Images: Stephen Cunningsworth
Invest in pieces that will stay in your wardrobe forever, not just a season, says writer and fashion consultant Aja Barber as she shares her tips for learning what to buy and how to build a wardrobe that will last.
The oldest piece of clothing in my wardrobe is a weathered denim shirt (the one pictured) from a famous high street brand (which has now fallen on hard times). In the era of my youth, this brand was the cream of the crop and once upon a time it made high quality clothes that were only affordable to adolescent Aja for special occasions with money saved from numerous babysitting and dog-walking jobs. The denim shirt was thrifted in the early noughties but the tag inside reveals that it was produced in autumn 2001. That shirt is coming up on 20 years of age while nothing in the store today would last me that long, I’m sure. Part of the fast fashion cycle is that the quality of clothing has slipped increasingly downhill like a snowball picking up speed.
But the softened cotton denim shirt isn’t the only item of mine which has years of age to it. I have 10 year-old sweaters, eight year-old trousers, the shoes I wore today are at least seven years-old. A lot of my wardrobe has a lot of history and some of it was even purchased second-hand. So I thought I would write a few tips about buying for a long time and not just a good time. (It is possible to actually have both though).
1. In my last essay, I brushed upon poverty and growing up with a parent who has experienced it. What this means is, we wore hand-me-downs and if we got something new, it was always oversized with room to grow. My sister jokes that our shoes were floppy sometimes – it’s probably not too far from the truth. Things had to last multiple years in our household so we never bought clothes “just right”.
Today, that theory applies to the way I shop for my clothing regularly; I never buy anything just right. My sweaters tend to be oversized. My trousers always have room in the waist or elastic. As a cisgender woman, one thing I’ve noticed throughout my life is weight fluctuations. If you’re one of those people who stays the same size naturally, you’re not the majority. In my adult life I’ve been five different sizes and currently I’m my biggest. But always thinking ahead, if I bought something that I wanted to have for a long time, it has to be a little stretchy, oversized or have some give somewhere. I’m still not sure what my family situation will be in the future, but when I buy dresses, if I spend a lot of money, sometimes I ask myself:
“Could I wear this through a pregnancy?”
That influences my purchasing decisions sometimes.
I actually wear a lot of avant garde designers like Issey Miyake, Comme Des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe because they make garments that are easy for a lot of different shapes to wear. I love their artful designs but I’m always grateful for a little extra room.
2.Remember that the gender binary is nonsense. No really, it is. It’s oppressive garbage that’s made up to trap people into boxes based on arbitrary rules. Let people be who they are and wear what they want, it has nothing to do with you. Of course, this rule applies when shopping for my clothes. I’ve been quietly shopping in the men’s section since I was a teen but of course as a teen, I wasn’t exactly bragging about it because it made you “weird”. Now, I brag about it. I’ve sized out of one of my favorite high end designers women section (I mean, I was never, ever fitting in those trousers at my slimmest) and I swiftly moved onto the men’s section. It feels like I graduated or something. Level up and get some designer clothes that fit regardless of which aisle they come from. Meanwhile some of my old shirts that no longer fit me fit my husband perfectly. We wear what we want and so should you.
3. Look for good fabric. I’m not a snob to polyester. The truth is 60% of the fabrics which exist on the earth are polyester, so it’s common to have it in your wardrobe and our future (because of all this excess polyester) looks like fabric blends (and buying and producing less). But I won’t lie to you, many of the pieces that I’ve had for a long time have been cotton, linen and very high quality wool. I realised before I fully stopped purchasing fast fashion all together that I truly hated fast fashion sweaters because they became terrible after a season. Beaded. Misshapen. I began to see them as an utter waste of my money – so I made a rule. I stopped buying sweaters unless they were cotton, cashmere or high quality wool. It kept me from a lot of impulse purchases and it’s part of why I’m known for my knitwear. I think that was a key step in weaning myself from fast fashion – setting a standard for what came in my closet. Want to know if a sweater is going to bead in the store? Pinch the material and give it a good rub. It will show you how it behaves right there.
4. Stop following trends and develop your personal style. When you develop your personal style you’ll naturally know what styles work for you and which don’t. You’ll sidestep a lot of stuff in stores that you don’t need simply because it’s not your thing. You won’t feel pressured to buy “just because”. Getting dressed in the morning and truly loving your clothes means that you never stress out in front of your closet about what to wear. That wardrobe will carry you through many seasons and you’ll be too in love with your wardrobe to needlessly consume. A great way to figure out your personal style for free is to start a Pinterest board for looks you enjoy. Eventually your pins will start to reflect to you exactly what you love.
Realise that there will always be trial and error (because no one gets it right ALL the time… not even me) and remember that it should be fun – and if it isn’t, read this list again and change something.