding a dress she loved online from a sustainable brand she adores, and texting a group chat to ‘walk me off the cliff for this dress’, only to have them all reply ‘buy it!!!’ She resisted, she laughs, but it wasn’t easy.

Her best tips for avoiding the ‘must buy something’ scratch are to a) think about the item she wants for at least one month and b) imagine the admin part of looking after it.

“Whether it’s a freebie or the most sustainably made thing ever, I fast forward to three years in now and think: will this have brought me as much joy as it has brought me work, ultimately?” she says. “And often the answer is no. I have a great wardrobe and lots of existing things that I have happily lived with, so I don’t need to have this new thing enter my home.”

In order to get out of the accumulate > spring clean declutter > accumulate mentality, the most sure-fire way to avoid that is to simply buy less things in the first place. We live in a country where 10% of the population uses a storage units, our landfills are overflowing and second-hand shops are buckling under the weight of disused items.

In author Ann Patchett’s New York Times piece, My Year Of No Shopping, she wrote about how shopping had become an inadvertent distraction to discomfort of everyday life. “The unspoken question of shopping is “What do I need?””, she writes. “What I needed was less.”

I’m still in the process of working out my own ‘rules’ for 2024 – will it be a wardrobe freeze, will it be a year of no shopping entirely – but I’ll tell you this, those suitcases of unworn clothes were a wake-up call that I needed to answer. And whether it’s the new world of mortgage payments, or the moral issue of just owning less stuff, it’s a change I’m committing to (God help me).

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