Shop like you mean it

One of my favourite outfits
One of my favourite outfits

You don’t have to care about what you wear. Some people really don’t. Some people pick up a couple of pairs of jeans a year and a few tops and rock them without a second thought. But most of us want to dress in clothes we love, which we feel express ourselves. It’s just daunting, because there are so many different choices and so many people telling us what to think, how to feel and when to wear what.

It becomes particularly hard when you HAVE to wear something – a smart dress for a posh wedding, a suit for a new job, or enforced casual wear at a “cool” start up, when you’d much rather hide behind the anonymity of a suit.

I’ve spent way too much of my life doing way too much shopping, and on the way have learned quite a lot about what I really like, and how to make sure I don’t buy things I later end up hating. If you’re stressed and in a rut about shopping, maybe some of my expensively accrued wisdom will help.

To start with, there are two phases to shopping: preparation and buying. Preparation is necessary if you aren’t going to end up wandering around Marks and Spencers for two hours and coming out with nothing but a pair of black tights. It’s a practical way to figure out what you actually like versus what’s in the shops, and how to find your own style. Buying, is about finding the least stressful way to get hold of these items.

Then there are the rules. These are the only rules for shopping:

  • Never shop when tired, hungover, drunk, or hungry. You will be grumpy and miserable and you will not use your time effectively. The aforementioned two hours in Marks and Spencers was a hungover Sunday shopping trip. In hindsight, I should have stayed in bed.

  • Never buy something you can’t afford. Fashion magazines and glamorous broadsheet columnists will make it seem charming to spend your rent money on a Burberry handbag. Anyone who believes this has either a rich daddy or a rich boyfriend. Credit card debt is miserable and has lasting effects. By all means buy the best you can afford – but not more than you can afford.

  • Don’t buy something you don’t want to wear. It’s pointless. Unless it’s for a fancy dress party you can’t miss on pain of death, just don’t do it.

  • Don’t be talked out of buying something because you’re too old, or fat, or ugly, or uncool for it. If you love it, then why shouldn’t it suit you? Confidence in your choices is all you need.

If anyone gives you any other rules, you should ignore them. The rest of my advice is merely suggestions to make your shopping experience feel more enjoyable and less stressful. Disregard anything you don’t like.


If you’re going on a big shopping trip you need to ask yourself two questions: what do I have? What do I need?

First, purge your wardrobe. Give anything you don’t enjoy wearing to charity. Keeping clothes which make you feel sad, poor, fat, remind you of your shitty ex, or the job you didn’t get is tragic. Give them to a charity shop – the person who buys them won’t know about any of those things, and can be happy in them. While you’re doing this, you might find some things you’d forgotten you had. Now you can enjoy them as if they’re new.

If you’re shopping with a specific event in mind, you probably already know what you need or want. But if you just feel in need of a refresh, or you’ve changed shape and need new clothes, I recommend Pinterest. Pin everything you like onto boards (“new job clothes” or “summer style” or “weekend casual”) until you can see themes emerging. Maybe all the weekend clothes you’ve pinned are Breton tops and boyfriend jeans. Or maybe they’re all thick woolly tights and soft jersey dresses. When you notice themes emerging, put these items on a shopping list. Now you have a better idea of what you like, versus what you’re being told is trendy.

If you haven’t been on a big shopping trip for a while, or you need something you don’t normally buy, scan the websites of all the major retailers. Figure out which ones stock your size and which have the things on your list. Make sure you’re going shopping somewhere that has these shops, to avoid disappointment.

Forget the capsule wardrobe

We’re often told, as women, that we need a “capsule” wardrobe, of whatever clothes fashion editors like. This is a load of bullshit. If you work in a casual office, a rack of silk shirts and cashmere jumpers is a waste of money. If you have great legs and a round tummy, peg leg trousers are just uncomfortable. Your “capsule” wardrobe should be made up of the things you love – something in your favourite colour, a few things in your go-to shapes, comfy things that make you feel confident and interesting. For me, I love my little fake leather mini skirt with a giant oversized shirt. Maybe it’s not the most slimming look for me, but I love it. I also love mustard yellow – I have a mustard yellow dress, a coat, and a jumper. It’s not what fashion magazines would call a neutral, but it’s a nice bright colour which I enjoy wearing. Most of the rest of the time I wear black or grey, so it works out. I also love a good flowery dress. For me, that’s more of a staple than jeans, because I have a high waist, a big stomach, and narrow hips, which means jeans never fit right.

I consider these shoes a staple because they go with everything and I love them. Screw the rules.
I consider these shoes a staple because they go with everything and I love them. Screw the rules.

Sometimes it’s not all about you

Dress codes can feel stifling a lot of the time – especially when you feel like they weren’t written with you in mind. I work evening events now and again and I have to wear white or black tie for them. It can be really tough putting on an evening gown and trying to retain everyone’s professional respect when they realise what you look like out of a demure suit. But you don’t always get to make the rules. It’s okay not to want to wear a flowery dress to a wedding – try a sophisticated jumpsuit, or a matching trouser and jacket set with a smart blouse. It’s okay to wear flat shoes whenever you want. But think about the spirit of the rules. At a wedding, the attention should be on the bride and groom – so don’t wear jeans to make a point. If you can’t bear wearing heels to work, get some nice brogues or loafers. Don’t wear trainers to prove how edgy you are. This especially goes for fancy dress. Some people love it, some people hate it, some people don’t care. But if your best friend has organised a fancy dress 30th birthday party, don’t be the only one who doesn’t dress up because you’re a grumpasaurous rex. It might not be important to you, but if someone has specified a dress code, it’s probably important to them. You can be yourself and still get in the spirit of things – halloween costumes don’t have to be sexy, fancy dress costumes can be simple and silly. It is perfectly acceptable to wear the same pale blue dress to every wedding you go to for five years, or to not wear a dress at all. But don’t make the event about your refusal to conform – save that for your own denim-mandatory wedding or anti fancy dress birthday party.

Now it’s time to go shopping!

Armed with your Pinterest ideas of things you actually like, knowing what you have in your wardrobe and where the gaps are, and having found the shops which sell things you might like, go forth and shop!

Top tips for the actual shopping trip:

  • wear something you really like; this will help you ensure that you don’t just buy something less awful than your least favourite piece of clothing. Everything you buy should be as good as one of your nice outfits.

  • Wear something comfy and easy to take on and off. Trying things on is a pain otherwise

  • Try things on. It’s tempting not to want to go to the faff of trying things on, but returning things (or leaving them unworn in the bottom of your wardrobe) is a bigger hassle in the long term.

  • Give yourself plenty of time and take breaks if you feel stressed. There’s an EAT in the bottom of Topshop Oxford Circus that I often go to when I feel overwhelmed by shopping. There are toilets there too, and wifi.

  • Figure out if there’s a particularly empty time for your favourite shop. Go shopping in university towns during the uni holidays – the shops will be emptier and you’ll be more likely to be able to pick up bargains in the sale. Go to Oxford Street at 11am on Sunday morning or 9am on Saturday morning. Treat yourself to a slap up lunch afterwards. Go shopping in the City of London on a Saturday – it’s deserted. Take a half day and do your Christmas shopping on a weekday. It just takes the hassle of crowds away.

  • If you don’t love it, don’t buy it. Feeling “eh” about something is only good enough in a real pant-splitting emergency. You deserve better – get what you love.

  • If you find yourself with spare money at sales time, invest in the things you always need – something to wear to a wedding, good quality bras, well fitted trainers and work shoes, a nice pair of jeans. Then when yours break, you won’t be bereft.

Looking like a runaway bride on my birthday last summer.
Looking like a runaway bride on my birthday last summer.

2 thoughts on “Shop like you mean it

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