The joy of stuff and the psychology behind it

Somehow, through the rabbit hole that is the internet, you have landed at this ethical fashion blog hoping to find articles filled with affirmations that you can live life with the moral high ground that 'things' don't define you.

You may already be living clean and have high social and environmental standards. You may be just starting your journey to finding consumer-zen. Whatever your situation, you're probably are not expecting to see an article titled ‘The Joy of Stuff’. But, here it is. A shameless confession about a love of things.

Earlier this year, The Sunday Times' Wardrobe Mistress, Pandora Sykes, posted a conversation on her blog, with her friend and colleague, Dolly Alderton about the sheer thrill they get from new stuff.

Pandora: “Dolly, I just bought some red boots and some pointy shoes and a red skirt from Topshop and I feel literally sick with happiness.”

As I read the piece, all I could think about is how much I could relate. I am the definition of a juxtaposition. I have been a vegetarian for almost a decade, concerned about the impact our modern diets have on the environment and write this blog; trying to understand the consequences of our shopping habits.

But, I also work in fashion, for a women’s glossy magazine, which by definition runs on a fast consuming model. And grew up pouring over magazines, spending all my Saturday job wages in Topshop; the antithesis of an ethical consumer.

Just yesterday, knowing what I know about the fashion landscape, I walked into H&M hoping to tempt myself to buy the beautiful, bright red, midi dress I have lusted after for the past three weeks. I didn’t end up buying the dress. But it did bring me to wonder, why, despite all my better judgement, did I want nothing more than to bring that dress home with me?

Just yesterday, knowing what I know about the fashion landscape, I walked into H&M hoping to tempt myself to buy the beautiful, bright red, midi dress I have lusted after for the past three weeks.

I bet right now you're waiting for my 'AHA' moment. That one pivotal experience that made me stop and assess who I was and why I need material possessions to define who I am. That ‘AHA’ was the reason I put the red dress down and slowly backed away from H&M with my moral dignity intact. But I'm afraid I can't, I don't think I've had it yet. And the real reason I didn’t buy the dress was because it didn’t really fit properly.

So what is it about owning things that makes people feel so accomplished? And most relevantly to this blog, why is the dopamine hit of a new garment so damn irresistible? It’s not like I don’t have enough clothes to make me warm, look presentable and feel remotely up to date.

Kate Nightingale from Style Psychology told The Debrief the reason we want to dress the way we do can be anything from an emotional memory to wanting to identify with a ‘tribe’. The psychology of the way we dress is so complex, we can be influenced by anything from our self esteem to our jobs and the things that are going on in our lives.

“When you see situations of crisis, and crucial changes in life, you will see a different style or a change in the person's overall look,” says Kate. “It's because our sense of self is reflected in the clothes we wear. If someone, for example, constantly changed their look and there was no common thread running throughout, then that would probably imply that they're trying to find themselves and are a bit lost.”

At other times it can simply be the exposure your life gives you to visual references and influencers; “Some people don't stray far from the basics and they don’t have any kind of demanding trend-led job, so they just wear old-fashioned corporate textures,” Kate says. “They don't have any visual influences. The life they've created, usually on purpose, is not demanding a change from them.”

Being a fashion editor, Pandora and Dolly are exposed to a plethora of visual references and stimulations. And whilst Pandora can't explain exactly why they love new stuff so much she does reason that her own reality is in some way sustainable; “I’m stuck in this transactional cycle at the moment. Because whilst I love buying stuff, I love giving it away, too. I get exactly the same high as I do from buying stuff, as I do from getting rid of it. I’m a huge purger. HUGE. When I was a child, I was a bit like Marie Kondo – tidying up my things like I was on acid and throwing away stuff that actually, quite frankly, I still needed. I still miss that Brownie’s sweater.”

I'd love to end this piece with a resolution about still being able to buy clothes but only from ethical brands, with ethical values but I'd be a hypocrite. There will be more red dresses, from H&M or Zara or Topshop. And whilst my lifestyle and attitude towards the high street is slowly changing, unfortunately I don’t have the answers or the clean shopping record to prove it can be done. But I do have the questions and the curiosity to challenge the practises of the industry and want for a better future.

Artwork Elizabeth Cooney