Photo by Mitch Walker on Unsplash

The Real Cost of my Vanity: “Have to Have” Clothing

I’m vain. Can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m just…vain. On one hand, that vanity ensures that I work hard to take care of myself (I work out, eat well, yadda yadda) On the other hand, it’s caused me to spend untold amounts of money on fashionable clothing to impress people.

Who that’s supposed to be, I have no idea.

Lots of folks say that women dress to impress other women. If I were a drinker, I’d raise a glass to that. We most certainly do.

That’s what the fashion industry counts on. Our vanity, and the need to impress.

Photo by Tony Ross on Unsplash

The Cost of a Fine Jacket

My mom, who was thin as a matchstick until she had two kids, made her own clothing. Photos of her from the 1930s and 40s show her slaving away on a Simplicity Pattern, which she would match with a jaunty hand-made hat, matching purse and shoes. She was angular and tall for her generation. The perfect clothes hanger.

Between my mother and a mentor I met when I was 17, I developed a sense of and a taste for fine clothing, good fit and style. I can still recall the first time I shrugged on an Armani jacket. I felt like an imposter in that Neiman Marcus dressing room, putting on clothing I knew I had no business even touching. Back then I hadn’t achieved much, but I desperately wanted to look the part. The jacket was priced at more than $3000. I couldn’t possibly afford it. However I was dying to find out what on earth made it so expensive.

I found out. Fabric, cut, style, feel. And damn, did it look good. It made me look like something I wasn’t: rich, successful, savvy, powerful. Boy, did that appeal to my vanity. The fishhook was firmly embedded. I had to have clothing like this.

After finally winning the weight battle, and reaching the point where I resembled my mother in the coat hanger department, I had the tall, thin body on which to drape just about anything. That, and a credit card or two, made me damned dangerous. But good news for the retail economy.

by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash

PhD in Shopping

Before TJ Maxx, Burlingon, and the many online discount outlets, there was Loehmann’s. Begun in Brooklyn in 1921, it began as one store selling off-price designer fashions. Clerks would cut out the label of a Halston gown and sell it for a fraction of the original price. At its height, Loehmann’s had outlets from New York to LA. Those of us who were serious addicts would comb the Back Room for the best of the best. I “saved” myself thousands of dollars…on clothing for a lifestyle I didn’t live, on clothing I never wore.

After Loehmanns came Hit or Miss, a precursor of TJMaxx. And Ross. Retailers discovered that people had a thirst for discounted designer clothing, if for no other reason than we hungered for a look. We wanted to “be like, look like.” I once found the blouse that Cameron Diaz wore in the park scene with Jim Carrey in The Mask. I kept it like a trophy. Wore it once. I had no place to wear a blouse which featured half my boobs falling out. But I had Cameron Diaz’ blouse.


This is precisely what has made the fashion industry the world’s second largest polluter. It takes three years of drinking water just to make one cotton t-shirt. ONE. Twenty percent of the world’s industrial pollution comes from the dyeing of textiles ( I could go on. To understand just how evil the fast fashion industry is, and how much fashion contributes to filth and global warming, see

But you see my point. I was part of the problem. All because I wanna look like something I’m not. Because of my vanity.

I had developed a PhD in shopping, being able to score clothing, shoes, jewelry and bags that were featured in the slick magazines. I crowed about paying $150 for a jacket that had retailed at $3500. Never wore it. I knew all the sales, the locations of the best stores and where to go online, as those outlets became more prevalent. My house looked like a high-end retail store. It wasn’t just a hobby, it was a way of life, costing me untold treasure — while the rest of the world was diverting rivers, ruining fishing areas, and running out of water.

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

To What End?

Eventually I had to buy a house big enough to store all my clothing and accessories. I had eight full wardrobes of clothing, ranging from designer duds to gorgeous nightgowns (ahem, I sleep naked, so why?) to 250 pairs of boots and shoes. There were multiple jewelry armoires with thousands of pairs of earrings, bracelets, necklaces. I had more than a hundred handbags of every color and size. Really?

I don’t use handbags. I carry an ancient Daytimer with a small pocket for glasses and Chapstick. It’s simple. Functional. It fits my lifestyle.

Like anyone else with a hoarding problem, I didn’t know I had a hoarding problem. My female friends were duly impressed. They’d walk though my collections with envy — a commodity which unfortunately doesn’t pay the mortgage — and express their admiration.

For clothing, boots, shoes and bags I never used.

For my vanity.

I love leathers. Lots of us do. Leathers are an even worse polluter and contributor to deforestation. Here’s why: . Not only do animals suffer, but so do the world’s forests, rivers, lakes, and people’s living conditions.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Banking on our Fantasies

The clothing industry banks on our desire to emulate certain stars. They make their billions enticing us to spend our limited funds on pieces that the fashion mags scream are MUST HAVES without regard to whether they fit our lifestyle. Or budget, for that matter. These days designers charge so much for a cotton blouse ($1200 for Monse, or Jacquemus, or A.W.A.K.E) that even when they are on sale for 50% off they’re prohibitively expensive. When a piece starts out at $8000, you’re still going to cough up a fortune.

And for what?

Our vanity.

A number of years ago I removed that particular fishhook from my cheek and downsized drastically. A dear friend in the fashion industry helped me dump decades’ worth of accumulated clothing, jewelry, boots and shoes. Fractions of a penny on the dollar. Pieces with the tags still attached. Every so often I bump into one of those pieces on ebay or The Real Real. They still appeal.

Unfortunately, some of that mass of accumulated clothing added to the 70 lbs of clothing that each of us Americans dump every year. That’s hard for me to swallow. I’m still part of the problem.

The True Cost: a dump in Bangladesh

To better understand the real impact on people (75 million work in the fashion industry and 80% are women, and many of them work, exploited, in sweat shops, as do their children) see You’ll also learn what’s being done. What I can do is STOP the insane accumulation of clothing I don’t need or wear. That was just insane.

Photo by Jenner VandenHoek on Unsplash

Catch and Release Shopping

To appease my vanity, which is my albatross, every so often I will go hunting. Invariably I’ll find some terrific piece that’s just that appealing. I’ll stick it in the basket.

And leave it there. I see it, enjoy it, and drop it. And I still have the cash. Cash that I would rather spend on experiences rather than trying to impress my girlfriends with clothing I never wear.

Having gorgeous clothing fed a need to feel superior. It fed a fantasy that somehow if I had that particular piece of clothing, I would look that like model, and as the ads so clearly implied, I would live a life I wasn’t currently living. That life never showed up. Bills did, along with the jail time that being grotesquely in debt brings.

It harkened back to that moment I first wore a beautiful, expensive jacket. Years later, with some legitimate accomplishments under my belt, the need to look a certain way just dissipated. Clothing doesn’t make me who I am. My life stories do. The contributions I make to my fellow man are my legacy. “She wore great clothes” isn’t exactly an epitaph. And no $5000 jacket hanging in my closet is ever going to mean as much to me as a month of memories gained riding through Patagonia.

The author near Chile, in Patagonia

Besides, these days, with cities running out of water, and the cost of this industry creating havoc with the world’s water supplies, it’s far more than just the cost of that jacket, that cotton blouse, that t-shirt. It’s knowing that in my very small way I refuse to be part of an industry that ruins the earth and continues to exploit the world’s poorest populations.

Dressing thoughtfully

Many of us claim to be eco-conscious, yet we still “have to have” the latest style, the latest concert t-shirt. In many ways this is no different from the guy who’s out fishing, tells his buddy that he cares about the environment, then tosses the plastic trash from his lunch overboard into the ocean. This is what that has caused:

I am vain. That makes me human, fallible and at times, shallow. But I refuse to let my vanity cost the earth its water, Third World people their back yards and quality of life, or add filth to an already-challenged environment. No cute cat t-shirt is worth three years of drinking water. No fancy pair of leather jeans that is supposed to make me look “fashion-forward” is worth ripping out more trees, trees which have lives of their own and which are the lungs of the earth.

If I want to feed my vanity, then let me be vain about what I contribute to the solution, not the problem. I may not be able to impress my girlfriends with a massive wardrobe, but in my small way I will make a difference by turning off the spigot of demand.

Horizon Huntress, prize-winning author, adventure traveler, boundary-pusher, wilder, veteran, aging vibrantly. I own my sh*t. Let’s play!

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