What to Do When You’re Not the Cool One at The Party
Dealing with the inferiority, jealousy and boredom of maintaining a timeless wardrobe
In 2010, the biggest achievement of anyone striving for a unique style in Finland was to get on Hel Looks, a photo blog of street style in Helsinki. Or at least that was what the 17-year-old style-obsessed me was convinced about. My dream was to someday be discovered on the streets of Helsinki and be photographed for the blog. Whenever I was putting together a particularly cool outfit I would think to myself that this is the day. The day never came.
Although I no longer dream of getting on Hel Looks, the desire to look cool has not left me. At work, I want to look professional, but also somehow “interesting”, not like any other office worker (I’m a designer after all!). Before a party, I try on dozens of outfits, pulling out most of my wardrobe in the process.
But the reality looks more like this: Because I prioritize comfort, my office outfits are a patchwork of floral blouses, thrifted loose 90s pants and barefoot shoes (I love my ugly Vivos). And when I finally arrive at the party (after cleaning up the mess I made while testing different outfits), I feel like I’ve been inspired by what was trendy three years ago.
I’d love to look cool. But at the same, I despise spending time on shopping and decluttering.
I’d love to look cool. But at the same, I despise spending time on shopping and decluttering. In fact, I dream of going for an entire year without buying anything but socks and underwear.
In theory, these two dreams — looking cool and building a long-lasting wardrobe — can go hand in hand. But in practice, not so much. Wearing the same outfits over and over again and refraining from shopping might mean that you’re not the cool one at the office or the party. It’s not that you can’t look good. It’s just that by definition it’s nearly impossible to look hip with a timeless wardrobe.
Building a long-lasting wardrobe is an admirable goal with less admirable side effects. Boredom, sadness and jealousy will surely accompany you. And if you don’t have tools for dealing with those nagging thoughts and feelings, your wardrobe is unlikely to last very long.
To help you and me on this journey, I decided to write about the less glorious feelings evoked by building a timeless wardrobe and share a few tips for dealing with them.
This article is part of a series on better buying that I call the Timeless Wardrobe Project. If you’re interested in the origin of the project, you can check out the kick-off article. You might also be interested in the Timeless Wardrobe Manifesto, in which I discuss the philosophy behind building a long-lasting wardrobe.
But now, let’s begin with a key emotion that can quickly pull you back to the shopping mall: inferiority.
Inferiority: Remember the spotlight effect
During fall 2021, I attended a costume party with a Barbie theme. I put together an outfit from pieces I already had in my closet: high-waisted aquamarine jeans, a sequined crop top, black ankle boots and a fanny pack. I guess a 90s Barbie could have worn something like this.
At the party, people were wearing the craziest and cutest outfits. There was a guy in sky-high heels and a cowboy hat (a cowboy Barbie!) and a woman in a tutu with pointe shoes hanging around her neck (a ballerina Barbie!). Some people weren’t wearing a costume, but they also looked gorgeous: I remember admiring the flared white jeans and floral blouse one partygoer was wearing.
Observing the people around me, I felt like I fell somewhere in between the two groups: not all in on the Barbie theme, but also not matching any 2021 definition of cool. This realization made me feel self-conscious. Why did I never manage to put together a great outfit? What’s more, in my mind, everyone was scanning each other’s looks and evaluating them.
We often think that everyone is paying close attention to us, but most of the time, this is an illusion.
However, this wasn’t necessarily what the others were doing. We often think that everyone is paying close attention to us, but most of the time, this is an illusion. The tendency to overestimate how much other people notice about our behavior and appearance is called the spotlight effect.
The spotlight effect reveals how futile it is to worry about where you land on the spectrum of coolness. The other partygoers probably won’t even remember what you were wearing. And if you happen to encounter style-obsessed people like me, I can assure you that despite their sharp eyes they are more concerned about what you think of them than the other way around.
So the next time you feel inferior at a party, you can remind yourself of the spotlight effect. And get on with what you’re supposed to be doing: talking and dancing. But if you’re not careful, inferiority can take its toll and transform into another dark feeling.
Jealousy: Play your own game
Inferiority is the mother of jealousy. Or at least it can easily give birth to such an ugly feeling. At the party, you wish you had been the one to come up with the ballerina Barbie outfit or to be the owner of those stunning white jeans.
Jealousy can easily blind you to your goals and values.
But jealousy can easily blind you to your goals and values. It makes you forget that you decided to deliberately refrain from buying anything new for the party and that you prefer spending your Friday nights at the sauna with your friends rather than alone at the shopping mall. To feel more confident, it can be useful to reframe the situation that’s evoking feelings of jealousy.
Identifying what game you’re playing can be one such tool. I recently encountered this concept in Morgan Housel’s The Psychology of Money. In one chapter, Housel discusses the importance of playing your own game in the context of personal finance. To my delight, he illustrates the concept with a style-related example, by comparing the wardrobes of a a lawyer and a writer. Lawyers need to maintain a certain look for the job, but a writer’s success is not contingent upon wearing a tailor-made suit. He can write a successful article in his sweatpants. Therefore, if you’re a writer, it’s foolish to use the suit-wearing lawyer as a benchmark for your own spending. According to Housel, knowing your financial goals and time horizon can help you fend off socially-driven spending.
Identifying what game you’re playing is just as crucial for maintaining a timeless wardrobe. Otherwise you’ll constantly be swayed by what other people are wearing and adjust your shopping behavior to suppress feelings of jealousy.
Let’s get back to the party again. Perhaps some of the guests were playing “The Coolest Person at the Party” game. The game requires following influencers on Instagram, browsing online stores and hunting for treasures at thrift stores. But if that’s not the game you’re playing, don’t beat yourself up about not being good at it (and just let the other players have their fun).
When you feel a sense of jealousy creeping up, you can remind yourself which game you are playing. Perhaps it’s the “Save Money for a Sabbatical” or the “Minimize Shopping-Related Mental Energy” game. Figure out the rules. Then go and play it.
But what if you just feel bored with your clothes?
Boredom: Mix and match
I was recently looking for a bookshelf and after a few unsuccessful trips to vintage furniture stores I was considering getting a second hand Lundia — a minimalistic Finnish classic which you can easily find online. When I mentioned this to my mother, she responded: “Oh, you want a Lundia? We have one of those. It’s been sitting in our attic for 20 years.”
We have one of those??
The next weekend, my parents drove to Helsinki with the bookshelf and we assembled it together. It fit perfectly next to my couch and the pine shelves matched surprisingly well with my 50s coffee table. That night, a snow storm hit Helsinki and I decided to light a few candles, lie on my couch and just admire the bookshelf. As I lay there sipping my chamomile tea under a soft blanket, it felt like the bookshelf was glowing and I thought to myself: “I’ll never get bored of this bookshelf.” Since I’ve become slightly suspicious of these kinds of thoughts, I decided to note whether my Lundia was still “glowing” two weeks later. It wasn’t.
If you successfully refrain from shopping, you will inevitably hit a stage where that glow has vanished from most, or — let’s be honest — all of your clothes and accessories.
Now what does this have to do with maintaining a timeless wardrobe? Well, if you’ve ever bought exciting new clothing or furniture you’re probably familiar with the newness effect I just described. And that most of it wears off after a week or two. So if you successfully refrain from shopping, you will inevitably hit a stage where that glow has vanished from most, or — let’s be honest — all of your clothes and accessories. Your wardrobe will feel mundane, if not boring. And boredom is a key trigger for buying.
While you can’t really get that glow back, there’s one thing you can do. It’s taking some time to play around with the pieces you already own, mixing and matching them in the craziest ways possible. Try wearing a turtleneck underneath a t-shirt or a mini dress with pants instead of stockings. You may find that your wardrobe is bigger and more fun than you thought. If you’re lucky, you may even fall in love with a piece you haven’t worn in five years. But if you still find yourself struggling with wardrobe-induced anxiety, consider limiting the biggest source of style-related FOMO.
Anxiety: Delete social media (or at least declutter your accounts)
Research shows that social media, especially Instagram, can increase depressive symptoms, social anxiety and body image issues. One of the most probable causes for this is the continuous stream of idealized images which you either consciously or unconsciously compare yourself to. Your Instagram feed makes you feel like everyone else is always doing cool things and looking marvelous. Therefore, staying away from the apps heavily based on photos and videos like Instagram and TikTok is a practical way to improve mental health, and in my experience, reduce style-related anxiety.
Since I’ve entirely (and happily) missed the TikTok boat, my biggest issue has always been Instagram. I’ve been on and off of it for years, but in spring 2021, I hid my public account and deleted the app from my phone. I haven’t missed the content (I still get a decent dose of cat videos every time I hang out with my sister) and except for one time when I tried to evaluate a dance studio’s offering (all dance class videos were on Instagram) I haven’t felt like I’m missing out on anything important. Instead, I find it significantly easier to focus on work and creative projects as well as stick to my wardrobe goals.
I feel less pressure to look like the people I’m admiring when trend-spotting on the streets than when scrolling through my Instagram feed.
Deleting Instagram has reduced the urge to go shopping, because I no longer get daily style influence via my smartphone. However, when I’m out in the city, I still pay close attention to what people are wearing — I’ve just always been fascinated by fashion and style. But I’m now better able to retain some distance to new trends (Young men wearing a single earring? Love it! Oh, aren’t those colorful balaclavas cute!). I feel less pressure to look like the people I’m admiring when trend-spotting on the streets than when scrolling through my Instagram feed. Sometimes, the ever-evolving trends amuse me and make me feel grateful for not even trying to keep up.
If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to take a few months off of the apps in which you encounter the most style influence, and see how you feel (I doubt a few weeks will suffice in the context of style and shopping). You will miss out on the latest fads, but that’s exactly the point. If you’re not yet ready for such a drastic move, you can also declutter your accounts. Hide the feeds that create the most style-related pressure for you (it’s OK to do this with friends as well).
In my opinion, the best time to take a break from social media is quickly approaching. At least in Finland, spring and summer are the high season for FOMO, because everyone is showing off their gorgeous summer looks. Removing those despicable apps can keep you from buying a new bikini and help you listen to your own fashion voice when you do decide to buy something new. As a bonus, you will feel less pressure to spend each summer night at the beach if what you really want to be doing is binge-watching your favorite TV show.
But what if all else fails and you can’t curb your shopping behavior?
The last resort: mindfulness (ughh, that m-word again?)
Back when I dreamt of getting on Hel Looks, my obsession with style and fashion was at its peak. I bought the newest Elle or Vogue each month and read it like the bible, posted outfit photos on my blog and regularly toured the shopping malls after school. It got to the point where I was spending so much money on clothing that my mother intervened. I remember feeling embarrassed that my vice was discovered; deep down I knew that my behavior was no longer on the healthy end of the spectrum. To quiet my mum’s worries and complaints, I controlled my shopping. But writing these articles on the Timeless Wardrobe Project and reflecting on my buying behavior has made me realize that I’m still dealing with some degree of shopaholism.
Addiction comes in many forms, some more socially acceptable than others. One person takes heroin while the other takes their credit card to the shopping mall.
As the term shopaholic suggests, shopping can be considered a form of addiction if it has an obsessive quality to it. Gabor Maté, a physician and author, often speaks about how addiction comes in many forms, some more socially acceptable than others. One person takes heroin while the other takes their credit card to the shopping mall. But according to Maté, both the heroin addict and the compulsive shopper are trying to deal with emotional pain. The addiction is the (dysfunctional) solution. And as long as the underlying pain or trauma is not tackled, the behavior is likely to persist.
If you’re dealing with a fairly mild form of addiction, mindfulness can be a great additional tool (yes, I’m bringing up the m-word again). That’s why I want to end this article by covering two practices that might be useful when dealing with compulsive shopping.
The first practice is examining your immediate experience while shopping. How do you feel when you get the urge to buy a new pair of sneakers? Or when you’re about to swipe your credit card at COS? Do you feel sad, excited, anxious or calm? Becoming aware of your emotional state can give you a hint about whether the purchase is serving a real need or whether it’s an attempt to mask unpleasant emotions.
I’ve noticed that the need to update my wardrobe is usually connected with a transition from one life phase to another whether it’s graduating from university or breaking up with someone.
The second practice is zooming out and looking at your overall life situation. Have you recently experienced a big change in your life? Are you having a difficult time in a relationship? I’ve noticed that the need to update my wardrobe is usually connected with a transition from one life phase to another whether it’s graduating from university or breaking up with someone. Suddenly, I feel like my wardrobe is outdated or doesn’t match the way I would like to look. A few months and shopping hauls later, I recognize that my behavior might have had something to do with a big change in my life. When you observe and analyze your dysfunctional behavior patterns, you can learn to detect, anticipate and ultimately even avoid them.
Mindfulness is a great tool for dealing with a variety of problems, but it’s not a cure-all. If you’re dealing with proper addiction and you manage to change your shopping behavior, you are essentially removing your “solution”. As a result, you might encounter a host of unbearable emotions you have no capacity to handle on your own. In these kinds of situations, it’s good to ask for professional help.
Building a timeless wardrobe is about making choices and dealing with the consequences of those choices. Do you want to look trendy and spend hours scrolling Instagram, shopping and decluttering, or do you want to release that time for seeing friends and working on exciting projects? If you prefer the latter option, you might not be the coolest guest at the party. But perhaps you will be better company for it.