Moths in the Pocketbook [caution: long entry]

illustraton from The Woman's Book

Dress a Day reader Kathy writes:

After reading a few of your recent posts; notably your rant on airplane-riding gear, and your quote from Ruskin, which had me in great hopes that maybe this would be my lucky week when a good dressmaker, loyal to the dressmakers creed, would chase me and my ill-suited clothing down and "fix it" – I was left shaking my head (in the sideways direction), in my non-dressmaking ways of wondering how to dress myself better.

I mean, the only things currently stopping me right now are the facts that I don't sew, and get rather down-in-the-dumps very quickly while shopping, due to the moths flying out of the pocketbook. It's a difficult art to find appropriate clothing (for work and play and air travel and the like) on a tight budget, (ok, and devoting some of that budget to other passions, such as drumsticks) – and knowing that most of the clothing that is found on the budget is doomed to quickly fall apart, and in some ways is disposable. I wondered how your blog-readers tackle this issue – a few good well-made outfits? Sewing as much of their own clothing as possible (it doesn't seem a money saver with so much made-in-china out there). The thrift shops?

I'd like to thank Kathy for writing in and allowing me to dispense with the idea that it takes a great deal of money to be well-dressed. (It can take a great deal of money to be fashionably dressed, but fashion has never been the goal here on this blog, as you all probably know by now.) To dress attractively, in a way that makes you happy, does not take a lot of money. I pretty much *never* spend more than $100 on any one thing, and that includes coats and shoes. I usually spend less than $50.

The first, and hardest part, is to find out HOW you want to dress. What makes you feel capable, confident, attractive? What makes you happy? Sort out the clothes you own now and separate them into 'happy' and 'bleh' piles. What do the happy things have in common? Cut? Color? Fabric? Fit? Make lists of your happy and unhappy clothes and try to figure out where the gaps are. Feel like you 'need' black trousers, but every pair you own is on top of the 'bleh' pile? maybe the ones you have don't fit. Or are the wrong fabric (if they are that horrible poly-rayon, they are the wrong fabric). Or are the wrong cut (low-rise trousers that you have to keep tugging up, maybe)? Maybe you don't need black trousers. Would you prefer a nice knee-length black skirt? Check the congruence between your clothes and your Actual Life. Do you have a bunch of silk trousers but you spend all your time on the floor playing Legos? Work in a creative field but have nothing but navy-blue suits?

Once you have your 'wants' list, don't go shopping immediately. No, really, don't. You'll only convince the universe to remove all suitable garments from your immediate tri-state area. (The universe is a practical joker.) Live with only your happy clothes for a while. This will help flush out any 'bleh' clothes that are hiding among your happy ones. Try NOT to wear your bleh clothes at all. Not once. Put them in a box and tape it shut. Put something heavy and messy to move on top of the box (I recommend a half-built Lego project).

After wearing your happy clothes for a while, revisit your 'wants' list. Do you really need everything on it, or could you get by without a few of the things? Did you find yourself missing anything in the 'bleh' box?

Now it's time to shop. The best time to shop is when you don't need anything, but that's difficult when you're trying to build a wardrobe. The first thing to do is make a list of all your 'bleh' triggers. These are things you buy that go automatically into the 'bleh' pile. For me, a HUGE 'bleh' pitfall is the cardigan sweater that is too long from shoulder to hip. If I buy one, thinking "it'll be okay" or "I'll shrink it somehow", or "I'm sure I'm due for my 35-year-old growth spurt" it NEVER works. So on my DO NOT BUY list, right there at the top, with a big star next to it, is LONG CARDIGANS. Next to it is BUTTON-FRONT BLOUSES. I keep buying them and hardly ever wear them. Then there's the TOO-NARROW SHOES. (I have wide-ish feet, and no amount of pleading 'but those shoes are SO CUTE' ever persuades them to become narrower.) Your list will differ, but if your 'bleh' pile is full of low-rise pants or turtleneck sweaters, and there are NO low-rise pants or turtlenecks in your 'happy' pile, put low-rise pants and turtlenecks on your trigger list.

Then check your happy list and see what you wear to *death*. I love little cotton jackets with pockets, and I hate to buy them because they're always, even on sale, at the top of my price range. (I also hate to sew them, because I dislike sewing linings.) But once I find one I like, I wear it to death. So I remind myself to buy ONE little jacket instead of three BLEH, too-long sweaters.

I prefer to shop thrift stores, consignment stores, eBay, TJMaxx/Marshall's/Filene's/Nordstrom Rack, outlets, and sale racks. But in order to do this you have to have a body of knowledge about what fits you and what brands you like. To learn this, you need to go try a LOT of things on. Go to a big mall, and take a notebook! Try on *everything* that catches your eye, even if it's a line that you think is *way* too expensive for you, or in stores that are not quite your demographic (stores like Caché and The Limited come to mind — and remember, the sale racks in stores that aren't your demographic are more likely to have what you want, since their 'regular' customers didn't buy it).

Also: I need not mention that if you are trying on clothes that you are not wearing heavy makeup or perfume, or jewelry that would catch or snag anything, right? And that your underwear is clean and tidy and most of all PRESENT?

Make notes on how things fit. For instance, Ralph Lauren's "Lauren" line fits me nicely, but anything Calvin Klein usually does not fit me at ALL. Note what sizes you've tried on. Try on shoes, too. Make notes of styles you like, and brands. Try on three or four different styles in one brand of shoe, so you can see if they have a consistent last.

I would say "Don't buy anything on these fitting trips" but again, that's just taunting the universe. If you go in without credit cards the sale rack will be brimming with your holy grail items — for me, that would be short-sleeve cardigan sweaters — so I won't say that. But try not to buy things that aren't on your 'want' list. There are some exceptions: I will always buy incredible eveningwear pieces, especially if they are less than $40. (This is why I could go to a fancy party every night for two weeks and never repeat.) Eveningwear just EVAPORATES if you have to buy it at short notice, which is why you should always have several classic pieces in your closet. (I have tuxedo pants [they were only $35, but of course the last time I wore them it was to a drag-king show], a long black silk skirt [$30], several other long fancy skirts in bright colors [$10 each, Esprit outlet sale], a couple evening sweaters [$20 each], silver shoes and a silver bag [$15-20 each], and at least three cocktail dresses [thrift store finds].)

Once you know what fits you, then you can seriously shop. I usually start by prioritizing my list as to what I think
I will wear the most often (black cardigans and loafers). That's what I want to spend the most money on. Once I know that, I start searching, usually online. Online is faster and easier than physical stores, for me.

Ebay is a great place to start. This is where your size/fit book really comes in handy. Did those Dana Buchman pants at Nordstrom fit your body perfectly, but not your wallet? Search for them on eBay. You might even find them 'new-with-tags'. Want a pair of 9West flats but the department store didn't have your size? Look for them on eBay. You can also check Froogle,,, Sierra Trading Company … there are lots of places to shop online for stuff that's not full-price. I especially like Lands' End Outlet. (Beware, their sizes run large — if you're tiny, check out their girls' and boys' selections, though — they're even cheaper!) Their cardigan sweaters are a staple for me, and their business skirts, when on sale, are a great deal. And since you've tried on EVERYTHING, you know what will probably fit you. (And if it comes and doesn't fit you, turn around and resell it on eBay yourself.)

Don't forget to put up "saved searches" on eBay. That pair of shoes isn't online in your size right now? Save the search, and let eBay email you when they pop up again. (Another note on shoes: I mostly WEAR black shoes, but I BUY shoes in every color and let my shoe-repair guy dye them for me. Pretty much everything but patent will dye to black, and it costs about $25.)

Thrift stores are another good option if you have time to really rummage, but consignment stores are even better, in terms of the best signal-to-noise ratio. If you can, find a couple of stores and visit frequently. Or leave a note with the owner as to what you're looking for. Looking for a black pantsuit in a size 10? Tell them! It can't hurt, and both the consignment store owner and the consigner are hoping for a fast sale. Their thinking should be: if you come into the store, who knows what you might walk out with?

I go to TJMaxx/Filene's/Marshalls for things like tights, t-shirts, workout clothes, socks, and so forth. I hardly ever find super-nice jackets or skirts there (although Filene's and Nordstrom Rack are the best bets for that sort of thing).

A word about places like H&M: they're great for t-shirts (and tights, too) and sometimes jackets, but there are certainly quality issues. Also, H&M seems to buy their dyes from some kind of dye outlet store. Aside from white and black (and occasionally red) I never have much luck matching H&M colors to ANYTHING else.

I have to say, though, that in terms of best bang for your buck over time, sewing is at the top of the list. It's hard to argue with the $10 skirt — including zipper. There are, of course, a lot of sunk costs (machine, ironing board, iron, scissors, cutting table, pins and needles and whatnot) and a lot of invested time, but now I can make a silk dress for $50 that will last me for years, and is exactly what I want, as well as something no one else has. Sewing also lets you maintain clothes you bought elsewhere. Once you have the basics of a wardrobe bought from Conventional Sources, it's probably worth it to spend a little money learning to sew. It is *definitely* worth it if you have tastes that are unusual in any degree, an oddly shaped or sized body, or an allergy to designer branding & labels.

So I guess this whole long post (and pretty much every 'build a wardrobe' book I've ever read) boils down to these steps:

1. know what you like, and more importantly, what you don't like. Reject the 'bleh'!
2. arm yourself with information: lists, sizes, brand names, measurements (you should NEVER go shopping without a tape measure!)
3. prioritize your wants, and search for them (don't be afraid to shop online!)
4. lather, rinse, repeat — until you have a wardrobe you're happy with, and happy IN.

0 thoughts on “Moths in the Pocketbook [caution: long entry]

  1. My bleh pile is going to be so big! Erin, this is truly sound advice and a good plan for building a wardrobe. The current fashions look so awful on me that I’ve gone back to sewing my clothes the way I did years ago, and your beautifully written plan will help. Your rules apply to buying fabric, too. When I see a fabric I love I have to stop and ask myself whether I really see this on my body, or do I see it in a quilt. I once a made a summer dress out of a white cotton with tiny red apples on it. Once finished, it looked awful on me, both the style of the pattern and the happy little apples. My cousin took the dress and it looked great on her! Clearly I bought quilt fabric that time, not dress fabric. I recently bought a great green fabric with small black pattern consisting of men and women dancing at a party. (The women are wearing dresses, of course.) It’s going to be a terrific tailored blouse, sharp with a black skirt!


  2. I just did this today, after bookmarking this post months ago, and it’s going to make such a difference in my life! Thank you.


  3. Great advice from everyone – thanks! Another tip: if it fits and feels great but is a bleh color, dye it! This also works for garments that are looking a little tired. Throw 3-4 things in together; things that clash going in will coordinate when they come out again. This only works for natural fibers, though, and polyester construction thread doesn’t take dye well, so might end up as contrast stitching. Dyeing is especially great for tights, leggings, sweater knits. My favorite gray crocheted sweater – which I’ve worn for 10+ years – started as a dull “natural” (= dirty beige) thrift store find, but after a bath in dark purple dye became a beautiful charcoal color.


  4. I have found it helpful to make a name for my style. This is something I learned from the interior design blog Apartment Therapy for being able to figure out in the store whether or not something will fit in with what you already have and the look that you want to achieve. Some examples: “bohemian hippy”, “cute librarian”, “exotic world traveller”, “preppy college”, “urban explorer”.I stick to a limited palette of colours that coordinate and that I love. When what I like is “in”, I buy several pieces, knowing that I’m probably out of luck for a few years.


  5. I have the same issue as the poster who can’t shop at Kohl’s anymore…for about 5 years the only places I could shop were thrift stores. At first I didn’t mind, but as time went on I realized that those clothes were cheap for a reason: they were out of style, already half worn out, or they didn’t fit well. All my clothes were dull and drab. Because the clothes were cheap, I bought more of them, and didn’t take care of them. So for me, I think I spent almost as much as I would have buying clothes I really wanted! I refuse to shop second hand anymore, as snobby as it sounds. Been there, done that. My philosophy now is to know exactly what makes me look and feel my best, and buy the best quality I can afford. There’s a lot of stores out there that I could shop at, but its like looking for a needle in a haystack. Macy’s and JC Penney’s: no. I am sorry, but 90% of their clothes are polyester monstrosities. Also, everything seems very matronly in look and sizing. Even when I am a senior citizen, I don’t want to dress like a blue-haired old lady in a track suit! Right now I shop at J. Crew and Anthropologie, because their clothes are good quality, classic, while still being fun and flattering. I don’t see why I couldn’t continue to wear their clothes into my 80’s. Yes, these stores are not the most inexpensive, but I save some money by sewing some of my own clothes. I own fewer clothes/shoes than most women. You get what you pay for. I’d rather wear cashmere and silk than polyester and acrylic. Same thing with shoes: I have quit buying cheap shoes. Frye is one of my favorite brands. Their shoes/boots last for years and look better as they age! You can’t say that for Payless.


  6. I know this is an old thread, but I stumbled across it today and find the advice – in both the articles and the comments – spot on. I would add a caution about buying on eBay, though – 1) ask for measurements, and 2) watch out for fakes. I recently went on an eBay shopping spree, and bought some items that had clearly been altered, but the alterations and measurements were not mentioned in the listings. One suit had been taken up QUITE a lot in both the sleeves and legs. And the fakes – OMG, I never would have believed how many highly-rated and power sellers sell fakes. Im not into brand names, but I do like quality and theres a world of difference between cashmere from sheep and genuine cashmere, between Chinese Walmart silk and the lux, thick, beautiful-draping silk I actually want, and so on. So I buy better designer products to get better quality since I cant touch the product and examine it closely myself. Theres quite a trade in fakes and knockoffs and its always a big disappointment to eagerly await a quality product and rip open the package to find lightweight glove leather, shoddy stitching, and silk that you can use to scrub a pot (because its so rough and scratchy).Thanks for the article! It largely mirrors my philosophy, yet I still picked up some great tips.


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