15: The Challenge

15: The Challenge

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


The Challenge

When in doubt, choose change.

~Lily Leung

In January 2014, my sister, Carole, announced she was challenging herself to stop buying any new clothes, handbags, shoes, or jewelry for a whole year. “The rules are you can’t buy anything from a shop, even if it’s hugely reduced,” she explained. “You can buy anything — even new — from charity shops, go to secondhand shops, boot fairs; you can make things, you can be given things, you can swap things. The only things you’re allowed to buy new are underwear and tights.” She looked at me. “Of course, you wouldn’t be able to stick to that, Den.”

She knows I enjoy a shopping spree once in a while. Not every week, or even every month, but my friend Gill and I love a shopping day in Tunbridge Wells, particularly when it’s the new season, and between us we normally come home with a few bags.

“I’m going to do it, too. In fact,” I said recklessly, “I’m adding no make-up to the rules.”

Carole shook her head. “We’ll see how long you can keep it up. I’ll give you a month.”

I told Gill what I intended to do and she laughed. She was sure I’d succumb long before the year was up. In fact, I don’t remember anyone saying “Good for you” or giving me the slightest encouragement.

I have to admit at first it wasn’t easy. Once, I almost forgot. I was wandering around the cosmetic counters in Hoopers department store. Many of the cosmeticians knew me and were eager to demonstrate their latest lines and colours. A gorgeous scarlet lipstick caught my eye, but I remembered in time and told them about The Challenge. Although intrigued, they were obviously sorry they hadn’t made a sale.

“We’ll probably see you before long,” they chirped as I smiled and nipped out of the doors and on to the safety of the High Street.

Except, of course, the High Street was the least safe place to be when one is committed to The Challenge. The clothes in some of the shop windows were mouthwatering. They were presenting their spring collections and I could just picture myself in some of the outfits.

You’re getting older, I told myself. You won’t be able to wear this sort of thing in a few years. Enjoy them now. But I steeled myself and hurried by.

The strange thing was, I kept receiving items of clothing from women who didn’t even know I was participating in The Challenge. A friend of my sister’s gave me a gorgeous slinky black silk evening dress by Laura Ashley which she couldn’t get into; another friend sent me some lovely sweaters and blouses she could no longer wear. Items seemed to come to me. I must say, if you do The Challenge you need to cultivate friends and family who are prone to putting on a bit of pudding!

I knitted an evening jacket, which my sister sewed together. It has become my favourite item of eveningwear. I call it “the cobweb,” as it’s incredibly delicate, yet warm and cosy, and I feel very proud when people compliment me on it.

One day I glanced in the window of our local hospice shop. A pair of black high-heeled court shoes were pointing toward me with my name on them. I just knew they would fit perfectly.

“How much are they?” I asked. I could see they were brand new.

“Ten pounds. They’d be eighty in the shops.”

I gladly handed over a ten-pound note and can confirm I’ve worn them loads, and even though the heel is fairly high they are extremely comfortable.

Gill was curious as to how I was managing.

“Actually, it’s not that bad once the shock wears off,” I told her. “And I realise how much time I spent window shopping, looking through rails and never seeing what I wanted, trying on things in the fitting room, taking things back… there’s more time to do other interesting things.”

My friend looked doubtful. So you can imagine my surprise when a few weeks later she said, “I’m going to take up The Challenge.”

I hadn’t tried to persuade her to do this. I thought that as a dedicated fashionista she’d be the last person to give up shopping.

“I know some people think I’m all lipstick and handbags,” she smiled, “but I’m determined to do it.”

I reacted the same way as my sister. No chance, I thought. But I didn’t say it. I just said that her husband Peter would be pleased.

“He won’t notice.”

“He will when he looks at his bank statement,” I said with a grin.

Gill really did astonish me. She kept it up for more than a year, and has only recently bought a couple of new things. But nothing like she would have done.

“I realise I don’t find clothes shopping as much fun as I used to,” she said.

“We’ve all got too much. That’s why Carole decided to do it in the first place.”

“I took this skirt out of the back of the wardrobe,” she pointed to her pretty leaf-printed skirt, “and I bought the jacket (it was black and lacy) for a summer funeral years ago and had not worn it since. They seemed to go well together and it was like introducing two old friends.”

I fervently agreed. In the last year we’ve both donated to charity shops the clothes that we no longer wear that still have plenty of life in them. And I managed to get Gill into a charity shop for the first time ever when I spotted a fabulous black sequined flapper dress in the window. She tried it on at the back of the shop, stepped out looking terrific, and wore it at a New Year’s party. Everyone adored her “new” £12 dress.

Now, when we go to London, Gill and I are much more likely to wander round museums and art galleries instead of shopping, and it’s been no hardship at all. We used to do the culture stuff as well, but a London trip didn’t seem complete if we didn’t come back with a few bits.

On saying that, I belong to the University Women’s Club in Mayfair. In September they’re having an evening fashion show put on by the Harvey Nichols department store. Gill and I have already got our front row seats booked.

Well, you can’t be good all the time, can you?

~Denise Barnes


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