How to Dress Cheap Without Looking Cheap (Unless That’s What You’re Going For)

I fantasize about being like that guy Adam mentioned in this post, the one with only 10 items of clothing, all heirloom quality and deeply meaningful. Pieces my children will someday write personal essays about for the Nostalgia column in Vogue: Whenever I wrap myself in my mom’s classic Burberry trench, I’m transported back to our wintertime skating lessons on the lake.

In this fantasy, not only do I have a house on the lake, but I speak French.

Alas, I’ve come to realize that I’m a person who likes to have a LOT of clothes. It’s the same thrill I got from opening the 72-color crayon box as a kid—you know, the plastic tiered bleachers with a whole row of metallics.

Oh, the possibilities!

There are places where you can get nicely made items for reasonable prices if not outright bargains. Some of them are here. Also, eBay. But I’m not here to talk about fabulous secondhand discoveries.

I am here to talk about the cheap clothes at Fashion 21, the apparent Forever 21 knockoff store in which I find myself every time my car goes in for an oil change. It’s the kind of store that occupies the same block as tire-and-auto shops. It’s the kind of store where pumping techno music makes you want to shop fast and hard. In addition to every trend the local Franklin High kids are wearing, there’s a strange rack of faded tank tops and bicycle shorts leftover from 1994. They are vintage only in the sense that the unopened bottle of Charles Shaw my grandma gave me six years ago is vintage.

Good tidings of club wear and joy. (Club wear and joy!)

Everything in this store is flimsy and fake. There is nothing sustainable about the way it’s made or the amount of time it will spend in your wardrobe.

So why do I shop there?

I don’t know. Because it’s a box of crayons? Because boutiques with three things on display, all of them in charcoal, make me nervous? Because I like a challenge?

The good news is you can shop at places like Fashion 21 (which also go by names like Fashion Diva, Style World and Susie’s Deals) without looking like you do. I’ve learned how by trial and error and error. Here are my tips:

1. Stock up on basics. One in every color can be yours for the price of one in one color.

So cheap you can get two shades of black.

2. But get some crazy stuff too. Fashion 21-esque stores let you follow conventional high-low wisdom (go low for five-minute trends and invest in classics) without wearing items everyone recognizes from Sunday’s Target ad. The Fashion 21s of the world are oddly like mom-and-pop shops. I think (though I may be wrong; this is not exactly an investigative piece) that most of them are run by immigrant families who have strong ties to manufacturing nations. Each is its own carefully curated boutique of mass-produced goods.

This dress is so generic it’s one of a kind. (Did your mind just explode?)

3. Pass on items that seem flammable. I used to have a bad habit of buying things that looked good from a distance and, up close, revealed themselves to be made of polyester, Naugahyde or other petroleum derivatives. Unlined coats, fabric patterns that didn’t match up, buttons that hung by a thread before the shirt left the store. All of this would have been okay if I’d been costuming a Broadway production in which the highest-paying theatergoer would have still been 20 feet from the closest actor. But in real life, the people for whom we want to look our best are the people we want to make out with.

Leave the chair, take the Nauga.

4. De-hoochify club wear. First, let me say that I fully support skin-showing and wild dancing as a form of female empowerment, as long as you’re sober-ish and don’t take down your fellow females in the process. Fashion 21-type stores specialize in tight dresses that are easy to wash vodka-cranberry stains out of.

J-Woww’s clothing line. Wow. Just…wowww.

But I like to imagine the skirt above styled more like this:

I love me some lace and combat boots. I am a child of the nineties.

For more on turning R-rated clothing into PG-13, or, well, classier R-rated ensembles, see here.

5. Add cold-weather accessories. As a fourth-generation Southern Californian, the East Coast is a mysterious place to me. A place of old money, pea coats, fair isle sweaters, and fur-lined boots. I know this is not entirely true, but a little piece of my brain conflates snow with preppy fanciness. Your dress might say Santee Alley (the heart of L.A.’s garment district, where I once bought a bridesmaid dress for $17), but add tights and a scarf, and your look will say Fifth Avenue. Or Provincetown. Or the Adirondacks. Or Vermont. In my mind, these are all sort of the same place.

No bulky Christmas Story snowsuits for these stylish ladies.

6. Wear your 99% clothes to 1% parties (a variation on tip #2). Once my coworker and I, attempting to find a book fair kickoff party, accidentally wandered into the opening of a jewelry exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Oil millionaires’ wives were wandering around wearing amazing works of art on their necks, wrists and fingers. I was wearing a cultured pearl necklace with a flower pendant carved out of a shell, which my sister bought at Cost Plus World Market for roughly $12. A man stopped me and said, “Now that is a beautiful piece.”

It’s all about context. I doubt anyone at that party had ever been to Cost Plus World Market, so I had zero chance of committing an oh-my-god-we-wore-the-same-thing faux pas.

Party crashers.

7. Remember, vegan is the new pleather. I’m a pescatarian who avoids fur but wears leather sometimes. In other words, I’m kind of wishy-washy about my clothing politics, as this entire post evidences. But while there’s a case to be made that leather fares better in landfills than PVC, turning your twenty-dollar fakeskin boots into a statement puts you in the company of Stella McCartney, Natalie Portman and other celebrity vegan shoe designers.

She doesn’t mind touching her shoe because it’s not made of something dead.

But these are cuter, and cost less than one of Natalie’s eyelash extensions.

8. Donate the money you save to scholarships for puppies. If you’re like me (of Jewish and Catholic heritage; raised in neither faith but channeling guilt from both), you might feel a little bit weird about getting such steals. You would also feel weird about spending a whole paycheck on a pair of jeans. You can’t win. But why not put all the money you’ll save to good use? Animals, kids, veterans, homeless people, starving artists, shivering people in Occupy camps—they would all welcome your help this holiday season. So show your heart of gold even if your jewelry is spray-painted alloy.

Gratuitous picture of a well-dressed puppy.


About Cheryl Klein

According to the ads that show up on my Facebook page, I love little vintage dresses and shoes with funky heels (and I should also consider a social work degree and self-publishing). Facebook knows too much, you guys. Other things I like: clearance racks, fingerless gloves, the phrase "a smoky eye," and clothing that reminds me of my early fashion icons--Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster and Laura Ingalls.


  1. Ms. Klein, as always, I love your writing, but this piece struck especially close to home (or closet).

    I used to shop at Forever 21 in the late ’90s, but the fact of the matter is, I am heck on clothes. And I need to wear fabrics that breathe in a hot climate. But, I’m familiar with the whole Forever 21 family of brands, and I think you’ve done a brilliant job of navigating the racks for your readers. The tips you’ve provided are tangible, light-hearted, and thorough.

    On another note, I laughed *so* hard when I read the bit about the Vogue “Nostalgia” column. I’ve often wondered what my “Nostalgia” would sound like: Wearing my grandmother’s cockroach-stomper cowboy boots with the broken lasts always reminds me of the airy playfulness of Richard Neutra’s architectural designs. (See? It doesn’t work.)

    Looking forward to your next piece!

  2. Thanks, Courtenay! Olexandra Pruchnicky wrote about inheriting her own pair of roach stompers, which is exactly why I heart IBC:

    • IBC is amazing and your contributions to it make me *so* happy. I have a fashion writing background for dailies, and this blog is the only fashion thing I can read (and love) at the moment. Seriously.

      Oh, and thanks for the link, BTW. I *loved* Pruchnicky’s piece on hand-me-down stompers. (Hers were custom made! She attended a form of Girl Scouts I only dreamed existed as a child!)

  3. Pingback: Our Sunday Best: Family Edition « Bluebird Blvd.

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