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How living abroad has forced me into minimalism, and why I’m re-thinking it
Prior to moving to Asia eight years ago, I never would have considered myself a minimalist. I loved clothes far too much – and had a very full wardrobe to prove it! I would feel weird wearing the same top or dress two weeks in a row (as if my colleagues would notice and point it out). Ideally, I wouldn’t repeat an outfit within a given month.
I think working on and off for a fashion agency for two years made this tendency even worse. Each day I would come in, my colleagues would covertly evaluate my outfit (while of course I would check out what they were wearing). If I got three compliments that day, I knew I’d done well with coordinating my chosen pieces that morning. If I got zero compliments, well that meant I could no longer wear that particular outfit again.
I’ve also always had a love of vintage and second-hand clothes. When I was a kid, I’d look forward to rummaging through the jumble sale at my local community centre with my best friend, picking up granny cardigans, and matching them with something else to make it look cool. Or as a teenager I’d go to my favourite buy, sell and trade shop in Notting Hill before wandering down to Portobello market. As a new graduate struggling on intermittent an intermittent salary, I’d indulge myself in charity shops, Mango sales, and (regrettably) Primark.
My love of material objects also covered home decor and useless knick knacks. Whenever I went abroad I would always come back with souvenirs. I remember opening up my suitcase after spending 6 months in South Asia, and carefully unpacking drums, colorful pots, and lampshades – all manner of random stuff to make my bedroom look exotic and colourful.
Down to one suitcase of stuff
In late 2010 when I moved to Southeast Asia, I only brought one medium sized suitcase with me. I figured I would be in Singapore for a year, after which I’d be reunited with the rest of my wardrobe in London. Since Singapore has a constant temperature – around 30 degrees, I just needed to pack summer clothes. I curated my wardrobe carefully, and came out to Asia with a collection of items that coordinated perfectly.
After moving to northern Thailand six months later, my wardrobe expanded to include loose fishermen trousers (the type you’ll see backpackers wearing) and ethnic skirts and shirts. Occasionally I’d buy something bright and pretty in a local Thai shop, only for it fall apart.
Upon moving to Bangkok, my wardrobe changed again. Flipflops and fisherman pants are no-nos (unless you’re in Khao San), and jeans and smart shirts came back in. I spent a bit of money updating my wardrobe in Uniqlo. I’d also occasionally go crazy at Chatuchak market buying lots of “vintage” dresses for 100 THB each, but would come home to find that most fit badly.
Eventually, my shopping experiences in Thailand became purely utilitarian: go to Uniqlo, find something that fits, and buy it in multiple colours (but only black, white, and neutral tones).
Every time I bought something new, several items went into a donation pile. In the back of mind, I knew that my time in Thailand would come to an end, and so I sought to minimize the amount of luggage I’d have to move back with. This also meant not buying stuff from my various travels. My memories would serve as my souvenirs.
So in the end, my wardrobe has gone from rather bright and eclectic to monochrome and simple.
The benefits of minimalism
Minimalism has certainly become popular and mainstream over the years – and expands far beyond the realm of clothing and knick knacks, which is what I’m most focused on here. Minimalism also pairs well with frugality and environmentalism, two other values that are high in my priority list. Here are some of the benefits I have found from paring down my wardrobe to the bare essentials:
I spend less on clothes
In the last three years, I have spent less than 20,000 THB on clothes. That’s just £150/$200 per year. Back in my spendy youth, I would have easily spent that in three months. Instead, that money has gone into savings, to serve bigger life goals, such as my upcoming mini-retirement.
I make less of an impact on the environment
In my post on the Transformative Power of Learning How to Sew, I mention the environmental (and human) cost of fast fashion. It’s so easy to buy something cheap and throw it away without thinking about our environmental impact. Now that I buy so few items, I take care of each garment to expand its lifecycle, reducing the amount I send to landfill.
I waste less time shopping
I want less stuff, so I don’t need to spend time looking for it. If I know I need to replace a pair of jeans, I’ll spend 15 minutes maximum on this task, because I know exactly where I need to go and what size I need. I gave myself a challenge this year to only buy five items. Eight months into the year, I’m on track and have bought only three (two pairs of shoes, one top). Time not spent in a shopping mall instead goes towards exercise, reading, or spending time with my partner.
It’s less effort to get dressed in the mornings
While my wardrobe is a bit more evolved than that of Mark Zuckerberg, I do have something akin to a uniform. It consists of jeans, some sort of white top, and sandals or trainers (depending on how much I plan to walk that day). If I have a meeting, I’ll bust out my basic black trousers or skirt from Uniqlo, but it doesn’t get fancier than that. There’s no time or thought needed to coordinate items, because everything goes together. This saves precious brain cells in the morning so I don’t suffer from decision fatigue.
Packing for travel is easy (and super light)
My minimalist tendencies become even more extreme when I’m packing for a trip. I hate lugging around heavy luggage with a passion. What I hate even more is paying airlines extra for bringing luggage on board. So I only take what fits in my medium-sized North Face backpack, no matter how long the trip. It’s only 31 liters, whereas the recommended backpack capacity for longer term travel is at least 50! I pack smart, taking only what’s necessary, and look for laundry options at my destination.
Why I’m re-thinking minimalism
Despite knowing the many benefits of my clothing minimalism, I’m not actually happy it. My love of clothes hasn’t gone away. I have been so utilitarian with my wardrobe in the last few years that when I look at my wardrobe, nothing really ‘sparks joy’, as minimalist queen Marie Kondo would say. The only items that I love are those that I’ve held onto for almost 10 years, and which are way past their prime by now.
And I think that’s a real shame. While I don’t like to put too much value on material items, I do feel that clothing is one way to express ourselves. I miss bright colours, patterns, and vintage styles. But when you’re more focused on saving time, money and space, like I have these last few years, usually these “impractical” items get thrown out first.
So I’m going to let myself indulge in clothing again when I’m back in the UK, but in an environmentally-responsible, frugal, and creative way. I look forward to putting my new sewing skills into use, and hitting up charity and vintage shops again, looking to inject new life and personality into my wardrobe.
Have you ever regretted giving something up for the sake of frugality or minimalism? Comment below!