Dress me on a budget!
November 18, 2010 1:17 PM   Subscribe

How do I build a contemporary yet classic wardrobe on a budget?

I am in my mid-20s, on a bit of a thrift store budget, and I want to move away from the hoodies and endless jeans and more towards a style. Unfortunately, I am fashion illiterate. I have done my homework- watched What Not to Wear, read books by Clinton and Stacy- but they tend to say things like, "aim for a classic silhouette with a trendy flair" which means nothing to me (though, I get it, Clinton-go to a tailor).

So I wonder the following:
1. What's the best way to keep up on fashion? Is there a website that boils it down without endless extraneous information? For example, "wear leopard print" or "wear bubblegum pink"

2. How, exactly, when looking at garments, do I determine what is classic and what is dated? What the hell is "classic" and how do I find these grails? This seems especially impossible at thrift stores, which leads me to....

3. Is there anything in particular I should look for in thrift stores? What are the best brands to look for? I have no idea what brand comes from what stores, so is there a cheat-sheet approach to finding the best pieces?

4. And what is the best way to determine what looks look best on my body? Bonus points if I can look current.

My stats: 5'0", 160#, size 16ish US, C-cup, carrying my weight in my thighs.
posted by jenlovesponies to Shopping (21 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know much about fashion but recommend you check out consignment stores, especially those aimed at younger women. Take a girlfriend or two along so you can get some feedback on what looks good on you.
posted by mareli at 1:21 PM on November 18, 2010

H&M and Top Shop
posted by spicynuts at 1:22 PM on November 18, 2010

Are you near a good department store? Like Nordsrtom? They have personal shoppers who will help you (for free). If you are honest with them about your budget, they will still help you - they will find pieces that fit your budget, or are on sale, and tell you what to get from cheaper places to match with nicer stuff (get leggins at target to pair with an awesome sweater). Tell them you want to buy one statement piece every six months to build your wardrobe. I wish I had done that in my mid 20s so that I could have them in my mid 30s, instead of trashing things that don't last and starting over. This is especially true with shoes.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:31 PM on November 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by Sidhedevil at 1:33 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've found that I've had much better luck at thrift stores in cities (or even neighborhoods) that are not overrun with 20-something thrift store shoppers. I live in San Francisco and my thrift store luck here is minimal, but I've had amazing finds and purchased many of my wardrobe staples in places like St. Louis and San Diego.
posted by soleiluna at 1:44 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there anything in particular I should look for in thrift stores?

Look for quality fabrics- wool, cashmere, etc. I'm finding that it's OK to buy trendy stuff I'll tire of easily in acrylic, but for the stuff I want to last, one has to bring in the big guns.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:47 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

For example, "wear leopard print" or "wear bubblegum pink"

If you're not entirely sure how to go about things, I suggest you stay away from any guide that gives you facile advice like that. What you consider "extraneous information" is actually all the stuff you need to know to figure out whether, for instance, leopard print or bubblegum pink will work for you. That is information you need, especially if you can't eyeball it yourself.

Also, if you see a store stocked to the brim with something -- again, from your example, leopard print or bubblegum pink -- it's over. This goes double for anything you see in Wal-Mart.
posted by griphus at 1:54 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lucky magazine has become a total irritant, but two books they put out in the past few years are still quite helpful on this score (and both are available used) in terms of learning about classic style/silhouette/essential pieces, etc.: The Lucky Shopping Manual and The Lucky Guide to Mastering Any Style.

Also, consider Tim Gunn's A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style (also available used). It's not an illustrated guide but rather his particular approach to shopping and style that you might find useful in "de-intimidating" the process of building a wardrobe.

On preview: TPS is exactly right re: materials. When you're in the market for long-term pieces, look for real wool, cashmere, leather, etc. When you want seasonal or trendy items, cheaper fabrics and materials are fine.
posted by scody at 1:55 PM on November 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here are a few suggestions:

1. To get a sense of what is really well made and likely to last more than a season, you want to try to develop an eye. You also want to develop some brand recognition, so that when you find a really good designer item in a thrift shop, you can recognize it. I'd suggest spending some time flipping through the top fashion magazines, like Vogue, Elle and Marie Clair. Also, look at the catalogs and on line sites for stores like Saks, Nordstrom, Talbots, Ann Taylor, and Neiman Marcus.

2. The major goal of a wardrobe of the kind you are looking for is a limited number of pieces, which can be mixed and matched, and are likely with decent care to last more than a few seasons. So here are the topics I would consider --
a. Color. You want to figure out what colors are best for you, and pick pieces that are color compatible with each other. For example, base your wardrobe around black, or around brown, but not around both. In general, by the way, solid colors are better choices for essential wardrobe items, because prints (e.g. leopard prints) tend not to have a long shelf life.
b. Fabric. You want quality fabrics, e.g. cashmere, wool, silk, and fine cotton. Classic clothes come in classic fabrics.
c. Cut. In general, classic clothes are more conservative. You want to steer clear of plunging necklines and high hems. Also, avoid the extreme cuts that tend to change season to season, like very baggy or very tight cuts or unusual sleeve lengths or designs.

3. In terms of your style, think about the clothes that work for what you do with your days. For example, people in conservative jobs may want to aim toward suit style pieces like blazers, skirts, and pants suits. Look at the workplace around you, too. Who looks good to you? Why? What is the overall level of "dressing up?" You want to build a wardrobe that blends with the ones around you.

Lastly, I'll repeat what you'll read anywhere . . . spending money on a few good items, and putting any extra toward the accessories that change season to season, is the best use of your money, and will give you the most versatility.
posted by bearwife at 2:01 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a friend, and this is what she blogs about. She's a snappy dresser, and I think you'll like her a lot. Her name's Kimberly, and she runs Fab Finds Under 50
posted by deezil at 2:04 PM on November 18, 2010

Here's what I do - I tend to shop places like Target and Old Navy for both basics (jeans, sweaters, etc.) and also for what I consider my "trendy" pieces, which for me are things like jewelry, shoes, etc. Old Navy's website usually has pictures of complete outfits put together, and I'll browse those before I go shopping to get a feel for what is hip at the moment. It's easy to pick out trendy accessories at places like Target, because basically most of what they carry are cheap versions of what is big in fashion at the moment. I know a lot of people say that buying higher-quality clothes is a better investment, but to be honest, I've had no problem with my Target clothes holding up. For trendier pieces, it doesn't matter if they last forever, because you will probably only wear them for a season or two anyway.

Some of my recent purchases to spruce up my wardrobe have included: a pair of jeans slim enough to tuck into boots (I too, carry my weight in my lower body and can't pull off the current legging look), a cute pair of motorcycle-ish flat tall boots, a number of long thin patterned scarves, a few cardigans with ruffles/embellishments, a "boyfriend" cardigan, and a cute pea coat. I also pick up a new necklace or earring set every now and then to update my jewelry box. Handbags are also a great way to make an outfit look fashionable - again, see Target and other discount-type stores.
posted by tryniti at 2:05 PM on November 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Generally a "contemporary yet classic" wardrobe consists of a handful of pieces in a neutral color and flattering (but timeless) silhouette, that you pair with rotating accessories (scarves, brooches, belts, shrugs, wraps) or individual pieces that are more trendy and less neutral.

Most guides I've looked at say to buy the following pieces at the best quality you can afford:

1. one business suit--most sources say "pants", but I think either pants or skirt is fine; it's a bonus if you can get a suit that has all three pieces: the jacket, the pants and the skirt.
2. 3-5 work-appropriate bottoms (pants and skirts) in a neutral color (black, navy or grey) in a seasonless weight wool.
3. Basic black dress (Tim Gunn says get the shortest hemline that is flattering to your leg).
4. Basic day dress.
5. A good pair of well-fitting jeans hemmed to the height of your most usual shoe.
6. A casual not-outer-wear jacket or cardigan.
7. Black pumps.
8. Trench coat or overcoat, depending on your climate.
9. A good bag.
10. A "sweatsuit alternative"--that is a weekend, total comfort outfit that is more flattering than sweatpants. Maybe it's a pair of knit pants, or cotton drawstring pants, or khakis. Maybe it's a circle skirt in jersey, a drawstring skirt or a pull-over dress. Just something in a comfortable fabric, that doesn't look sloppy.

You pair the suit and the bottoms with tops (sweaters, blouses, shells, tees) that fit the season and express your personal style. The tops don't have to be as classic in styling or as long-lived in quality because you will have more of them and will cycle through them as styles change.

Personally, I manage to adhere to this pretty well, basing everything off blacks and greys.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:08 PM on November 18, 2010 [19 favorites]

Look for people who you think have a good style. If you see somebody in what you think is a great outfit, what do you like about it? Then go buy an outfit that approximates it. For instance, people loooved Gwyneth Paltrow's skirt on glee. Go shop at a department store with a wide selection, and try to find an outfit that's similar. Over time, you develop your style, and 1 outfit at a time is do-able, esp. if you shop sales. Read the Sartorialist.
posted by theora55 at 2:13 PM on November 18, 2010

4. carrying my weight in my thighs

Oh, yeah, hi. You're going to want A-line skirts, probably to just below the knee, and wide legged pants. These will be frustratingly hard to find, but once you find them, luckily, they are classic cuts, so you can wear them forever.

3. Personally I think shopping in thrift stores isn't that different from shopping in other stores - you're still looking for things that you like and that will look good on you. I wouldn't worry about brands, unless you figure out that a particular brand fits you well or badly, then that would be something to look out for. In addition to thrift stores, look for sales at regular stores. I rarely go to thrift stores but I also rarely buy things for full price.

2. Flip through fashion magazines - they constantly recycle stories and a frequent one is some version of the "Classic Pieces" story. Lucky, for instance, has that this month; if they do then probably others do too. I'd say classic means natural fabrics (cotton, silk, etc., not any kind of shiny stuff made of chemicals that feels gross.) Also the cut - think about clothes from the 80s, 70, 60s, etc. Some of it still looks fine (shirt-dresses, cardigan sweaters) but some looks ridiculous (extreme bell-bottom pants, really wide collars.) Things that would look good through those decades and today are classic. Nothing too tight or too baggy - those are usually trends. You can't go wrong with basic, neutral colors: black, grey, brown, red, blues and greens. Unusual colors and wacky patterns are more likely to be trends as well.

1. Do you want to really keep up with the fashion industry? Or just to know what's currently acceptable among normal people? I don't know about the first so much. For the second, just looking at what's for sale in the stores/catalogues/online and what other people are wearing will tell you what's current. Sometimes what's current is hideous however. I'm also short with big thighs, and right now it's a skinny pant year (again) so knowing what's in isn't going to help me. If you know what's classic and what looks good on you, you won't have to worry too much about keeping up with the latest thing. Every few years little things that do make a difference will change, e.g. the very pointy boots of 5 years ago look odd now. But it shouldn't matter what the momentary trends are if you've got the other parts of your question down.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:20 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can definitely tell you how to shop for quality at thrift stores. It starts by what store you go to. I can't figure out from your profile information where you live, but the key is to go to thrift stores in wealthier areas. For example, here in Chicago, you can go to the Unique Thrift in Edgewater, or you can go to one in Evanston, a somewhat ritzier suburb. Go to Evanston. Most thrift stores save money by keeping clothing donated on-site to sell, as it cuts down on transportation costs.

Then it's a matter of choosing the actual items. Start at a rack by actually touching the items. Feel your way through. You'll start to learn the difference between the way wool feels versus acrylic, cotton versus cotton-poly. Skip right past poly, rayon, crepe. Sometimes these items can be nice, but don't take chances since you're just starting out. In terms of fabric, aim to pick up wool, silk, cotton and cotton blends. It's a good rule of thumb to avoid patterns that are printed on the clothing; rather, if you're seeking a pattern, find one woven in. Again - you're at the basic level. Get good, then start discriminating patterned clothing.

Feel the fabric; it should yield and not feel crunchy. Now, look it over. Does it have any stains? Any holes? Now check the armpits and collar for staining. Check the buttons, buttonholes, and seams for loose or missing threads. Don't forget the bottom seams. If it's a sweater, look for pulls. Reject anything immediately that does not meet these quality standards.

Now it's about style, and you say you're looking for classics. A few hints to avoid dated fashions: go ahead and put back anything double-breasted or with shoulderpads. Avoid things where the stitching is a different color than the fabric. Eschew all forms of appliques. It's fair to skip blouses that stop at the natural waist, current fashion has things hitting at the hip. Skip pleats in pants.

Some brands I look for by name at thrift stores include the usual J. Crew, Gap, Banana Republic but also Apt. 9, Ann Taylor/Ann Taylor Loft, 9 West, New York & Company.
posted by juniperesque at 2:26 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really like the blog You Look Fab . There are also forums where people give helpful advice.

Recently she posted about the Wardrobe (non)essentials (those classic pieces everyone tells you you must have.) She stressed that while the white shirt is a classic, you don't have to try to fit yourself (your lifestyle, personal style, body type) into what's considered classic.
posted by vespabelle at 2:37 PM on November 18, 2010

Also, if you see a store stocked to the brim with something -- again, from your example, leopard print or bubblegum pink -- it's over. This goes double for anything you see in Wal-Mart.

Repeated for emphasis. The more noticeable a new trend, the shorter its shelf life. That goes for both how quickly you can spot it in a store and how often you spot it. Save the trendiness for accessories.

I'd also second bearwife's recommendation to figure out your colors. Pick a neutral - black, gray, brown - and stick with it and with coordinating colors. The goal is to get as mix-and-matchable a wardrobe as possible.

Try everything on - that seems fairly basic, but it makes a difference. If you're shopping for black pants, try every style of black pants in the store, in two or more sizes, until you find what fits. Sometimes stuff that looks boring on the rack will look great on your body, and vice versa. Make sure things aren't wrinkly or see-through and still cover you if you sit down or bend over.

And get professionally fitted for a bra, at Nordstrom or a specialty boutique, even if you don't think you need a fitting. It can really change the way you look in clothes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:40 PM on November 18, 2010

Best answer: 1. What's the best way to keep up on fashion? Is there a website that boils it down without endless extraneous information? For example, "wear leopard print" or "wear bubblegum pink"

You want Jezebel's Dress Code series. They take questions and suggestions for new articles, too.

2. How, exactly, when looking at garments, do I determine what is classic and what is dated? What the hell is "classic" and how do I find these grails? This seems especially impossible at thrift stores, which leads me to....

All "classic" really means is "currently in style but hearkening back to a style from a previous era, preferably one that is 'elegant' rather than 'funky'." A lot of specific items drift back and forth from "classic" to "fugly", and the fashion industry just plays dumb. For instance Ray-Ban wayfarer sunglasses. I remember seeing a photo of Chloe Sevigny wearing these 4-5 years ago, and my first thought was, "Ewwww, those are so hideous! Who would wear that?" A year later, the trend had spread to hipsters. Now they are apparently "classic". In another few years they'll be dated again, mark my words. We all think of Katherine Hepburn as an icon of "classic" fashion, but if you look at period photos of her, she's often wearing something that would NEVER fly in your particular fashion cycle. (high-waisted tennis shorts! a polo sweater tied around her neck! shoulder pads!)

As someone who identifies as a tomboy and hates fussy looks and the pressure to constantly be on trend, these are often my go-to styles. However, you do still have to do a little fashion research. My formula, at this point, is basically

(Hipster Style Blogs + J. Crew Catalogue) * Liz Lemon = Sara C. Aesthetic

3. Is there anything in particular I should look for in thrift stores? What are the best brands to look for? I have no idea what brand comes from what stores, so is there a cheat-sheet approach to finding the best pieces?

In thrift stores i.e. Salvation Army and the like, I look for very recent name brand stuff I wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. With a side of interesting t-shirts and timeless sweaters in great shape with NO HOLES. Also coats.

In vintage stores, I stay away from current ideas about what's on trend and play with period clothing from certain specific eras (there's a great recent post about this on Jezebel), as well as funky concepts like kimonos, men's ties, or belting a dress with a cummerbund. Accessories are also good, especially silk scarves.

4. And what is the best way to determine what looks look best on my body? Bonus points if I can look current.

This is where What Not To Wear can come in handy. Though sometimes it's easy to get carried away with all the Bad Things to camouflage - I get really overwhelmed trying to remember what my various traits are and what I'm supposed to be hiding or showing off or whatever. So at this point I'm keeping it simple and ONLY concentrating on ways to minimize my long torso/short legs thing I have going on. All other information they supply, I ignore. They're also a great resource for information about fit.

Another way to do it is to just try on a lot of stuff and look in the mirror. I'm often attracted to empire waist tops - then I put them on and realize I look like a sturdy peasant from a Breughel painting. Not really the look I was going for, so I put it back. Same for long jackets - I see them, want them, try them on and.... oh. My legs look three inches long. Not the look I'm going for, so I put it back. The trick is to get really good at the putting back part. Don't try on clothes with an eye to saying yes, but to saying no. Look for reasons not to buy.
posted by Sara C. at 2:45 PM on November 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Ok, disclaimer: this is not what I do. But if you're looking for "classic," I'd say this is the way to go about it.

1. Read a few of those "Ten essential wardrobe pieces" articles. I say "a few" because I think it's worth seeing which pieces they all have in common.

2. Visit Goodwill or other thrift stores to see if they have good quality versions of any of these pieces. This may take a few months of checking back.

3. Most of these essential pieces will be rather boring - black pants, white blouses, trench coats, etc. - so to add a little trend to your look, come up with a signature accessory. Do you like necklaces? Buy a few cool ones. Scarves? Ditto. Funky shoes? You get the idea.

As for me, I go for weird dresses and tights in strange colors, spruced up with Etsy stuff like giant felt flowers for my head. I regularly imagine horrified dialogues between Stacy and Clinton on the subject of my wardrobe. So you may wish to take my advice with a grain of salt.
posted by missrachael at 6:37 PM on November 18, 2010

many department stores offer complimentary personal shopping services. you meet with someone, they pick out a lot of clothes, you try them on. you don't have to buy anything, although i think that's frowned upon, but it's a nice opportunity to find some good investment pieces (the little black dress, a good jacket, a great pair of boots, the perfect jeans). make sure you know what you really need--do you even need a suit? i don't own a suit. i have a nice black dress for funerals and business events that i wear with a cardigan, stockings, and nice heels, and look just as appropriate. and if you make it clear you're on a budget, they won't give you the $300 blazer to try on in the first place. if you have the variety, do this at a couple of different stores. but take pictures of every outfit you try on, and replicate them at target, old navy, kohls. go to or order your accessories--scarves, shoes, hair baubles, etc--from places like urban outfitters.

most of all, take a stylish friend with you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 8:02 PM on November 18, 2010

I love The Morning News' Women's Fashion Guide, written by the wonderful Maggie Mason. It's split into four sections on Classics, Colour, Hats and Accessories. Not only is the advice smart, easy to follow and specific, it's also wonderfully written. Though it's a bit old, the principles are timeless and still apply.
posted by greenfelttip at 5:01 AM on November 19, 2010

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