Sunday, November 1, 2009

Well-Made Clothing on a Shoestring

All my life I’ve been a clotheshorse on a limited budget. When I was young, it wasn’t hard to fill my closet; I just bought cheap stuff. No one expects young women, unless they come from rich families, to have expensive clothing. The fact is cheap clothes don’t look so bad when you’ve got a young, tight body and glowing skin. Plus, young women tend to follow the fashion trends, regardless of whether or not they flatter their body types. When people aren’t admiring a young woman’s lovely figure, they’re often shaking their heads at her ridiculous breast-, belly- and/or bottom-accentuating outfit. Who looks at fabric quality when there is bold-print reading material across a girl’s pants bottom? That, by the way, is my all-time favorite ludicrous fashion trend.

As we age, clothing quality—materials and workmanship—becomes more important. Our skin is no longer tight and glowing; our bodies aren’t as acrobatic, if you will, as they once were. Clothes that are poorly made with cheap fabrics seem to stand out on the older woman. Perhaps, even shout out.

If, like me, you want lots of clothes to choose from when getting dressed, you might wonder: How can I satisfy my craving for variety, if I’m supposed to buy quality clothing on a shoestring now that I’m over 50? Well, it’s a challenge, I dare say. Below are the strategies that seem to work for me. Sure, I’m buying a lot less than I did in my younger days, but what I buy is no longer cheap, disposable clothing. I can actually wear the garments more than a handful of times and they still look good.

1) Take Inventory of Your Wardrobe. If, like me, you change over your wardrobe a couple of times a year, you might forget what you have, what’s on its last legs or what you actually tossed before stowing away last season’s wardrobe. I have been known to buy something on sale at the end of a previous season, put it away before I’ve worn it, and forget about it completely. So take stock of your wardrobe—what still fits and looks good—before hitting the stores.

2) Have a Shopping Game Plan. If you’re on a budget, it’s best to think about what will complete your wardrobe before hitting the mall. Without a plan, you may end up buying things that are truly wonderful, but can’t be worn with anything else in your closet. Look at what you have and then decide what extra separates (the number will depend on your budget) will create the most new outfits. Think about complementing colors and designs.

3) Buy Well-Made Clothing. Obviously, quality is relative. Some people talk about buttons that are sewn on by hand and crazy stuff like that. Obviously, if you aren’t shopping for couture, you can’t expect super craftsmanship (although I’ve heard you can’t always expect it with couture, either). However, well-made clothing that looks good and holds up after multiple washing and wearing has certain features. I look for:
  • Natural fabrics. Cottons, silks and wool for clothing; leather for boots and handbags. This is not a hard and fast rule. I’m not the kind of gal who declares: "No unnatural fabrics will touch my body!" There’s some polyester in my closet. Also, I’m not adverse to a percent or two of Lycra for comfort. However, I do lean towards natural fabrics because they tend to be sturdy, keep their shape, and wear better and longer.

  • Fabric weight. This may be too subjective, but I find fabrics—even natural ones—that are too lightweight tend to wrinkle more, stretch out more, and lose their shape more.
    Lining for heavier materials, like wool and linen. Lining helps to keep the fabric’s shape and gives a finished look. The lining should fit well inside the garment.

  • Good buttons, button holes, hooks and zippers. Cheap, thin plastic buttons that look like they may break at any moment and poorly finished, ragged buttonholes shout "CHEAP!" to my ears. Buttons should complement the outfit (sounds obvious, but it’s always the case). Hooks should be sewn on securely. Also, make sure the zipper open and closes smoothly.

  • Sturdy thread, stitching, and seams. Is the garment going to hold together after it’s been washed and worn repeatedly? Are the seams and hem sewn straight? Do they lay flat (no puckering, please) and look finished? And are they stitched—no ‘fused seams,’ please. A 2" hem is nice for alterations. (Though, if you’re like me—short, you’re always raising the hems.) And, of course, make sure the fabric’s patterns or prints line up at all seams.

4) Plan to Splurge on One Item, something nicely made and really flattering, per season. I like to have one thing I save for special occasions—evenings out on the town—when I want to look my best. Then, the following year, the garment becomes an everyday item. The splurge item should be somewhat versatile, but not necessarily super practical. The only really important thing: It should make you feel like a million bucks. For me, it’s usually a top—a blouse or sweater—because the top half of my body is my best half. For others, it might be a dress, a pair of slacks or skirt that flatter the body’s bottom half. (The sweater I’ve illustrated is practically an antique. It’s a INC design, a splurge at the time, but it’s held up really well and I still love it.)

5) Go Cheap on Unimportant, Disposable Items. This, of course, is going to be subjective. Since I’m not dating, I go cheap on underwear. I like Targets 100% cotton boy shorts—ultra comfortable. I also buy 100% cotton T-shirts from anyone—Target, Old Navy, and Gap—who’s got them on sale. For me, these items are disposable clothing. I want to buy new often, so bargain prices are my priority.

6) Postpone Buying, if possible. If you need an extra pair of pants for work or a dress for a wedding, you may not be able to wait. But the longer you can hold off your purchases, the more likely the clothing you need will be on sale. And, yes, it’s a gamble. I’m still haunted by a Banana Republic dress I found a few years ago that looked really good on me. The color, cut, quality—everything was perfect. (I’ve included a rendition of the dress, though I can’t remember the print exactly.) But it was late in the season and I couldn’t find it in my size. I went and/or called a half-dozen other Banana Republic stores. No luck. That perfect dress aside, I know I’ve been able to buy a lot more clothing because I’ve waiting till halfway through the season, when things start to go on sale.

7) Be Sure You Really Love an In Vogue Item Before Buying It. The best thing about being over 50 is that you don’t have to feel like a slave to fashion trends. You can pick and choose in vogue garments that are comfortable and look really good on you and ignore the rest. No pressure. However, if you’re on a budget, you don’t want to buy a trendy garment one season and ask yourself, "What was I thinking?" the next season. Be sure you really love the garment, regardless of whether it’s in vogue or not. I’ve got well-made sweaters that are almost ready for Antiques Roadshow. I don’t care whether they’re in vogue or not because I adore them.

8) Be On the Lookout for Unique Items. I know a lot of women who fall back on buying ‘classic’ styles, so they don’t have to buy a whole new wardrobe every year. There are a number of ‘classic’ garments in my wardrobe. But I’ve found that a wardrobe of ‘classics’ can get boring pretty fast. As a result, I’m always hunting for something that is a little offbeat—neither trendy nor classic looking. I wish I could shop at those fabulous little shops with creations by new designers; they always have lots of original clothing. But the price tags are beyond my means. Instead, I scour the racks for separates that have something a little different, something that can’t be placed trend-wise, but is very flattering.

Do I still make fashion mistakes, even with all these strategies? Yes, absolutely. But I don’t make as many mistakes as I know I would without strategies. By and large, I’m happy with my purchases and have built a wardrobe of garments that flatter my somewhat demanding over 50 figure and give me the variety I crave.