How Shopping on a Budget Changed My Style

Haley wrote this story in 2017. We’re bringing it back just in case you’re starting to feel that summer I-have-nothing-in-my-wardrobe itch right alongside that I’m-trying-to-save-money self-promise.

Upon arriving in New York and joining Man Repeller last March, I developed an unfamiliar trepidation around getting dressed. In San Francisco, I was considered “a fashion person” for wearing high-waist pants and ironic bandanas. Back then, I enjoyed a sort of big-fish-small-pond reputation for having style. In New York though, everything flipped. Suddenly, I was a goldfish in the Atlantic Ocean.

Nothing I wore felt fashiony enough. I’d don a new pair of pants the same day someone said they were over, or pitch a style story that had already been done. My intuition about what I liked began to dull. Had it really been so linked to how others perceived me? It was a humbling thought. I began to wonder if I could still consider myself a fashion person. At my most dramatic moments, I felt like I’d lost a part of myself. In my less dramatic ones, I realized it was small potatoes, but I still had to get dressed.

In my previous life, I might have attempted to throw money at the problem. I was always shopping to fill a hole or boost my spirits. Newer, “better” clothes were always within reach. But my exciting, drastic career change had been a financial sacrifice, and I had no choice but to be more resourceful and judicious with my money. That is to say, shop as little as possible. Ideally, not at all.

I soon realized that if I had $30 to spend on clothes in a month, there were only a couple options: Buy something brand-new, trendy and mass-produced, or something older, many-times worn and of higher quality. When I was younger, I felt more comfortable with the former. I found the curated shopping experience of, say, Zara far more appealing than that of a jam-packed thrift store. But subscribing to the fast-fashion track means shopping a lot. And even if I could afford to do that, which I couldn’t and can’t, those clothes were no longer speaking to me in the same way.

Most thrift store offerings, in my eyes, fall in one of two camps: cliché feminine stuff, like frilly dresses from the ‘70s, or cliché boyish stuff, like graphic T-shirts from the ‘80s. True or not, it’s how my brain maps it when I walk in. And soon I noticed my consistent, natural inclination toward the men’s side. Oversize denim jackets, slouchy ripped jeans, baggy cotton tees, old Adidas track jackets. Little by little, my closet began to resemble what I imagine my dad’s did 40 years ago. What surprised me was how much I loved it. How like myself it made me feel.

It’d be dishonest to leave out that my job affords me some swag, and that the occasional free sweatshirt or pair of sneakers is hugely helpful in both rounding out my closet and fulfilling the obnoxious little capitalist within me that wants NEW STUFF. But I’m still surprised, and a little proud, whenever I realize that I haven’t bought something new in over a year. More surprising than that, though, is how shopping thrift did more for unearthing my true style than shopping fast trends ever did. Having fewer, older, often baggier things, means playing with shapes and being more creative than wearing something pre-imagined off the rack. It’s fun.

I’m still figuring it out. There’s still a part of me that feels left out when I see breath-taking outfits, artfully pieced together with designer clothes I could never afford nor find on a junky thrift store rack, but I’m slowly finding solace in the comfortable style identity I’ve carved out for myself. Even if photographers aren’t chasing me down the street come fashion week, it’s nice to not feel like I’m dressing up in anyone else’s idea of cool beyond my own.

Photos by Edith Young.

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