Help me dress like a grown-up, without blowing a grown-up's salary.
June 14, 2012 11:01 AM   Subscribe

I have way, way, WAY too many clothes. I want to clear out my closet and replace most of this junk with a few tasteful, expensive staples that I rely on more often. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of money right now and will soon have even less upon entering grad school, so what should I be spending my money on?

I tend to buy clothes that are fun but cheap, and it shows. My main staples are H&M, random stuff from Beacon's Closet (midscale thrift store in NYC), and ASOS. My closet holds an entropic amount of $20-40 shirts, $50 dresses and $60 shoes. With the exception of a couple items (beautiful blouse from a sample sale, vintage dress I randomly found at a flea market), none of them will last me more than a few seasons either because they're too trendy or they fall apart in the wash.

Over the summer, I am going to haul most of these clothes in garbage bags and donate them to Good Will. Then I am going to slowly build a new wardrobe for a woman who is almost 30 years old. What should I buy? Where should I buy it from? How can I save money on some really well-made pieces of clothing? What stores offer staples that are worth their price tag?

Details: I'm 5'3" and 120lbs, small-chested and somewhere between hourglass and pear-shaped. I love dresses, ballet flats, skirts, and heels, but I'm not very good at walking in anything higher than 3". My weakness is too-fussy clothes that are trendy for only a season or two, and I'd like to settle on things that are more classic and grown-up looking.
posted by zoomorphic to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (28 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Do exactly what you have been doing -- thrift shop, consignment stores -- except look for classic, expensive things. Not everything from H&M is crap (I have some very well made suits from them), and much of the stuff in Neiman Marcus et al is cheaply made. I spent the first 4 years of my teaching career (as a sessional) in clothing from Holt Renfrew -- it's just that I bought it all at Value Village and Goodwill.

Go window shopping in expensive stores, so you can see what brands you like, and what cuts look good on you. This will also let you see what good fabric looks and feels like; you'll be able to ID good stuff as you find it. DVF style wrap dresses are classic, and the real thing is lovely, but you can certainly buy nice knockoffs from Zara, H&M, and ASOS.

Shop final sales, discount sales, and consignment stores. You're small, which means that you'll be able to buy stuff that women have dieted down to and then grown back out of (there's lots of that stuff in consignment stores!).

Also! Grad school will largely be spent in jeans and sweaters: dressing well is important for teaching, conferences, oral exams and interviews, but you won't need a professional wardrobe until you're out of the program.
posted by jrochest at 11:13 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have a lot of money right now and will soon have even less upon entering grad school ... How can I save money on some really well-made pieces of clothing?

Make the effort to sell your clothes at a consignment shop instead of donating them. I love Goodwill but this will help you stick to a budget, plus it will give you the satisfaction you gain from shopping, as you shop over time for new, quality pieces as your old clothes sell.
posted by headnsouth at 11:17 AM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Try the outlets. Really. Banana Republic, Saks, Calvin Klein, Esprit all have outlets and the list goes on and on. You can get great deals on higher-quality brands. I usually do particularly well at The Banana outlet; it's a great place for classic wardrobe "base" pieces (nice skirts, shifts, blouses, etc).

As for the clothes capital....Do you have any trendy consignment-type stores near you? Something like Buffalo Exchange? I often take clothes I don't want anymore and try to sell them there. Usually places like that will give you store credit or cash. Anything they don't want you can donate.
posted by Katine at 11:18 AM on June 14, 2012

Yes, try to sell your clothes. Even if you just have a yard sale you will make some money that can go towards replacement clothes.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:32 AM on June 14, 2012

Before you get rid of all your stuff, you should make sure that you aren't the type of person who just needs and likes a lot of options and stuff.

I periodically purge the closet, but I fill it back up again because I like having choices. If this is true of you too, you're just going to have to spend more to be satisfied again.

I think you should put the clothes that you don't think you want in clothing purgatory (a box underneath crap in the closet) and see if you miss them or get sick of what you have left.
Sometimes I take clothes out of purgatory, and I am glad to have them back. Most of the time I let them go.

Once you decide to say goodbye to them, sort them by season and take them at the appropriate time to Beacon's Closet. This might mean leaving a box in your house til it's time they buy for winter. Get the store credit instead of the cash. Then find designer stuff there. Most of my fancy dresses come from sample sales and from Beacon's.

also give me your extras that Beacon's doesn't want for my clothing swap group
posted by rmless at 11:39 AM on June 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I find consignment stores not great for getting cheap stuff especially at a grad school budget; my advice is to pick a few thrift shops in good neighbourhoods and keep hitting them again and again. This is especially effective if they're for local charities where they're not redistributing stuff to other stores or to a central depot. Go during the week days, before lunch. Try to avoid places that are frequented by people buying for vintage stores or markets where they're stripping the place to turn the items over. My sister who is a master at this looks for nice fabrics as a first move and always checks the seams for signs of wear and tear before even trying anything on.

Being label conscious is great, but I have a few things from very cheap shops that have lasted far better than more expensive stuff. If you really want items that fit you, sometimes getting good fabric and having it made up is good. But have fun! Thrift store shopping can be an excellent form of entertainment even when you're really broke - you never know when you will hit something marvellous. (I still remember my amazing $5 Burberry trousers. They were amazing.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:43 AM on June 14, 2012

Best answer: As for what you should buy:
silk jersey dresses a la DVF but not necessarily by her
black A line sheath dress in a woven or very thick ponte fabric
leather flats you can walk all day in that look good with skirts
gray fine wool skirt
silk/cotton/cashmere blend cardigans

Rules that I follow most of the time when I buy:
nothing acrylic or blended w acrylic
nothing polyester
rayon is ok
all skirts should be lined
nothing that I can see my fingers through the fabric
no full-price jeans (they go on sale often and I find most of mine at Housing Works)
posted by rmless at 11:48 AM on June 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

I get at least half of my wardrobe for teaching/consulting from thrift stores in NYC- I've found that while Beacon's Closet is fun/outrageous/trendy I shop for more professional or higher-end pieces at Housing Works. They have some very well made, formerly expensive clothes (many of them unworn) mainly in small sizes. The Housing Works store near 22 or 23 is particularly clothing-focused.
posted by stagewhisper at 11:51 AM on June 14, 2012

Best answer: First off, I'd think about what your style is. Put it into 2 or 3 words. For me it's "militant lady-like minimalist". That's just what I like and all my favorite clothes conform to that whether they're McQueen, Theory or H&M. What I've found is that restricting myself to what I really like cuts down on impulse buys and makes me save up for the good stuff. I also don't restrict what "the good stuff" is based on brand. A coat from Express can look as good as Prada if it's really perfect for you and especially if you take the time to get everything tailored. Sometimes if I buy fast-fashion but I really love it, I'll do something like cut off the cheap plastic buttons and sew on leather-covered buttons or something that really elevates it. Having your own look also gives you permission to take all that What Not to Wear crap and throw it out the window. That show depresses the hell out of me. Not everyone needs an A-line skirt or a classic blazer if that's not who you are.

Also know that re-doing your closet takes time. If you try to do it too fast, you wind up in the same predicament you're in now. Purge your closet only of stuff that you really don't wear and stuff that isn't your style. Invest in accessories. I seriously have one brown belt, one silver bracelet, one black bag and one brown bag that I wear all the time but every one is a total knock out piece that I spent a long time looking for. If it isn't amazing, move on.

As for where to shop, I really like vintage places, high-end consignment shops (like Decades Two) and crazy brass-knuckles sales like the Barney's warehouse ridiculousness. I'm wary of outlets. Back in the day they used to be awesome because they were literally the same clothes as the in the store, but now they're usually special "warehouse lines" that sort of have a similar look and feel but are way cheaper.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 11:55 AM on June 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Head over to Plato's Closet with your current haul. Try and get some dough.

Now, for you.

To start your basic wardrobe, you really don't need much.

The staples would be:

Crisp White Blouse (preferably no-iron)
Dark Blue Jeans
Black Pants
Black Skirt Suit
Good quality pair of black shoes.
Brown Loafers

You can add some other, basic pieces to this:

Indigo Shirt (no iron)
Lighter jeans
Really neat pair of sneakers
Black T-shirts
White T-shirts
Black Turtleneck
Navy Blue Blazer
Little Black Dress-Cocktail
Little Balck Dress-Work

Throw a few scarves in there and you're ready for pretty much anything.

I like shopping at Macy's, If you get their charge card, you get coupons mailed to you for 20% off. Shop the sales and the clearance racks, especially at the end of the season and you can make out like a bandit. I really don't know of any other store that discounts as thoroughly and consistantly as Macys.

Find the desingers you like.

I like classic, simple things:

Jones New York
Calvin Klein
Ralph Lauren
Tommy Hilfiger

I'm older though, and I'm kind of done with the ruffles and pleats and stuff.

Also, it's awesome to have a signature piece, something you find at a vintage store, something you LOVE and it loves you back. My piece was a men's tuxedo jacket, it was oversized and I could wear it with jeans, or slacks, and it was edgy. But that was decades ago. Thoughts are a Kimono jacket, a military jacket, a gorgeous sweater. You should feel like a million bucks every time you wear it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:58 AM on June 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Also! Grad school will largely be spent in jeans and sweaters

Yes! Totally true. However, my husband recently made a similar overhaul of his wardrobe, and now he dresses extremely well. I feel like a scrub next to him. And also, it's simply time to put away my childish clothes. I'm too old to be I need to look and act more like an adult, but since I won't have a lot of money soon, I'm willing to rely on a couple great pieces and build from there.

As for thrift stores! This sort of works, but lots of thrift stores in NYC are picked over because boutique owners send scouts to peel through the racks looking for designers to snap up and then sell at much higher prices. I miss thrift stores in smaller cities for this reason. However, Beacon's Closet and Buffalo Exchange are indeed great resources and offer a decent compromise between the threadbare Salvation Army stores and high-end vintage boutiques.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:01 PM on June 14, 2012

If you're just starting Grad School, you may want to set aside the clothes you'd consider getting rid of until Grad School is underway. When I was in Grad School, I quickly reverted to a casual uniform-type outfit that was comfortable and easy to assemble/launder without much thought. School was challenging enough for me that I really appreciated not having to take time to take special care of more expensive items (hand washing, dry cleaning).

Save the more expensive, classical items in your wardrobe for Department events, conferences, etc.

Use your Grad School years to slowly build a more classical, expensive wardrobe that will suit you once you're out in the professional world after graduation. That way, you can really bargain hunt for great pieces and not pay through the nose.
posted by quince at 12:02 PM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might also try online sale sites like Gilt and Rue La La. You can pick up a lot of really nice stuff for much, much less than you would in a store.

Also want to second going to nice stores and handling the clothes. The more you know how well-constructed clothes look and feel, the more you'll know what to look for in other places. My suggestion would be to shop widely. Some brands do a great job at making X, though do a terrible job at making Y. Knowing what well-made clothes are like will help you purchase fewer things that aren't worth their price, or at least will let you know to wait for them to go on sale.
posted by skilar at 12:05 PM on June 14, 2012

I was in a similar situation a few years ago. The single best thing I did was invest in a few hours with a personal stylist (and I am by no means a fashionista - I did it on the recommendation of a friend). The stylist showed me which colors work best on me and why, the shapes and silhouettes that work on me, and we went over makeup as well.

Now I know why I had so many things in my closet that I wasn't wearing - many items may have had great style or been on trend, but they just didn't work. It usually came down to colors.

It was pricey, around $1500, but I have saved that probably 10-fold over the last several years, and the knowledge I gained will save me money over the rest of my life. Plus I feel confident now when I shop, rather than lost, and confident in every outfit I wear.
posted by vignettist at 12:06 PM on June 14, 2012

Seconding what quince says - grad school isn't typically something you have to dress up for!

That having been said, when you are ready, I really like Tim Gunn's list of the 10 must-haves as a jumping-off point. You can read a version of it from his appearance on the Ellen Show, promoting his Guide to Style, or I'm willing to bet you could find the entire book second-hand at Amazon.

The short version of the list is:

1. Basic Black Dress
2. Trench Coat
3. Classic Dress Pants
4. White Shirt
5. Jeans
6. Cashmere Sweater
7. Skirt
8. Day Dress
9. Blazer
10. Sweatsuit Alternative one trendy splurge

I don't have everything on this list - I don't like myself in white, for example, though I do have other formal-office appropriate shirts - but I think it's a nice basic range of grownup items that you could try to build up, without being a whole new wardrobe. Good luck!
posted by mishaps at 12:13 PM on June 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

I recently found a sleeveless, stretchy black dress at a thrift store for like $3. It was plain but I kind of liked it so I bought it. This black dress has rotated in my outfits now at least once a week. The key is that it is stretchy, so even on weird shape days I can still wear it without worrying about it fitting tight or strange. Also, the jersey fabric means its super easy to dry out when I sweat being outside. It's casual enough to lounge in and formal enough to go out to lunch or dinner. Love it. Would buy again, even at more than $3.
posted by amicamentis at 12:53 PM on June 14, 2012

"I tend to buy clothes that are fun but cheap, and it shows."

I think you should give yourself a fun-but-cheap clothing budget, of both money and space. Say, you can have 10 things in the closet that are fun-but-cheap, and you can spend $100/year, and any time one comes in, one has to go out.

Mixing in fun-but-cheap can be very stylish and make your classics look more funky and personal, but limiting yourself keeps it from taking over your wardrobe and draining your wallet. Also if you just have a couple of funky shirts, you will wear them out before they go out of style. (Whereas if you have 20 funky shirts, they won't get enough wear, and then it's hard to throw them away ...)

Also you can get a lot of solidly-made, classic basics at Talbot's Petites for hourglass-and-pear-shaped women. It skews a little bit older. (I think their "trendy" pieces are for women in their 50s, but their classic pieces look appropriately grown-up for women in their 30s without looking old.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:06 PM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Oh, right, and Talbot's goes on clearance, that was my other point.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:07 PM on June 14, 2012

Go to Bloomingdale's and ONLY look at clothes on the "Take 30% off already reduced merchandise" racks. Remind yourself to be disciplined as all get out every time you consider buying something. For chain stores, sign up for Banana Republic emails and be prepared to never buy anything there for less than 40% off - they email soooo many coupons and everything goes on sale pretty quickly. Their blouses, sweaters and dresses are quite grown up.

Other clothing store suggestions: both Nordstrom Rack and Annie Sez are on 14th Street now, and both have discounted designer stuff. TJ Maxx, Marshalls, etc. all require patience but are full of fabulous finds.

Finally, consider investing in a couple quality pieces of jewelry if you can - killer earrings, statement necklace and bracelet. Be they vintage, designer, or hand me downs, fab jewelry makes me feel well dressed.
posted by curtains at 1:09 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

zoomorphic, what is your field? Depending on what you're studying, you may want to start building a professional wardrobe that will carry you through into your future career.

In my case, I changed professions from history/education (dress slightly nicer than my students) to practicing mental health counseling in a psych hospital (no open toe shoes, no sleeveless without jacket/cardigan, knee-length skirts or full-length trousers: basically "can I run or put someone into a protective hold while wearing this"). For me, bolstering the jackets and cardigans in my wardrobe is an ongoing process; I have a few staple pairs of stretch poplin trousers, a few pull-on knit skirts from j. jill, and a stack of wide-strap tank tops and crew-neck tees to wear underneath. It is a uniform, yes, and it keeps me looking professional without having to fuss too much. Almost everything I wear at work has come from the sale racks at Nordstrom, j. jill, etc., or consignment shops.

Do you have a Junior League consignment shop in your area? The one in Atlanta requires members to donate stuff, and I have seen a lot of things (in sizes too small for me, alas) that are a season or two old, but from Banana Republic, dressier Gap, Ann Taylor, etc.
posted by catlet at 1:14 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

memailed you - I'm in your area and think I can help.
posted by dynamiiiite at 1:51 PM on June 14, 2012

My budget is similar to yours, and although I make an effort to buy high-quality clothes when I can, I've come to the conclusion that I can either keep something in pristine condition for ten years or wear it every week for one or two years. Things just wear out. But if you've built a smaller wardrobe around a core of staples, when it's time to get rid of something you have a good idea of what to replace it with, instead of just thinking "I need more clothes."

Generally, the more basic you go, the more picky you need to be. Mentally reduce your style down to one simple outfit (what would the daily comic-strip version of you wear?) and look for the best version of each element of that outfit. I'm really picky about t-shirts (fit, color, fabric content, weight, sleeve length, neckline, everything) because most of my outfits are built around them. Pull out the clothes you wear most often right now, lay them all out, and look for similarities in color and fit; this will give you a good idea of what to look for in your basics.

Keep an eye out for end-of-season sales; you can get great stuff for dirt cheap. Nordstrom and Talbots have good sales and good quality clothes. Nordstrom Rack and TJ Maxx also have some good bargains if you keep an eye out. However, any place where you can get inexpensive staples will also have cheap impulse buys at every turn. Don't go into stores (or shop online) unless there's something specific you're looking for.

Once you find your perfect clothes, treat them well. Wash them on the gentlest setting that will still get them clean; air dry them if you have the space and patience, dry them on low if you can't. Whenever possible, avoid washing your nice clothes with anything that has velcro or heavy zippers or other rough things. Pay close attention to things you do throughout the day that put extra wear and tear on your clothes: I carry a messenger bag and walk everywhere, and some of my older shirts have telltale fuzzy patches from where the strap rubs against them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:52 PM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Read articles about "capsule wardrobes" and see what works for you. Maybe allow yourself one goofy thing from H&M or Asos or Topshop or Zara each season? My acid-yellow flowy crazy 60s blouse that cost me $22 looks great with my classic black pants that cost me way more 10 years ago.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:03 PM on June 14, 2012

One staple that a lot of people have mentioned is the cashmere sweater. In the fall/winter, these go on sale for dirt-cheap-for-100%-cashmere ($70?) at Uniqlo, where they also happen to be amazingly high quality. I have several cashmere sweaters and cardigans from Uniqlo that I wear all the time in the fall and winter.
posted by permiechickie at 2:35 PM on June 14, 2012

'Capsule wardrobe' lists are all very well, but most of the stuff that's considered 'classics' don't suit anyone. For me, white shirts are no good as I'm too busty to look good in tailored stuff that isn't actually made ot measure, I don't own a pair of 'dress pants' (tho I work in a casual office) and I don't suit black or 'nude' colours well. So don't think you have to buy everything people think is chic.

You're lucky in that you're a fairly standard figure - near average height, slim and pear-shaped. A lot of clothing on the high street will fit you pretty well, and vintage clothing is far more accessible for you than the majority of women. So you can shop cheaply without buying cheap clothes by going second-hand/vintage. I have a cashmere cardi that cost me £4 from a charity shop and it's outlasted more expensively purchased jumpers, so fabric's a good place to start when it comes to assessing quality. This book is good and the tips apply as much to general second-hand clothing as vintage does.

I really like Uniqlo for basics - merino jumpers, plain tees with a scoop neck and puffy sleeves etc - and it isn't too expensive. I would work out what colours suit you best (for me it's greens, blues, reds and yellows) and buy a few plain things in those colours that you can mix and match with some of the trendier pieces you have to see if you really need to get rid of everything. A friend of mine once decided to limit her wardrobe to four different colours - that way she knew she would only have things that went together.

Also, never use a tumble dryer - they aren't great for making your clothes last. I know air-drying isn't common in the US, but it's good for the environment, your electricity bill and your fabrics.
posted by mippy at 3:55 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Good advice so far, but I have to totally disagree with those who suggest putting this off until after graduate school. Especially when you're a young, small woman, dressing like you're 18 makes people treat you like you're 18.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:08 PM on June 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot of good suggestions here! The personal stylist idea might suit your needs given your existing large wardrobe. She could help you pare it down to key essentials and recommend some gap fillers. The investment could save you a lot in the end that you might have otherwise spent on the wrong clothing items (or just invite your one or two MOST stylie friends over, provide the wine, and rip through the wardrobe that way).

In general, a couple things I'd suggest:

Consider the versatility of accessories that take up less space but will change up your wardrobe pieces to give you more out of one outfit. ATM, I'm thinking scarves. They pack a ton to a drawer and can add elegance or funkiness and everything in between--and can entirely change an outfit. Tights or leggings extend the season of your lighter dresses and skirts, making them look completely different when paired with jackets and sweaters.

Can't believe I'm the first to mention reversibles! Reversible dresses and skirts are brilliant and give you double the options. It's no longer online, but I purchased the skirt version of this dress, and love how much I can do with it. Look for a great print on one side, solid on the other. This one is a slippery material that stuffs in a drawer and doesn't wrinkle. I wear it with tights and boots in winter or sandals in summer, mixing up dressy to casual options up top with the two skirts.

Another favorite place that sometimes has reversible options, and always some lovely simple pieces of very nice quality, with amazing sales is Sahalie, especially their outlet section.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 6:24 PM on June 14, 2012

I cannot think of a case where wearing heels more than 3" is considered well-dressed for someone looking for grown-up, tasteful clothes. (So no loss there!)
posted by talldean at 2:13 PM on June 18, 2012

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