The day I arrived in Paris as a Masters student in European politics, I got locked out of my tiny studio apartment in Le Marais.
I had stepped off the Eurostar that morning and had confidently gone out to stock my tiny fridge but when I returned, I couldn't find a way back in. The heavy door that was once the entrance to my landlady's servants quarters simply wouldn't budge and my petite landlady, with her cropped elfin hair and her panoramic sweeping views over the entire city, was nowhere to be found and wasn't answering her phone.
So I did what any twenty-something would do. I went shopping.
By the time I returned, so too had my landlady. She let me in and I spent my first night in Paris eating pasta pesto from a breakfast bowl, my new purchase - a simple navy blue dress which felt like silk but probably wasn't - hanging from a hook atop the one, tall, slim window in my tiny room.
I didn't realise at the time, but this was how my obsession with clothes began.
MY ESCAPE FROM ACADEMIA
My Masters was serious work. Having been a literature undergraduate, I felt out of my depth in politics. Everyone was just so disarmingly clever. And because academia was something I thought I was supposed to be good at, I threw myself into studying. But I felt like I was drowning. I didn't fit in.
Back home everyone expected my experience of Paris to be some poetic dream. I gave nothing away. One day I experienced what I think was a mild panic attack on the metro on my way home. So I began to walk to and from university instead, and my route just happened to go past the most glorious shops.
It started with APC. At the start of the year, I was intimidated to enter; by the end, the staff greeted me with les bises on both cheeks. Le Bon Marche, the most exquisite department store that I'd ever stepped in, was a short stroll from my university. I remember seeing the shop's name lit up in winter; it was so beautiful, it took my breath away. This was Paris. This was romance, packaged up in luxuriously thick coats and fitted timeless dresses and buttery soft bags. This was the escape I needed. I came home that year with excellent French and a suitcase of fine, beautiful clothes.
MY ESCAPE FROM REALITY
I returned to England under sad circumstances; my father had fallen gravely sick. At first, all I wanted was to be with him. But things were so bad, I was so alone and escapism became something I sought out even more. I knew I needed a plan. So I put my head down and lined up an internship on a newspaper in London, which then turned into a reporter job.
With a small salary of my own, my clothes obsession grew. I justified my purchases to myself. My wardrobe was so stuffed, I had to order another to put in the loft to store the overflow. I bought clothes just because I could. Sometimes, the tags stayed on for months, clothes left unworn. My friends had a nickname for me; they called me "Fashion".
When I moved out from sharing with friends and into my own place, the first thing I planned was a fitted wardrobe. I took two days off work and watched it being built, my clothes spilling out of suitcases. I had discovered designer brands and I was smitten. See by Chloe dresses, Marc Jacobs coats; my hauls were Net-a-Porter not ASOS. Things were out of hand. I was never in debt but there was a lot of money being spent. The irony was I hardly had the lifestyle to match; I spent every weekend travelling back home visiting my darling father in hospital, clinging on to his life one month at a time.
When he passed away, I remember thinking I had so many clothes, but nothing suitable to wear to my own father's funeral. I remember feeling terrible that I'd even thought about clothes at all.
After my father's death, I was confused, heartbroken and lost but I also felt like I couldn't let the ball drop. Like I had to keep going. Like I couldn't let it show. So I got up every day. Picked out an outfit. Got dressed. Showed up. Carried on. I hid myself away behind clothes that were beautiful but meaningless. I felt empty.
Time passed. I was in my late twenties now, of a certain age. A marriageable age. My cultural background demanded an obedience from me to marry someone suitable, to settle down or just plain settle, to stop living alone - and the pressure to do so was just impossible to bear. I carried heartbreak inside me, for the life and the love I thought I'd never experience.
And then, just like that, just when I thought it was never going to happen, I met my future husband. It was spring; the day of the super moon. I took his green tea in a cafe by mistake. He came to retrieve it. His smile was kind. His conversation warm and eloquent and not at all presumptuous. An anxious introduction to my family followed, and three months later, we were engaged with a plan to marry very soon after. Once we were married, I was to move into his bachelor flat. But there was just one, small thing. In his flat, soon to be our newlywed home, there was space for only one single wardrobe.
MY NEED TO LET GO, DECLUTTER AND START OVER
I began the process of packing a month before our wedding. I had no idea where I was going to put my clothes and I remember him asking, quite sweetly, if I was planning to bring it all. His wardrobe was the exact definition of timeless, cool minimalism - slim fit plain tees and denim. And yet here I was, standing in front of my wardrobe, doors open, bin bags on the floor, clothes everywhere and all this stuff. It was all too much. I got panicky. How had I got so materialistic? That's when I realised: I didn't need all these things anymore.
I had been anxious for so long after my father's death, desperately worried about my future, aware of what others expected from me. There had been a huge weight pressing down on me. But I had kept all of this bottled up for so long. My self-confidence was splintered like broken glass.
But with my fiance (now my husband of seven years), the calmest person I have ever met, I saw the possibility of a lighter life together. The overwhelm weighing me down was leaving my body and my mind. And I wanted that lightness to stay with me, all around me. I wanted to live lighter. With him, not with clothes and things I didn't need. I realised what it meant to find someone who understood me. I realised what I was missing. I realised what love was. I knew it meant so much more than all these things around me.
So I invited my friends over for takeout and let them pick whatever they wanted from my wardrobe. I sold my finer clothes and bags on eBay. I donated heaps. I whittled the whole lot down until I had just enough that would fill my side of the single wardrobe, plus a little more for the chest of drawers.
And just like that, in the space of a fortnight, all those clothes were gone.
MY SIMPLER STYLE
I have lived with fewer clothes for seven years now. It is a simpler, happier life. Less complicated. A life where I am sure of who I am, where I am headed, who I want to be. I am unapologetic about my choices. And to be able to feel this way, everyday, truly is a gift.
I am not rigid about the quantity of clothes, but for the purpose of this piece, I did a quick count. I have a total of 35 pieces hanging in my now-bigger sized wardrobe, a glimpse of which you can see in the photos above (excluding yoga wear, pjs, coats and shoes). I have favourites collected over the past four years, which I look after with care and I swap and change with the seasons. It's my version of a minimal, capsule wardrobe.
I have learnt lessons along the way. Three pregnancies shook things up. It's not that I don't love clothes anymore. It's just I don't bury my feelings into them. I have learnt that clothes don't mask grief or anger or anxiety at all and that having too many things, too much clutter, is unbelievably stressful. But the right clothes, ones that fit for a start, do help with positive emotions, like confidence and simply just feeling good about myself.
Through Our Story Time, I encourage the act of looking for wonder in the every day; I believe this applies to our clothes too. How can it not? I believe that what we wear is not just about aesthetic style but about who we are on the inside. Make that connection, and then the clothes we step into, no matter how simple, become magic. Because just like that, they reflect us, at our absolute truest. And that, for me, is the calmest, happiest way to be.