My Unhealthy Relationship with Fashion Convinced Me to Go on a Shopping Diet

Could I get my life together in 12 months — with no new clothes?

Fashion Statement Diet
Photo: Olivia De Recat

While it seems as if the rest of the world has been caught up in a Marie Kondo–inspired whirl of tidying up, I, dear reader, have taken the decluttering craze to the next level. For an entire year I went on a shopping diet.

The rules were simple: Twelve months, no new clothes (not counting underwear and socks — I’m not a deviant, thank you very much). This was penance for a lifetime of gluttonous consumption of things I hardly needed or rarely wore. What I discovered, like so many shopping-diet enthusiasts before me, was that my relationship with fashion was not entirely healthy, and not at all rational. Day by day I cleansed my wardrobe of joy-deficient sweaters, complex-inducing jeans, and one what-was-I-thinking turquoise corduroy suit. By the end of this self-imposed fast, my closets and drawers had become neatly organized shrines to functionality, my thoughts less fractured about what to wear each day, my savings account the equivalent of a fitness model’s “after” picture.

But was I happier? Not really.

Fashion Statement Diet
Olivia De Recat

This journey toward a more monastic, self-efficient me, in fact, surfaced all sorts of previously undetected issues. For example, what long-suppressed trauma caused me to buy a rainbow hoodie in the first place? Does my purchase of synthetic fabrics, which are bad for the environment, mean I’m nihilistic? If no one notices I haven’t bought anything new in a while, doesn’t that also mean people just don’t like me? Does being less stressed lead to being depressed? And why do I still feel a desire to detach from my belongings?

In search of answers as to what’s causing this cultural shift in consumer behavior, including my own, I sought professional advice from life coaches and decluttering experts, including Kondo herself.

“Tidying is the most basic domestic chore in all of human existence, but interest in it is at an all-time high,” says Kondo, whose adorable new Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, is partly to blame for said interest. “People are beginning to realize that happiness is not something you achieve from the outside — through technology or the newest fad to hit the market — but rather, from within.”

Kondo’s philosophy of choosing what to keep based on how each item makes you feel — the litmus test is whether said item sparks joy — resonates on many levels, but most of them are by their very nature superficial. You could not apply the same approach to, say, a cleanse of your friends or co-workers or your annoying kids. So why should buying fewer things make people happier?

Fashion Statement Diet
Olivia De Recat

“By buying less, you create more space in your life,” Kondo says. “In my case, rather than filling that space with something else, I enjoy having the space itself.”

This reminds me of a billboard I noticed advertising storage units that turn your “tiny New York City apartment” into a “tiny, clutter-free New York City apartment.”

Still, Kondo has obviously touched a nerve for millions of dissatisfied consumers. Since the 2008 financial crisis, decluttering movements and shopping diets have proliferated as much as our “stuff” used to do. The currently popular “buy nothing” diet is self-explanatory, but there have been others, like the restrictive Great American Apparel Diet or challenges that ask shoppers to make do with what they already own, wearing only six items from their loset for a month. The “five-piece French wardrobe,” composed of only a handful of statement pieces, plus basics, takes its inspiration from the Parisian approach of elegance through restraint. But we all can’t be Carine Roitfeld.

“More and more I see people want fewer items but ones that they love and appreciate,” says Carol Davidson, an image consultant and life coach in New York City. “Basically, we are being bombarded by stimuli, constant messages in our in-boxes and voice mail. People want a more simplified lifestyle, and that starts in the closet every morning.”

Lots of factors are driving this shift, Davidson says. Concern for the environment, boredom with traditional retail, worries about the economy, and a desire for more individual styles are inspiring people to shop their own closets. “Twenty years ago the service most in demand was personal shopping,” she says. “Now it’s styling, working with what people already have.”

Kondo’s series also happened to premiere on January 1, during the partial federal-government shutdown, meaning lots of people around the country had time to binge-watch it. Serious discussions about possessions were happening across party lines — “and I don’t think it’s generational either,” says Nicole Anzia, the owner of Neatnik, a professional organizing company in Washington, D.C. “I have older clients and younger clients who are aiming to consume less.” But she argues that the fascination with getting rid of things may also have a downside, as it seems wasteful to throw out a perfectly good sweater just because wearing it doesn’t make you feel like you’re on ecstasy. And while Grandpa’s war memorabilia might not interest you, perhaps your annoying kids will love that sort of thing.

But back to me. I know, I know, no one wants to hear about my diet, but let me tell you something. It’s been only a month since it ended, and I’ve already returned to my old bad habits. I bought a blazer because it was on sale, even though it didn’t really fit. I binged on the same sweater in three colors. I’m click, click, clicking a constant stream of online purchases so I have something new to come home to every night.

But am I happier? Not really.

Something Kondo says gives me pause.

“People are neglecting to turn inward. Nobody is asking,‘What makes me truly happy?’ ” she says. “I believe more people are getting tired of owning lots of things because managing them takes up too much of their thoughts and time."

She's right, of course. But I choose to believe that I am a very good manager, and that in itself is one small triumph.

For more stories like this, pick up the February issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.

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