just a cheap imitation
April 10, 2016 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I've been slowly improving my wardrobe but somehow I'm feeling a kind of impostor syndrome--as though I'm just playing dress-up and look ridiculous.

I'm a woman heading into my 30s soon and have spent the past year really re-evaluating my wardrobe choices. I'm very aesthetically sensitive so I've always had a very sharp eye for style as far as what looks good as far as materials, colors, proportions, etc. But two things have made having a great wardrobe near impossible for me: I've been super broke my whole life so have never been able to afford nicer versions of things and it's always been a trade-off when finding pieces e.g. found the perfect blazer at H&M fit-wise, with a decent lining, but the whole thing is polyester, which is why it was so cheap. I like the fit, but the material makes me feel tacky. The other is that I'm naturally very slender and petite, so I'd say, without exaggeration, that 80% of the time, clothes off the rack do not fit me. I've never been able to get every piece I buy tailored. So all that is to say, I've never built up my wardrobe and now that I'm paying a lot more attention and starting to work on it by being more selective about pieces I buy, while still experiencing the above-mentioned constraints, I'm feeling ridiculous and like not being able to afford truly quality pieces just makes me look like I'm playing dress-up.

I go for cheaper versions of classic pieces with clean lines but this almost never feels quite right because of material quality and shoddy construction, which is why I think I'm experiencing this dress-up feeling. Recently I've had decent luck finding stuff at Target but it's super hit and miss and the material quality is not great. I've read that you can buy certain basics at places like Target but focus on higher-quality accessories elsewhere, which is what will create a put-together look.

Another example is, I bought a nice watch at Macy's the other day. It's a gold-tone steel bracelet style with a nice-looking face and no tacky detailing, but it isn't from a fancy brand. Somehow I have this buyer's remorse that, watches are for successful people and unless one can afford a high-end one, it's tacky to wear it, even though I like my watch.

Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Experienced this while getting through university? Do you have particular style tips to share?
posted by a knot unknown to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (31 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: " Somehow I have this buyer's remorse that, watches are for successful people and unless one can afford a high-end one, it's tacky to wear it, even though I like my watch. "

On this at least I can reassure you; fancy brand-name watches typically (not always, but typically) broadcast "I have more money than sense!" and "I'm into conspicuous consumption!" since it's literally the same internal movement in a $100 watch at Macy's and a $5,000 brand-name thing. If you bought it at Macy's it's good enough unless you work in an industry where conspicuous consumption and brand-name competition are mandatory parts of your professional presentation.

Have you tried exploring some local thrift stores and consignment shops to find the ones favored by local fancy ladies offloading their clothes? There's usually one where you can find gently used Ralph Lauren suits and so on, and that might be a better target for your limited dollars than, well, Target, if you want to find higher-quality materials at low prices. It's worth the effort to scope out several places and find the one that gets the "good stuff." And let me reiterate that you should check consignment shops, where you may be paying 25% or 50% of the original sale price of the pieces -- considerably more than the few dollars you'd pay if you got lucky at a thrift shop, but considerably less than you'd pay in stores, and the shop will be curated to have only higher-quality, good-condition pieces. (And in most cases, if the consignment shop owner gets to know you, they'll call you when a bunch of stuff comes in that's your size and suits your taste. Some of them even keep customer files to that effect and will on-purpose consign more size 4s than they would otherwise because they know you're a steady customer.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:00 PM on April 10, 2016 [13 favorites]

It sounds like you have money shame, not a style problem. In my experience (as a stylish person but also as a man, which I'm sure has some bearing here) people care a lot less about the brand or the fabric than you think (and than I thought). If that watch you bought is the right piece for the outfit (and for your personal style), the brand it is (or isn't) won't even register.

I fairly often get complimented on pieces I own from H&M, Gap, etc. Folks are surprised when I tell them where they're from — it's how you wear it, not what you wear.

I'd bet this is different if you primarily travel in $$$$$$ circles, though. If you're hanging out w/ people who are wearing watches as status symbols, who ask each other constantly who they are wearing, etc. etc., you might have a different experience.

Also, yes yes yes to thrift, vintage, and consignment shops!
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:06 PM on April 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I'd bet this is different if you primarily travel in $$$$$$ circles, though. If you're hanging out w/ people who are wearing watches as status symbols, who ask each other constantly who they are wearing, etc. etc., you might have a different experience.

without going into detail, this is, unfortunately, part of the problem, yes.
posted by a knot unknown at 1:10 PM on April 10, 2016

I have two answers for you. One is that yeah, quality often costs more, but not everything expensive is of high quality. There are reasons a vintage Hermes Kelly bag can command an incredibly high price. It's partly brand, partly classic style but also quality. Consignment is a good path to find things that are excellent and more reasonable. It takes the time to build a full wardrobe that way, and you might start with a thing you were daily (briefcase, shoes).

However, shopping is not your problem. My second answer is that it sounds like your problem is not being comfortable in your skin. No amount of money fixes that. If you think it's more of a core confidence/self-worth/comparing problem, then stop shopping and start working with a counselor.
posted by 26.2 at 1:20 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

"without going into detail, this is, unfortunately, part of the problem, yes."

If you can without going into details, it might be helpful to know what sort of role you're in where you're expected to wear high-end, expensive brands, but not compensated accordingly (finance, law) or provided with freebies (fashion). If you are, say, a non-profit exec pitching to Fortune 500 CEOs for donations, they're not expecting you to be wearing a Rolex. Or if you're just finishing up at university (as the question sounded like maybe you are?), nobody expects your clothes to be as fancy as people who have been working for a few years.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:20 PM on April 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well you know, money can't buy taste. This is what you have to tell yourself. And believe it.

One thing you could consider is sewing your own stuff. It's a pain in the ass, and rather expensive, but it could be a way of getting exactly what you want while always having a clever answer to the obnoxious "so who are you wearing?" questions. (Though I think you're questioning your friends' values for good reason, but that's not what you asked, and I'm sure they're lovely people in all other ways.)

I sympathize with your hatred of polyester. I just hate it when I find a wonderful silk thing, or a wool blend in jewel tones so rich you could just sink right into them, and you check what the lining made and it turns out to be ACETATE. The stuff they make OVERHEAD PROJECTOR SLIDES out of. Would most reasonable people want to go around plastered in overhead projector slides right next to their skin all day? OF COURSE NOT. IT'S PLASTIC.


But hey, if you look really carefully at the fabric composition, there's still great stuff to be found.

My best suggestion, after sewing your own clothes, would be to really develop your thrifting fu and your eBay searching fu. Money can't buy taste, but it can buy high design, so the trick is to let other people spend their money on high design and then give it away or consign it so you can grab it up at a fraction of the price they paid.

Think of it in the same way you think about cars: clothing depreciates the moment someone puts it on, so it only makes sense to buy used.

But above all, you have to truly convince yourself that money can't buy taste. Because it really, really can't. And money CERTAINLY is not an estimate of your worth as a person, and if you're being infested by the attitudes of people around you who do think that, my strongest advice would be to distance yourself from those people as much as you can, and start going to church in order to be around people who worship God and not Mammon.
posted by tel3path at 1:22 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pricey, showy clothes are new money and tacky. Old money dresses down in things they've owned for years and kept in good repair. (Prince Charles, for example.) Fortunately, good solid brands can be had at thrift stores by putting in a lot of time and effort.
posted by MsMolly at 1:34 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I can identify. I work in a fashion-related field and sometimes feel like everyone is secretly a stylist with an unlimited clothing budget. I

One of the things that I have found helpful is the idea of a capsule wardrobe. A limited amount of pieces that are interchangeable and fit a cohesive theme. I know you are already planning and trying to invest in basics, but if you have a smaller assortment to worry about it might help. I follow a few style bloggers with similar taste/body-types and keep track of outfits that I like to decide what new pieces I am adding. I tend to gravitate towards black for this reason - everything matches and it helps me look/feel badass.

It also helps to pay very close attention to sales. I have gotten great pieces for a steal from higher-end department stores during sales (alot of them call it friends & family or something similar). If you are ordering online ebates.com can also be your friend. When I moved to a small apartment 2 years ago, I threw out a ton of clothes from places like Old Navy, Target, and H&M and kicked myself for the money I wasted. You can pay full price for stuff you'll only wear once, or spend the time to hunt down sales for higher end stuff at a discount.

For the watch thing, if you don't normally wear a watch and don't look at it regularly and it's making you feel insecure, return it. Because they are branded it's a little easier to feel like people are judging. If you have an idea of your style and the right basics to look for, costume jewelry can have the same effect of helping you look pulled together without a visible brand name for people to judge.

Overall it helps to keep in mind that no one is paying as much attention as you think they are. I REALLY care about clothes, but sometimes I try to remember what someone at work wore the day before and I can't. It's also helpful to remember that stuff with a ton of logos or brand names is really cheesy.
posted by elvissa at 1:40 PM on April 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is absolutely a self-confidence problem you're having not a wardrobe problem. I promise you that if you look pulled together in whatever clothes you can afford, no one worth knowing is thinking about your clothes or your watch or your bag or shoes.

I would focus on working on your confidence so you don't give a flying fig what people/jerks who would judge you for the brand of your watch think. Some of that comes with age, but believing you are worthy of respect no matter if you are in sweats or Prada will go such a long way in feeling comfortable moving about in the world.

Until you get there, it might be helpful to browse blogs of people with great budget style you admire. One that comes to mind is the Refashionista.net woman who transforms thrift store finds into fabulous pieces.
posted by cecic at 1:46 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: elivssa, thanks for the pointers. The watch does have utility. I've abhorred logos my whole life and am not going for a brand-whore look at all. I've just found that I feel amazing when I try on a $400 dress at Nordstrom vs the $100 at Macy's, kind of thing. The one at Nordstrom will fit better, hug my curves, feel better on my skin, and have very thoughtful detailing. Buttons that you actually button, zippers that actually zip/unzip vs the one at Macy's with buttons mysteriously without a button hole or zippers sewn into a garment that are there for no discernible reason.

to the other posters, yes this is a confidence issue. i don't feel confident in cheaper clothes because they fit terribly on my frame, look frumpy unless altered, and the material feels awful to me. 100% polyester garments trap sweat and who loves that?
posted by a knot unknown at 1:47 PM on April 10, 2016

Best answer: I'm very aesthetically sensitive so I've always had a very sharp eye for style as far as what looks good as far as materials, colors, proportions, etc.

This gives you a huge advantage for thrift store shopping, especially if you find shops where the pricers and fellow shoppers aren't as savvy. (E.g., I was just at a thrift store this morning and found four Joie silk blouses for $2-8 each. I think the $8 pricer knew what it was but the $2/4 pricers didn't).

80% of the time, clothes off the rack do not fit me.

Another great reason to buy secondhand! Why pay full price if it won't fit anyway? Buy at a discount, use the savings to get it tailored.

"Secondhand" means everything from deep discount thrift stores to upscale consignment shops to online stores like Poshmark and The Real Real. The trade-off is it takes a lot more time and you have to be discerning--but you already are discerning.

I also second the suggestion to keep your wardrobe small. It's kind of the rage right now anyway, and if anyone calls you on it, you can attribute it to minimalism or ethical shopping. If you only have 20 pieces total, you can spend more of your budget on each thing.

For inspiration and an example of what a chic, secondhand, 20-piece wardrobe might look like, check out Paris-to-Go.
posted by mama casserole at 2:00 PM on April 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

I share your hatred of polyester. The solution I've found is to shop at consignment stores and outlets -- you can get high quality pieces at a fraction of the cost. It takes more time, obviously, but the old adage is true: You want it right now, perfect, and cheap. Realistically, you get to pick two of those.

If you don't like logos, don't buy into the brand hype, regardless of what your cohort is into. If you wear your wardrobe with confidence, you will look fabulous.

Nice shoes and handbags can elevate even a cheap dress from H&M to looking great. Also, it's easier to hide poor construction and fabric if you buy dark colors. Maybe buy a pair or two of really nice shoes and a nice leather bag (it doesn't have to be Coach or Gucci, unless you find a screaming deal at a second-hand shop). From there you can start buying a few classic pieces from nicer places. You don't have to revamp your whole closet in one go.

If these brand snobs are friends instead of coworkers, maybe consider expanding your social circle to people with a similar worldview as yours.
posted by ananci at 2:01 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thrift stores/ consignment shops/ e-bay. You may find e-bay the least time consuming because you can more easily search for your preferred size and brands. Then spend money on tailoring.
posted by metasarah at 2:02 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I get lots of compliments on my Forever21 blazers on a regular basis. They're actually really well made. I mean this $290 blazer is also polyester. I mean sure, if something isn't stitched well then I get what you're feeling but I don't think it's specifically a polyester problem. I get if you don't like the feel of it, some people just don't like it. (I also get lots of compliments on this mint one from Amazon that was like $37.)

So, maybe step it up a notch in quality and try Nordstrom Rack (you can shop online) and Express (watch for sales their blazers can be pricy but I love their pants.) I've gotten some awesome blazers from Nordstrom Rack that are super well made. Or look at the lines and construction of the garment itself.

Also, check Etsy for vintage stuff. Better selection than your local thrift store. Though vintage does mean 20+ years old.

But I think part of this is just owning that style. To be honest I seriously get the most compliments on some of my cheapest stuff, including $4 Forever21 necklaces. I think part of this comes from just resetting your mind to "I like this thing, this thing looks good. I will buy this thing and look good in it." Instead of "This thing looks like expensive thing but is cheap so I'll buy it. But am I an imposter for buying a cheap thing?" Just buy the things you like. (I am also petite, which is why I often shop juniors style stuff. It's cut slimmer.)

ETA: One of my fav Forever21 Blazers.
posted by Crystalinne at 2:05 PM on April 10, 2016

"Buy at a discount, use the savings to get it tailored."

This this this. For one thing, there is no longer any consistency with like half of the off-the-rack clothing you'll run into, so the same size can be radically different from piece to piece. That lowered bar for quality control is part of how places like H&M can sell stuff so cheaply. But they're buying wholesale fabric on open markets AFAIK, and their hardware is generally not noticeably worse than the fancy stuff (except maybe zippers. I've had a bad H&M zipper). Getting it properly fitted can make a $20 pair of slacks look like a $150 pair. Here in DC getting minor alterations is usually under $20.

Ditto for the vintage stuff, except here you'll often be looking at items that were originally sold with alterations in mind, and made with a better quality of stitching and fabric.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:03 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So, I see what everyone is saying about looking put together regardless of price range, but I am 100% in agreement that if this is something you're sensitive to, the fit, hang, and general construction of a well-made high-end garment is completely different from the stuff you get at Loft or H&M. Not knocking those, i have some wardrobe staples from H&M that I wear all the time, but cotton/polyester trousers from Express feel completely different from tropical wool trousers with a silk lining.

This may or may not be something you're into, but I absolutely second learning to sew some simple garments. This is part of why I learned--for a long time I simply could not afford things that fit well and were made of fabric that felt good. I am not a terribly advanced sewist but certain things like skirts, simple tops, sheath dresses and Chanel-style jackets are not very hard or complex to construct, but if you make them out of beautiful fabric and include clever details like contrasting piping inside the waistband, an unexpected lining fabric, etc, they can be gorgeous and fit you exactly. If you have an eye for colors and style, that is even better. Then you can spend more of your budget on buying nice versions of things like jackets, which are hard to make well as a home sewist.

I do endorse figuring out which of the local thrift and consignment stores have consistently high-quality stuff. With small kids and a busy job I personally do not have time to rummage through the racks at the local Goodwill, but there are a couple of consignment places that I'll stop by every six weeks or so. I'm not going to get Joie blouses for $4 [awesome find], but they're well-curated enough that 20 minutes looking through the stuff in my size usually yields some good things in the $20-$40 range that would be $100 and up in Nordstrom.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:21 PM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

if you're a tiny person looking for basics for cheap, look at Uniqlo. They're a Japanese brand to tend towards the small side, and the basics of theirs that I've tried- mostly knit T's, but also some dresses, are very nice quality and hold up well. I feel like a lot of their other stuff is a little TO fashion forward for me, so it might be perfect for you.

Also check out the blog Extrapetitie- she definitely has high end taste but sometimes is very crafty in getting stuff on the cheap.
posted by genmonster at 3:39 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Secondhand, vintage, and warehouse sale clothing might be good bets for you. In warehouse sales, small sizes are often left over and therefore easier to find. Vintage clothing tends to run small. And it's pretty easy to find classic looking secondhand silk blouses, which you can either take in, or wear under a jacket so a slightly loose fit doesn't matter as much.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:52 PM on April 10, 2016

Consignment consignment consignment! I shop a lot at therealreal.com as mentioned above. Protip if you have a good eye: skim the good stuff out of the thrift stores and sell it consignment for trade, use that cash to get what you want and what fits.

This takes a lot of time and mostly works if you're in a major city, is the only problem. Otherwise on the thrift tip, I basically live in vintage silk shells from the thrift store. Basic cuts, and the stuff now is tissue thin compared to 80's/90's fabrics.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 3:56 PM on April 10, 2016

I will also say that I was recently invited by a friend to dinner at his club, and the men were wearing either like a very expensive Breitling or an Apple watch, which is much, much cheaper.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:08 PM on April 10, 2016

I understand the sizing issue you have and also the confidence in your own skin. I struggled with this, too, because (like you) I was poor for a long time (like, "can't afford to eat enough" poor) and clothes were the last thing on my list. My first job out of college I looked terribly out of place. Because I didn't know what to wear, I dressed up (because, y'know, confidence). I was careful to only buy clothes that I could afford but, as you describe, certainly not Nordstrom's quality. And really..... it wasn't my style. I dressed how I thought I should look.

My advice? Ask yourself not "is this an expensive enough brand" but whether YOU feel comfortable first, not "do I look the part?" first. Does what you're wearing spark joy? I've had clothes from Target make me feel great in them, poly or not, while some snotty high-end brand made me feel like someone just pretending to play the part. Like you, eventually I got a job in an environment where I had to dress up, and didn't have anything to wear, plus had a serious case of imposter syndrome and felt like a failure for a variety of reasons, which made dressing up even more difficult.

It's hard because what you wear can feel like an extension of yourself. It's the face you put out to the world, and if you're not comfortable in your own skin, you're going to project that onto whatever you wear. And probably spend a lot of money and time.

Like you, I'm petite too, and almost everything goes to the tailor's. It gets real expensive, real fast. To combat the expense and still look good everyday, I did three things:

First, I embraced the concept of the capsule wardrobe (75 pieces for the entire year, including shoes). This cuts down on expense and forces you to keep quality items that you feel GREAT in, because there's no room for trendy (or just plain cheap!) crap. A capsule also helps with the guilt when you have no choice but to spend a little more on something - at least you know it will last a few seasons. It takes some planning upfront, but it's honestly the best thing I've done for myself in a long time.

Second, I only buy clothes second hand or on a deep discount. ThredUp is my go-to, plus there are a few local high-end consignment stores I sometimes shop at. Also, I have a rule: if it makes me feel good/fits, who cares what brand it is? I have a collection of H&M cardigans and a GAP skirt that I've had since high school and I get complimented a lot on what I wear.

Third, I learned how to alter my own clothes. I paid $30 or so for a Craftsy class and broke out my vintage sewing machine. I learned enough to alter straps, sew hems, fix buttons, and install invisible darts in pants and skirts. It's saved me many trips to the tailor. For more complex alterations, I'll go to the tailor, but it's great to be able to do some of this stuff yourself. I found my sewing machine for about $30 on Craigslist and it cost about $100 to fix it up at my local sew shop, but for me it was a skill worth learning.

The benefits to all of the above?
1. Shopping is now purely utilitarian. No longer do I see buying clothes as some extension of myself or the gifts that I bring to my professional role. They're just clothes.
2. I've saved a ton of time by creating a capsule wardrobe - now instead of being overwhelmed by the number of clothes I need to replace or that don't fit right, I can pinpoint exactly what I need and just go buy that one thing.
3. Getting off the consumerist treadmill/branding is so, so liberating. All the time I've saved by NOT going to the mall/out shopping has freed me up to focus on creative pursuits, which in turn makes me feel good about myself more than clothes ever could.

And honestly? I learned something about branding - no one knows, and no one cares. If they do care, they probably feel bad about themselves and you probably don't want them in your personal space anyway. The only time I get asked about brands - ever - is when people ask about my shoes and sandals, because they look cute and comfortable (I don't/can't do heels.)

Good luck! Feel free to MeMail me if you want some tips or whatever : D
posted by onecircleaday at 4:29 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah, the other place I would suggest is eBay. If you set up an alert for your preferred brands and size you will get an email when stuff is listed. Since you can't try on and most of the clothes aren't returnable, you have to be fairly familiar with the sizing of the brand in question and may want to focus on specific garments where you are easier to fit. (For example, I never buy trousers on eBay, but skirts, dresses, and tops are usually fine.)
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:08 PM on April 10, 2016

Age and size wise we are very similar, and I totally feel the same way about the lesser quality and fit and materials of cheaper clothes. I am lucky in that I don't need nice things to wear for work, but I find my confidence is still greatly improved by better fitting clothing in the day to day. Be it if I need well structured, durable work pants or backpacking garb or just nice things to wear to a step-thing school event. I've found one of the hardest parts of aging out of the standard college years is working around the trendiness you'll find with cheap basics. H&M will add a superfluous billow to a simple collared blouse and it drives me insane.

I've found I really enjoy capsule wardrobing, religiously attending the Value Village where all the rich women in town donate, and doing a little bit of my own tailoring. With practice you get quick at searching the blouse rack for the brands you're comfortable with. I bought an old singer with mostly metal parts for about 20 dollars a few years ago, and that has let me fix most problems with second hand clothing I've had, as well as make myself a couple of basics like skirts out of the fabrics I want that I can never find. Capsule wardrobes aren't for everyone but I like them. I like knowing I have a small variety of options that all look good together and all bring me joy. onecircleaday mentions the sparking joyness, but my capsule wardrobe got a lot out of Marie Kondo's The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up.

Oh! And never underestimate how much a correctly fitting bra will change your silhouette.
posted by teslacoilswoah at 5:50 PM on April 10, 2016

I've also felt what you've felt regarding dress-up, and it's been when I'm wearing something where I really like the idea of what I'm wearing but I can't accept that it's not for me. I'm a guy of the same age (so YMMV), but I also have to watch out for wearing things that are too trendy or too cheap-looking or too thin (looking at you H&M). That said, there are plenty of cheap and mid-range basics on the market that fit well, have nice detailing, and are not expensive, just as there is plenty of high-end crap that is just that. My friend's family owns a factory in Thailand that turns out $80 t-shirts, but the material cost is less than $5. With high-end clothing, you aren't just or even necessarily paying for people who know what they are doing, you're also paying for huge advertising costs, tricked-out stores, magazine placements, etc. I am sensitive to color, fit, detailing, but Uniqlo is sufficiently anonymous that it's never stood out in a crowd to me, and I don't think that it's because I'm not discerning. Not only do I not think anyone can tell, I'd almost say that there is a conspiracy to get you to think that the world is some kind of nightmare version of the Conde Nast elevator. If you are wearing something well-structured, in the proper palette for you (there are books on this), that isn't wrinkled, no one can tell you no. It doesn't matter if you fished it out of a dumpster. On the other hand, you have to listen to yourself-- if something is in the closet and for whatever reason, it makes you uncomfortable to wear it, you need to get rid of it.
posted by naturalnumbers at 6:30 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

One other thing to look into is Buy/Sell/Trade groups on Facebook if you're into a particular designer or brand. I'm a member of a ModCloth one and I just sold a bunch of things to help fund other purchases.
posted by MsMolly at 8:07 PM on April 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, I'm a watch guy. In my life there are people who:
a) think it's super weird I wear one, when I carry around a pocket computer at all times [normal people]
b) think wearing one is purely a shallow act of conspicuous consumption/brand consciousness [mefites]
c) consider it conspicuous if I'm NOT wearing one of a few very specific brands [finance/sales & now interestingly, but about completely different brands: techbros]
d) people who want to talk about watches [fashion people, watch people]

I love being noticed by d), because it's fun talking about my hobby! In my experience watch enthusiasts don't care about how much you spent--they care if you're wearing something interesting. And that's as much your personal passion for it as it is some objective horological measure. I believe this is true of most enthusiasts, including fashion. Anyone can buy something expensive; not everyone is fun to talk to about it.

And already I see from the answers above that, just like with watches, there are shibboleths in fashion that aren't price exclusive but knowledge exclusive.

So basically, find your people, have interesting conversations with them. Passion about something is hard not to notice and appreciate.
posted by danny the boy at 8:31 PM on April 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

I just spent $30 on a sheath dress from H&M--knit polyester but not icky-feeling, in a unique print, originally priced at $60 so fairly high-end for H&M--and then another $50 to have it tailored. (At a very expensive tailor in a very expensive non-urban area, so your tailoring costs will probably be less). My tailor asked where I got the dress from and was really surprised to learn that it was H&M. But the end result is a fabulously-fitting dress for less than that cheap-feeling $100 dress at Macy's.

Everyone else has given you great advice so I won't repeat it. I'll note though that you've been buying "cheaper versions of classic pieces" and that's not the way to go. Classics work in part because of impeccable fit and construction. Instead, buy good quality at the lowest price point you can find; instead of a $30 blouse from Target, order some silk blouses from Neiman Marcus Last Call or Nordstrom Rack or Saks Off Fifth. Maybe you'll have to pay $50 each and buy fewer blouses, or maybe you'll spend more time buying/returning to find a good (enough) fit. Usually you can't get around the time/cost tradeoff, but there are creative ways to make it work.
posted by serelliya at 8:49 PM on April 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

For a simple solution, I think Ann Taylor loft carries nice off the rack clothes for petite bodies. I'm 4'11 and 100 lbs and their XXSP and petite00 fit perfectly.
posted by pintapicasso at 7:32 AM on April 11, 2016

I've had good luck trying out clothing subscription services like Le Tote, Stitch Fix, and Trunk Club for finding new items that fit that are in a style I like. You fill out your style profile, size, preferred colors, etc. and they take their lead from there.

Not everything works out, but there's enough available that this can be a good way to pick up some new work clothes without having to scour racks. The brands they use vary in terms of quality (mid to lower-high end, give or take), but I've found some great stuff this way.
posted by helloimjennsco at 12:00 PM on April 12, 2016

I think that, in addition to what others are saying, riff off the capsule wardrobe idea and make a wish list of classic pieces you want - "black lightweight wool trousers for work" or "navy blue sheath dress" or whatever. Then bargain hunt. Depending on your budget ratio of money to time, this can include secondhand shopping as well as discount store shopping. Once you have an idea of the best brands/sizes for you, you can stay on the lookout for them.

Also, borrow a page from the extreme couponers' book and stack discounts. Sign up on the email list for whatever stores stock them. Join the points program if they have one. I get designer clothes to wear to work when Dillard's has their "save an additional 40% off clearance" sales, and I use a Dillard's card to buy them so that every so often I get an additional 10% that stacks. Also look at outlets/discount shops like Nordstrom Rack but also TJ Maxx, Marshall's, etc. And then sign up for THEIR email lists so you can buy stuff on sale at the discount shop. And then for extra discount, go to a site like giftcardgranny.com and buy gift cards at a discount. So, say you buy a $100 gift card to the shop for $80, and then you spend that $80 buying the sale merch at the discount store. You can stack up really good bargains this way, you just have to wait and time it.

Also it can help to save up for a few really good accessories (bag, shoes, etc) that you ALSO get at the clearance sale at the outlet. Like, you could buy a leather bag at Target and it might cost $75-100. Or you could buy a Coach bag from the outlet, during one of their frequent "get additional 50% off clearance" sales, and pay about the same price, but get something better made and with a lifetime guarantee. Granted, $100 is a lot of money, but it's the Sam Vimes Boots issue.

Of course, secondhand is the cheapest route, usually, but even if you can't find secondhand stuff, there are avenues out there in the discount shopping world, especially for the sort of mid-tier designer brands (CK, Coach, etc). These brands may not be as luxe as the really high end stuff, but they are noticeably better made (generally) than the Target/H&M level stuff.

Also, even if you don't want to learn to sew yourself, learning about garment construction can help you pick out well-made inexpensive stuff (and poorly-made expensive stuff!) so you can have confidence in your purchases.
posted by oblique red at 1:25 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: thank you everyone for the helpful advice! i do live in an urban core but one known for more "weird" fashion than couture. we do however have a wealth of resources, including a small "boutique" goodwill (i've never seen one anywhere else) that only takes higher-end brands and i may ask them to consider bringing in more petite stuff.
posted by a knot unknown at 3:19 PM on April 15, 2016

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