The August Outfit Challenge: What I Learned 

Last month I read an interesting statistic: that most women wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time. A quick mental assessment of my recent outfits showed me that was definitely true for me. So I set myself a challenge: wear a completely different outfit every day for a month – without going shopping and buying anything new. 

The idea was to hopefully wear a few more of the clothes that I don’t appeciate enough, and try and experiment and have a little fun with my wardrobe.  What I learned was both obvious and unexpected in equal measures. 

Days 1-8 of the challenge

I didn’t come close to running out of clothes 
Yup. By the end of the month I still had piles of t-shirts lying in my chest of drawers, and a dozen dresses hanging in the wardrobe, untouched. What I did run out of was things I wanted to wear. I wore my favourite black shirt dress on day 12 of the challenge and for the rest of the month I kept reaching for it and feeling annoyed when I didn’t have it to wear. A lot of the other things I didn’t wear were either to summery (for such a chilly August) or too wintery (because it was still August) and therefore impractical, or they were too short, too long, had buttons missing. That gave me a great idea for my next challenge. 

Days 9-16 of the challenge

I’ve got far too many average or ill-fitting clothes in my wardrobe 

On many of the days in the challenge, I found myself tugging at a skirt or hemline or trouser waistband or rebuttoning a shirt and thinking “if only this was an inch tighter/longer” or “if only this shirt fitted a little better” and feeling irritated. I have a terrible tendency to buy things that are “good enough” in the moment, or which seem good after a full day of shopping and finding nothing, but which actually I don’t like anywhere near enough. It’s the absolute opposite of the mindful consumption I’m trying to practice in every area of life. And when I look through at the outfits which are my favourites, they aren’t the ones bought in haste because of a desire to have something new – they’re the ones I thought long and hard about and which I carefully considered before buying. 

Days 17-24 of the challenge

I wear a lot of black 

Which I guess if I’d been paying attention I would already have realised. Maybe it’s working for an architect (stereotype alert!), maybe it’s a reaction against all the block colours and jewel tones I used to wear in my corporate life. In fact, almost every outfit I wore was either mostly black, an all-over pattern, or plain white. Apart from the green dress I wore to a wedding on day 19, I didn’t wear a single other plain colour. Is that interesting or meaningful? Maybe not to anyone other than me, but it’s definitely helped me to become more aware of what I am likely to actually wear – and to avoid buying things which don’t fit into these categories and are therefore unlikely to go with my existing clothes or be worn much. 

Days 25-31 of the challenge

I’m a creature of habit 

So many of my clothes are actually all very similar versions of each other: I wore 4 pairs of jeans in this experiment – all basically the same shade of blue. I wore 8 little black dresses, so many black patterned items, and only about 5 different pairs of shoes all month! I’ve also got several other black and white polka dot items… You could see this as problematic – that I keep buying the same things rather than branching out. But I’m quite pleased with it really. It makes me think that slowly downsizing my wardrobe to a capsule wardrobe is possible. 

I spend a lot of time in sportswear these days 

I didn’t photograph any of my sportswear because it’s ugly and boring. But as a side note because I know some people reading this will be aware I cycle to work, I wore my sportswear almost every day, and most of these outfits were partly chosen because they can withstand being squished into a rucksack! 

Looking forward to September 

Overall, although I felt like a bit of a prat taking a selfie every day, I felt like the outfit challenge was worth doing. Staying away from the shops and focusing on what I already owned was a good reminder of society’s constant pressure to buy new stuff just because it’s new, not because you need it or it’s better. 

Initially I was going to try and do another themed wardrobe challenge for September, but I decided not to after the August one because I didn’t think I would learn much new from it. 

Instead, my September challenge is to make sure that everything in my wardrobe is something I’m ready and able to wear. Mending all the broken things, giving away all the stuff I’m never going to wear, taking up hems, altering sleeves, doing everything I can to ensure that I’m putting what I already have to the best use possible. 

September is already nearly half gone, and I’m excited by the process I’ve made with this challenge. My mending pile is growing steadily smaller, and I’ve breathed new life into some of my clothes with some fun alterations. I’ll share my updates here soon, along with my final challenge, the October outfit challenge. 

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It’s not over till it’s over

Today is A level results day, and newspapers the country over will be filled with images of jumping blonde girls with gleaming smiles, clutching envelopes filled with A grades. 

I was never one of those girls, and not just because at 18 I had short pinkish hair. I opened my A level results envelope with a churning stomach and felt the floor fall away from my feet when I saw I hadn’t got the results I needed. I wasn’t going to be accepted to university. My dream was over. 

The rest of the day was a blur. I didn’t speak to anyone, didn’t join the celebrations in the pub, couldn’t be comforted. People kept telling me about celebrities and the rich and famous who had gone a long way without great A levels, but I didn’t know anyone who could help me go a long way. And more to the point, I knew the long way I wanted to go: 220 miles straight up the A1m to Durham University. But I couldn’t do that without an A in English. 

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story. My English teacher flatly refused to believe that I could get AAAAAE in my six papers, and asked for a remark of the E. My university agreed that if I could get the result I needed by the end of the month I could take up my place. The remark was sent off and an anxious wait ensued. After a week, my mother was so unsure if I would ever smile again that she agreed to take me to the Ashford Designer Outlet and buy me anything I wanted. My mother, principled anti-consumerist that she was and remains, knew this was the only thing that might cheer me up. I agreed. 

We had just arrived in the car park when my phone rang. It was the exam board. There had indeed been a mistake. The examiner hadn’t marked one of the two essays on the paper. My mark went from an E to an A, and my overall grade shifted from B to A. I was back in to Durham. We didn’t even get out of the car, didn’t buy anything I wanted, just drove home and immediately called the university. It was solved. 

On my graduation day with Bill Bryson

I went to Durham, loved it, graduated, and had the time of my life. But since then I have had other experiences like this one, with the rug pulled from under my feet, and I am grateful for the lessons it taught me. 

One, that Baz Luhrmann was right in ‘Wear Sunscreen’. The things you need to be truly afraid of are the ones you are not expecting. So do not fret. It had never occurred to me that a mistake like this could happen, and once it happened, that it would be so easy to fix. 

Two, do not lose your head. I wanted to lie in bed and cry forever after this, and I think I may even have uttered the words “it just feels like I’ve died”. But my mum was practical. She could tell my result was unlikely, and underneath my hysteria I knew it too. Be practical, seek out solutions to small problems if the main one is too big to understand, and move forward one step at a time. Remember: you eat an elephant one bite at a time. 

Three, remember that this is not the end. Life is not a movie where the credits roll once everything is sorted, and if things aren’t sorted within two hours, they remain unsorted forever. Setbacks can seem like end points so easily in this mentality, but life is long. If I hadn’t got in to Durham that year, I would have gone somewhere else the next year, done something different. Since that time there have been setbacks of many kinds in my life; break ups, redundancies, financial woes. Sometimes you don’t get what you want. And learning to cope with that is an important part of life, and avoiding becoming bitter or spoiled. 

Two years after this moment, it happened again. I failed one of my second year finals. And this time there was no happy ending, no teachers or mum to solve my problems. I was an adult and I had to solve it myself. I was recently bereaved, grieving and drifting but that was no excuse. I applied to a retake, worked hard all summer, passed the exam, and continued on my course and graduated the next summer as planned. 

So if you, or someone you love, woke up this morning and felt your dreams crashing down around you, don’t lose heart. There is a solution to every problem, and a setback need not mean the end of your dreams. It’s a cliche, but a lot of life is in the journey. And what great journey isn’t beset with some mishaps along the way? 

August Outfit Challenge

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love fashion. I’ve always loved it. I used to throw tantrums when my mum tried to persuade me not to wear flowery dresses to climb trees, and embellished velvet skirts to infant school. I saved my pocket money for Camden market couture as a teenager, and still spend a good proportion of my wages on clothes today. I’ve written before about having a bit of a shopping problem, and I’ve even tried to give fashion advice from time to time! 


Previous attempts to buy fewer clothes have always ended in failure for me, I think in part because it felt too much like giving something up. Most of my beloved childhood clothes were second or even third hand, and I felt that stinging shame a long way into adult life. But recently I’ve been more and more aware of the social and environmental impact of my shopping habits. We all know that the people who make our clothes aren’t paid enough, but we choose to ignore it. I push that guilt aside with affirmations about my own virtue all the time. I recycle. I cycle to work. I’m a vegetarian. I live in a tiny flat in a dense urban neighbourhood. My carbon footprint is tiny! Maybe. But that doesn’t make it right to exploit people. 

As I get older I care more about living authentically. I don’t want to wear something once and toss it away because it doesn’t express what I was aiming to express that week. I want to have a personal style, one that’s settled down as I have, and reflects my own blend of adventurous contentment. 


But like I said, giving things up never seems to work for me. I’m too stubborn and rebellious. But I love a challenge. So for the next three months I’m going to be undertaking different outfit challenges to help me be more mindful about my fashion habits. 

The August fashion challenge is simple: I have to wear a different outfit from my existing wardrobe every day for the whole month. I can only wear shoes and sportswear multiple times. (And coats if the August weather doesn’t turn out quite how I’ve hoped!) 

I’ll be documenting my progress on my Instagram account @ohbelles with my outfits featuring in my daily story. At the end of the month I’ll write about how it went and move on to my next challenge. 

Take a walk on the quiet side 


Sometimes you get this feeling, like you just need to leave. To run away, pack a small bag and go anywhere. Out into the country or over the sea. Anywhere you’d see a different sunset, anywhere no one would know your name. Anywhere you could be someone new. 

And then you have one of those London days where cold clouds burn off too late and the evening is strangely sultry and everyone is looking around surprised like how did this come to be, and everyone has got in a park and all the restaurants have their fronts folded back and their windows open and people are sitting outside remembering romantic trips to the south of France. And you take a long back route walk home, see Georgian terraces turn into Victorian semi detached and then pre war semis. 

Somehow the evening light is blue and not that smog smudgy grey. Everywhere looks beautiful, peaceful. There are no cars in the back roads, and for a moment you are so perfectly alone you can stand in the middle of the road looking up at the evening light, and the aeroplane trails in the sky. 

Walking further, people begin to reappear. Couples leave the park, passing bottles of wine between them. A fitness group is drifting apart towards the stations or the bus stops. Every house that has a balcony has someone on it, and every flat roof has someone smoking a cigarette. 


For a while the houses are so big, they seem almost American, and yet they are perfect in this south London suburb. As the road begins to climb the hill, every house seems to have roses in the front garden, their colours deepening in the late July dusk. 

The music sings “how does it feel?” And it feels like rebirth. Like the summer light is washing away your cares, and each step of your tired leg is reminding you that you are not a rolling stone. You are not wandering through the world, these quiet streets are everything you’ve always known. This is your country, this is your sea. These simple curving roads where every house is different and new sit alongside old in a happy, relaxed jumble, just as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen. As beautiful as the turreted mini mansions of the Washington DC streets leading up to National Cathedral, or the steeply winding back streets in the South of France. 


You fall in love softly, with every quiet step, as true dusk falls. As you reach your own road, the only light is from flickering TV screens, and street lights half obscured by trees. No one stirs as you turn your corner, except the three street cats; milkpaws, colonel fluffy, and fatty tangerine, who wind themselves around your legs, head butting your shins with their soft faces, welcoming you home like a grand committee sent from heaven because that’s exactly what you need. 


And then you are at home, leaning against the kitchen counter, waiting for the kettle to boil. Life is ordinary again, but the calm remains, born of a moment of quiet in the wild, a moment of wildness in the quiet streets. Solitude amongst a city of eight million, strangeness in a familiar land. 

The Extrovert’s Guide to Surviving Loneliness

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8 million people in this City and no one to have a drink with 😦

 

Loneliness is a funny thing. It can sneak up on you quite unannounced, a sudden realisation blooming from a nagging voice in the back of your head that perhaps things aren’t as wonderful as you thought they were.

And loneliness can take many forms. We’ve all heard about how lonely it can be to be in the middle of a crowded room and feel like there’s no one you can trust, or to feel like there’s no one you can pick up the phone to when you’re having a tough time. But there’s also the flipside to that. Sometimes, you know there are six people who’d drop everything if you called them in tears, but you don’t have anyone you can just get drunk with on a Friday night. And God, if it’s lonely being in the middle of the dancefloor sometimes, it’s far worse sitting alone in your house with one glass of wine (because more than one is tragic) listening to hundreds of people whooping and shrieking in the crowded bar that’s only over the road, and yet so far away.

I think society often perceives loneliness as something old people experience, or people who live in the country, but it can strike at any time, any age, and is probably affecting a lot of other people at the same time. Maybe you’ve started a new job and haven’t made any friends yet. Maybe you’re working a non 9-5 schedule and you always miss out on weekend hangouts, but find yourself constantly alone during the week. Maybe your best friend moved abroad. Maybe you’ve moved to a new city. Maybe you’ve just split up with your partner. Whatever the reason, it can be easy to get stuck into a rut, where feeling lonely becomes a recurring feature of your life. If you’re an extrovert, this can feel crushing, even like a physical pain as you wither from lack of social contact.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Simple steps can help you feel far less lonely, and even begin to enjoy your alone time. I hereby present the Extrovert’s Guide to Surviving Loneliness, written by a certified extrovert who once scored 95% in an extrovert/introvert study.

Reach out to people you already know

When you first realise that you’re feeling lonely, reach out to all those people who you keep meaning to meet up with but never do. Sure, it won’t give you anyone to hang out with right now, but if you keep feeling down because you always have to book time with friends a month in advance, book time with friends a month in advance! That way you know you have something to look forward to, and that your lonely situation is temporary.

Make the first move with new people

Even for extroverts making the first move with new people can be painful. I’ve just started a new job, and everyone has been really friendly. But I’ve still had to make the first move, introducing myself to people, asking about their projects, and finding out how the social structure of my new office works. Every time I do it I feel nervous and shivery and somehow too small and too big for my bones. But every time they smile and open up. Try and force yourself to introduce yourself to everyone you can, and you’ll be surprised how many people you can meet.

Start doing something that can help you meet people

It’s a cliché but it works. Try a team sport, volunteering opportunity or local campaigning group for a way to join in with something that provides more time for discussion and friendship than something like an exercise class. You don’t have to keep going if you hate it, but give it a real go. Something that locks you in to four sessions is good because it forces you to give it a proper try but doesn’t commit you long term.

Keep on the same timeline as others (as much as you can)

This is one for the freelancers and night shifters among us. It’s easy when you’re on a different schedule to end up sleeping in late in the morning, staying up late at night… and then never seeing anyone, even the people you live with. Forcing yourself to work a schedule as close to standard as you can means that if a socialising opportunity comes up last minute, you won’t have to miss it.

Fit people in to small times

Sometimes you can feel lonely for your friends even though you’re technically busy. Breakfasts before work with fellow early birds, business lunches with others working near by and Sunday night gym sessions can all be ways to fit socialising into your schedule and make sure you don’t end up missing each other.

Do something interesting on your own

It’s not the same as doing something with a friend, but try doing something that you want to do on your own with your alone time – seeing a movie your partner would hate, going to an exhibition at a gallery your friends would say is too far away. It won’t fill the friend shaped hole in your life, but it makes your alone time feel purposeful and gives you something interesting to say when you meet up with people. This was valuable advice for me when I was between jobs this summer – because people get nervous asking you how the job hunt’s going and having something else to talk about bridges the gap for both of you. If you can’t afford to go out, try making yourself a nice meal, downloading a film you’ve been meaning to watch and fixing a homemade cocktail. You’re not home alone under the duvet eating crisps and crying while watching Pitch Perfect for the third time, you’re a cinema connoisseur with a gourmet palate to match. Try watching the classics, then you can feel culturally well-educated next time you’re in company.

Make the effort

I’ve been saying I’m going to go to Leeds for about six months. Changing job and moving house threw me off course, which I know my friends will understand. But if I want them to stay understanding, now that I’m not crazy busy, it’s time to put in the effort. So go to your old colleague’s birthday – even if you won’t know anyone else. If you hate it you can claim a stomach ache or a family obligation tomorrow and leave. But you might love it, and if you don’t go, you won’t know.

Remember that others are probably often lonely too

It’s easy to think you’re the only one stuck at home with nothing to do on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon, but the chances are there are other friends out there who are feeling just the same way and who are nervous about contacting you because they think you’ll be too busy and dazzlingly sociable to want to hang out with them. Burst through that barrier and you’ll be surprised how many people are in the same boat.

Exercise

It’ll make you feel better and it’s good for you. Seriously, if you have time just do more exercise.

The beauty of a harebrained scheme

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It took us several tries to find this place without a map.

Travel has become so much easier now that we have all this technology. Everywhere has wifi, you can use your data for free abroad, Google maps will navigate you around any foreign city without you even having to look up from your phone. It’s so simple.

And yes, having that technology is great. But you lose something at the same time. What might once have been an adventure becomes a pre-packaged trip; a pick and mix of interchangeable identikit elements.

I was reminded of this difference the other day. My long time travel buddy and I were in Amsterdam and he’d been told of a great bar in the North of the city. We tapped the address into Google maps and set off on foot. Three miles into the journey we became doubtful. We seemed to be walking through an unfinished housing estate, and I couldn’t envisage that there’d be a cool place to drink at the end of it. Filled with doubt and nerves, we almost turned back several times. When the paved road ran out and we emerged at a junction filled with gravelly holes, I really thought we’d blown it and were going to have to walk three miles home again. But then, between two lines of low concrete sheds, appeared a gate with the cafe’s name painted over the top. We walked through, and suddenly we were in hippy paradise. Tables in boats, floating man made islands, giant rocking chairs and rope swings.

I sipped my elderflower wine and laughed that I’d ever doubted we would find the place. I also felt a tiny bit sad. The harebrained scheme used to be a mainstay of my travelling adventures. A good harebrained scheme should involve the grain of a good idea swallowed up by a morass of questionable decisions. Essential aspects of the trip should be overlooked, and there should be a general air of danger, and a feeling that the whole enterprise is somewhat held together with spit and glue. This is the kind of travel that makes you feel alive.

To wit, my travel buddy and I once drove around the entire country, 1300 miles, without a map. We took off in the car with two dozen carefully curated mix CDs and a set of directions printed from google maps. We discovered at the first roadworks that the map in the back seat was in fact an A to Z of London. In these pre-smartphone, pre 4G days, we just followed signs for the north until we got back on a recognisable road. The same trip also involved an out of date map of Dundee that managed to send us into a questionable housing estate, a flood on the M90, conditions on the snake pass so bad that he had to take off his tshirt to mop the inside of the windscreen so we could see more than 18 inches in front of us, and some hairy moments in the Scottish highlands.

On another occasion we accidentally ended up sleeping rough in Leipzig train station because we failed to realise our overnight train from Frankfurt to Berlin was in fact a one hour train from Frankfurt to Leipzig, a six hour wait at Leipzig and then a one hour train to Berlin. When McDonalds opened at 5am it brought about a feeling of deliverance like the parting of the Red Sea. Astonishingly that wasn’t even the only time we slept rough on that trip.

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Berlin at 7am arriving off the “overnight” train

A couple of years later, we embarked on a journey to canoe coast to coast across Scotland. Again, the trip was a mixture of careful planning and vague assumptions. We camped on beaches under the astonishing Scottish stars, and hitch-hiked with friendly Irish men to get to the fish and chip shop and the pub for a well-earned drink one evening. No one had a torch so we walked back by starlight. It was wonderful, it was haphazard, and it was a world away from the sterilised world of technology-aided travel that we knew. Wild camping meant no electricity (or showers or toilets for that matter) which meant no phones to guide us if we went wrong. None of us actually knew how to canoe, and it took most of a day for me to convince the others that it did in fact help if you rowed in time (“otherwise why would they do it at the Oxford and Cambridge boat race!”).

In a memorable incident, one of the guys accidentally kicked the other in the face, and it was left up to the medicinal whisky and small first aid kit to patch up the wound. It was unexpectedly 27 degrees, and we all burned and melted in various degrees. We had not anticipated that portage (moving the canoes around lock gates on the canals) would be so gruelling, and hadn’t rented a portage trolley. When it rained, it poured, and we were reduced to bailing out the boats with half a milk bottle. It was glorious.

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no biggie, we just woke up to this view in the morning.

That’s what you miss in this new world of sanitised travel. Adventure. It doesn’t matter which part of the world you end up in if you’re sitting on your iPhone posting elegant Instagram photos of your perfectly made up face. There’s no adventure. Adventure requires taking a leap, putting your faith in a slightly harebrained scheme. I’m not going to pretend it always works out; sleeping rough in a train station is awful. But we sat up all night and talked about things we’d never talked about before, stone cold sober, huddled in our sleeping bags. And living life with a few more rough edges helps you to realise that the greatest moments aren’t the glamorous ones, they’re the harebrained ones, the gaps in between.

A guide to surviving your mid-Twenties

 

A very long time ago (five whole entire years) I graduated from university on my 21st birthday. It was a momentous occasion. I thought I knew everything there was to know because I’d studied philosophy and answered difficult questions about the universe. I thought I knew loss. I thought I knew what life was going to hold. I thought I knew what hard work was. I didn’t know anything. Five years later I’ve learned so much but all I really know for sure is that there’s so much I don’t know. But in honour of my 26th birthday, here are some things I do know.

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Graduating aged 21.

 

Forgive, but don’t forget the lessons you’ve learned.
Forgive your parents for calling you fat as a teenager. Forgive your friend for getting so drunk on your 22nd birthday that you had to take her home and miss your own birthday. Forgive people for big things, forgive them for little things. The space that anger is taking up is all inside you – they probably don’t even know you’re angry. Let go of the anger, but remember the lesson. Be better than others have been.

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Turning 21

You don’t need to be liked by everyone, you don’t need to like everyone, but you should never be a dick.
I used to be so embarrassed about who I was. Then I used to show off about how quirky I was. Both those things are cringeworthy. What do you love? Go with it. I sew my own clothes. I have uttered the phrase “there’s a great song you have to hear by the guy from Deep Purple’s side project band” (it’s seven minutes of glory guys) and I’m not ashamed of that. I cry at adverts, like the Lloyds Bank one where the horse comes home from war. I’m who I am and I’m not ashamed of it. Some people aren’t going to like it and that’s fine, there are some people I just don’t click with either. We’re all adults, we won’t be mean, we won’t be cruel, we’ll just get on with doing us.

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Turning 22


You’re going to make some terrible mistakes
I stayed with a boy who read my diary. I hurt myself because I was afraid to admit that what I wanted wasn’t what everyone else told me I should. I took out an overdraft and a credit card when I really shouldn’t have. These things happen. Take a deep breath, square your shoulders and dig yourself out of the hole.

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Turning 23

Make time for yourself
Stress and burnout are real, and they’re miserable. Real life isn’t like university, you don’t get summers off to recharge. I worked four straight Christmasses after university, and four straight Augusts. I didn’t have two weeks off in a row for four years. That was dumb. I was so burned out I’d lost enthusiasm for everything I liked. I had to relearn how to listen to new music and read novels. Do something just for you at least once a week. Carve out the time. I go to Pilates twice a week, take a bath afterwards, and paint my nails. It’s unashamed me-time and it keeps me sane. Do what works for you, so long as it’s positive. Alcohol does NOT count.

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Turning 24

Stop waiting for the cavalry. You are the cavalry.
My boss said this in a work context the other week and I thought it was amazing and exemplifies so much of what I’ve learned. If you’re waiting to win the lottery, lose 100lbs, for the perfect man or job to fall into your lap, you’re going to be waiting forever. If you want something, go out and try for it. If you don’t know what you want, start by making sure you’re not doing what you don’t want and inch closer to what you do want from there.

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Turning 25

Worse things are going to happen than you can imagine, better things are coming than you can comprehend. 
When I was 22 I was made redundant from a job which although terrible, was the real job I’d ever had. I was single, broke, unemployed, friendless and hopeless. A week later I got the opportunity of a lifetime and got a new job in a field that I’d always wanted to work in. Within a month I had a great job, money in the bank, and had just met the love of my life. Bad things will happen. People you thought you could count on won’t be there for you. Loved ones will die. But new friends will reveal themselves in unexpected places, bad love will give way for good love. Never give up hope, and never judge. Remember the words of Baz Luhrmann: “never congratulate or berate yourself too much. Your choices are half chance”.

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Ready to be 26

And one for the future… Be inspired by people younger than you 
Because you have something to learn from everyone, and something to teach everyone.

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baby Bella one day old.