It’s better to light a candle than to curse Slate, here are my two cents on how to dress like a grown-up when you’re still making lemonade-stand wages, offered with as little condescension and gratuitous sexualization as I can manage.
(These tips are aimed at young women in their 20s just beginning to build a post-college wardrobe, and applicability may vary depending on your state in life, and oh, about a thousand other things.)
1. If you live in a city, big or small, discover your local thrift stores. You’ll find them all over–don’t neglect the rich suburbs, as these will often abound in the cast-offs of fancy old ladies and attract a much smaller clientele to compete for them.
Be careful though, as not all thrift stores are created equal.
There are upscale consignment boutiques, which specialize in designer labels at discounted but still enormous prices. These are best if you do have a little spare cash, and can save for some big staple pieces. For example, if you’ve amassed 200 dollars, it’s probably a better investment to buy a pair of second hand Ferragamo boots than new Steve Maddens.
At the other end end of the scale are the massive Goodwills that you have to paw your way through at random. If you want to find awesome things here, you’ll have to stop by on a regular basis to comb through their racks. I’ve found many of the clothes I love wearing at this kind of store, mainly by abandoning any pre-determined shopping list and deciding to try on that polyester floral print dress from the 90s. If you want to shop methodically, it’s best to look for non-investment basics: casual skirts, tops, running shoes.
Slightly above the massive Goodwills in the thrift-store hierarchy, are, in my experience, the tiny, pell-mell cluttered hospital thrift shops, often run by nuns. They operate in basically the same way as the Goodwills, with the caveat that they are smaller, and will probably be even less amenable to methodical shopping and more to regular visits in search of serendipity. On the other hand, sometimes they’ll become the regular beneficiaries of old ladies slowly purging their closet of beautifully cut tweed skirts and elegant little designer pumps, especially if they’re in a rich suburb. I would tell you about some of the awesome things I’ve found, were I not afraid of tempting the thrift store gods.
Your best bet is any of the mid-priced, mid-sized chain thrift stores–Greene Steet Consignment, Buffalo Exchange, Plato’s Closet, most things staffed by the Junior League. You won’t find vintage wonders for two dollars once in a blue moon, but you will find Ann Taylor and J.Crew Pencil skirts for $15-30, every time you go. For me, these places are expensive enough that I have to shop carefully–I won’t buy things on a whim, and I’ll spend a lot of time in the clearance section–but reliable enough that when I identify a concrete and consistently irksome hole in my closet (say, a black cardigan for spring), these are the first places I look.
Thrift stores can lend themselves to the delusion that buying things cheaply is actually saving money. It’s not. If you buy a thrift store polka dot romper that you, for obvious reasons, are never going to wear, you’ve spent two dollars, sure– but two dollars is a cheap beer. On the other hand, most items in thrift stores are unique; you can’t sleep on a potential purchase and be sure it will be there waiting for you the next day.
So, if I really like something, I can see myself wearing it, and it’s under ten dollars, I take the risk and buy. If it’s something beautiful and interesting that I could conceivably wear, or need for one very specific occasion, and it’s under five dollars, I’ll buy it (assuming I have the money to burn). If it’s over ten dollars, I’ll give myself some time to think it over. If there’s really no way I’m going to ever wear this but it’s the most awesome thing in the world and maybe I could just let it live in my closet and look at it every once in a while….I say get thee behind me Satan.
2. If you don’t live in or near a city, troll Ebay and Amazon. One of the best dressed people I know uses these sites as an online consignment boutique to purchase beautiful, luxurious jackets and sweaters at prices he can afford. I just searched “ankle boots,” an item for which I am currently in the market, and came up with this. A lot of chaff, but some reasonably priced wheat, too.
3. Trends are your enemy. Someday, when you are a fantastically wealthy old woman who lives entirely on truffles and expensive scotch, you can grab hold of every trend that comes along. But right now, you are trying to build a collection of lasting, beautiful, and versatile pieces, and you haven’t much money with which to do it. Trends will suck away your precious dollars and leave you holding last year’s paisley print jeans asking yourself what exactly you were drinking. (Caveat: sometimes trends catch up with you, in which case there is no reason to stop wearing what you love and works for you.)
4. On that note, a few lovely and lasting pieces are better than closetful of flimsy variety. The rule that you must never repeat an outfit or wear the same thing twice in a row is one of the stupidest I’ve heard yet.
So, what to actually wear?
5. For work and/or workish things, two skirts: one of a lighter material, like serge, and one of something heavy and woolen. Pencil is the classic, but make sure it’s well cut, so that you can move and it doesn’t bunch up in weird places. Other straight, simple lines also work. Think brown, black, navy and grey. Avoid khaki–it wrinkles easily, requires more washing than darker colours, and just looks kind of bland. Do not waste your money on an unlined skirt. Seriously. Your work skirts are the backbone of your wardrobe, and you should spend your widow’s mite to buy as high quality as you can.
6. Once you have your two quality skirts, you can wear them day in and day out with different tops. Blazers make you feel like a boss, but If I were you, I’d wait to invest in a really good one (or, like me, you could steal your younger brother’s Mass blazer that just happens to fit you perfectly). In the mean time, cardigans, or even better, wool pullovers, are universally appropriate, cheap at thrift stores, and easy to wear.
7. You can cheat on tops. Now that you’ve outfitted bottom half in awesome skirt and top half in universally appropriate cardigan, no one is going to be paying attention to your blouse.* Buy cheap and pretty.
On the other hand, if you’ve found a really fantastic thrift store or have not yet filed for bankruptcy, now is as good a time as ever to acquire nice shirts. Look for shirts made entirely of one material: silk, linen, etc as they will retain their shape better than knit blends. Stay away from overly trendy or fussy frills–they are the enemy of versatility. I am not a fan of Oxford button downs, because the way most of them hang and gap in odd places suggests to me that the designers did not actually make them for a woman’s body, and who needs foolish triflers like that?
7. If you want to go really crazy, get a dress as well. Or, substitute a dress for one of your skirts (just make sure you have one thing of a heavy warm material and one thing of a lighter material.) Your dress, like your skirts, should be knee length to ensure that it’s safe for more than one job or occasion; it should have lots of structure. If the dress is dark or neutral it can have a subtle or geometric pattern; if it’s brighter it should be one deep, bold color. Stay away from lovely vibrant colors like scarlet and egg-yolk yellow–not because they’re bad, but because you’re poor and want to be clever about hedging your bets; also, darker colors require less cleaning.
Lack of quality in a dress doesn’t necessarily show as much as lack in a pencil skirt, for some reason, so if your thrift store options are limited, you might want to go for the dress/skirt combo. Just remember, always lining.
Which brings me to pants.
8. Skip the pants, if you can do so in comfort (by the way, get real tights, not sheer pantyhose. It will keep you much warmer). There’s nothing wrong with pants, except that they are generally much less forgiving than skirts. Durable and lovely and striking pants definitely exist, but usually hang out at the top of the price totem pole. Not so with skirts. I don’t know why, except maybe that the industry hasn’t been making pants for women as long as it has skirts, or that it’s just easier to fake it with skirts. If anyone has found a reasonably priced maker of excellent work-appropriate pants, please chime in.
9. Buy a pair of boots you really love, and don’t buy boots unless you really love them. Boots are never really cheap, so if you’re in a position to save up for articles of clothing, skip the compromises and squirrel away your pennies.
When I bought my Investment Boots with my first white collar paycheck, I knew exactly what I wanted: wide leg, knee high, russet colored, leather I found beautiful, discreet to invisible zippers. I scoped out my pair for about three months before I took the plunge, and four years later, in perfect condition, they are currently adorning my legs.
10. But! Until you can afford that manic pixie dream boot? If you can, get a pair of low heeled ankle boots or cunning little oxfords. You want something graceful, sturdy, and walkable. Ankle boots won’t draw as much attention to themselves as higher ones, so you don’t have to hold out for quality as much.
I’m going to commit fashion heresy here by suggesting you skip the ballet flats, unless it’s summer, and you can get cheap, pretty, light ones for fifteen dollars or under. In winter, ballet flats don’t really let you walk around outside–they’re only good for office wear. And if you get a pair of simple pumps you can wear both in the office and with jeans or dress to a party, you can put the savings from this double duty towards your awesome boots. Unless, of course, you don’t wear heels, in which case go to town on flats. Your pumps should be stacked, not stiletto, because your feet are important. They should only be about two or three inches, for maximum, you guessed it, versatility.
8. If you’ve spent several years trolling thrift stores, you probably already have a lot of fascinating cocktail attire. If you’re new to the game, get one party dress–not black. Black is for being sensible about maximizing work separates! Parties are when you get to cut loose and be bold. Besides, an exuberant color means less work for fancy shoes and accessories. Try to find something that’s not categorically evening wear or day wear–a cheat is to buy something made of more formal fabric (silk, chiffon, lace) in a cut that’s neither particularly conservative nor especially dramatic. Ideally, something with sleeves, either a nighttime neckline or a closely tailored fit, and a hemline that hits just a bit above the knee–you want something that can pass for foxy, festive, or formal. Look for dresses made all of one fabric (lined, as usual). Avoid satiny blends. Don’t be afraid of striking textures like brocade and velvet, but remember: a heavy fabric means you’ll probably need something lighter for summer, and the more imposing the fabric the less formal you want the cut.
9. Speaking of accessories, you’re on your own for tasteful jewelry. This is something I have never mastered. But I can tell you to pick up small, handkerchief sized silk or chiffon scarves wherever you can find them cheaply. Around the hair, as a belt, filling in for a necklace: these things have saved my life.
10. Make friends with your tailor! And your cobbler. Go get your measurements taken, and ask him about rates. Most torn things can mend, and it’s often a better deal to alter an otherwise ideal garment that’s not quite your size than to settle on another purchase. Waterproof your leather boots.
11. Don’t throw everything in the washer. All cleaning takes its toll on clothes, but machine washing and drying especially. Plenty of skirts can be worn again and again with spot cleaning, and little worn dresses often only need a day’s airing in the sunshine for freshness. Take the labels seriously, hand-wash your wool sweaters, and take doubtful items to a dry-cleaner.
12. You don’t need fancy exercise clothes. I know, I know. I want to be one of those cool girls who does yoga and runs exclusively in Lululemon, too! But you don’t need it, it won’t actually make you exercise more, and man is that stuff expensive.
I can’t believe I’ve written so much about clothes in one sitting. If, for some reason, you’re not heartily sick of the topic, check out any of the the zilllion style blogs out there, or, for practical tips, adulting.
*I understand that the bosomed among us have their own particular problems. Since I don’t know anything about this, I’m going to defer to Elodie Under Glass.
Addenda: If you can, get a slip. It will make your life better. Also, drool with me over this.