The Futility of Fashion
Spring is finally here and I’m excited to emerge from my rotation of three wool sweaters into something pretty. I’ve also noticed a plethora of advertisements trying to take advantage of the seasonal urge to shop. Spring is a tempting time for clothes-shopping, but according to Ron Sider, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, most Americans could go five years without buying any clothing, except for shoes (and maybe socks & undies). Would no clothes for 5 years leave you looking like a fashion emergency? Perhaps not, if you know how to shop. Pretending to be poor doesn’t mean you have to look like a total dork, and in fact, skipping the trends can actually make you more fashionable in the long run.
Have you ever looked at an old picture of yourself and wondered what the heck you were thinking, wearing those tacky clothes? Whereas the tapered leg was anathema when I was in high school, bootcut was almost a bad word a few years later. So arbitrary. I like pretty clothes but I’ve decided following fads is futile. I tend to think my sense of style lies somewhere between fashion emergency and fashion icon. Sometimes I break the rules on purpose because if it comes down to wearing the “wrong shoes” with an outfit, or spending money on shoes I don’t need, I’m pretending to be poor. (Here’s why.)
Not only are the laws of fashion arbitrary, they’re artificially imposed by an industry that simply wants your money. I can appreciate the artistic side of fashion. But by the time you are shopping at Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s, or any non-boutique, let’s be honest, it’s not really about art. And it doesn’t need to be. Clothing is primarily about 1.) Not being naked, and 2.) Protection from the elements. So if you’re warm, dry, and not charged with indecent exposure, you’re following the most important rules already.
And thank God the hipsters made the quirky/nerdy/thrift store look cool.
What if you’re frugal and fashionable? If you don’t prefer the Mark Zuckerberg “uniform” approach, here are some principles to follow:
Skip the trends. Just say no to anything you don’t know how to wear or requires you to buy a whole new outfit to pull off. Fast forward ten years, asking yourself, “How silly will this look in photos in 2025?” “Flash fashion” pieces are often poorly made, especially if you can afford to buy them often.
Get some classic basics. V-neck tees, a little black dress, flattering denim, a versatile cardigan or blazer…you can always wear these without looking too outdated. I’m happy to say I’ve been rocking some of my high school clothes long enough for them to be back in style.
Flatter your figure. Why try to pull off a style that just doesn’t work for you? You’ll look and feel better in cuts and colors that play to your strengths. Not sure what looks good? Take an honest, artsy friend along next time you shop.
Get in shape. Being fit is always in style, and makes most clothing more attractive.
Workout wardrobe. While we’re on the topic of working out, do you really need to purchase lots of special clothes just to sweat in? Wouldn’t an old t-shirt and some simple shorts do the trick? Of course we need different clothes for work, play, and exercise, but re-purposing makes more sense than spending a ton on special gym attire.
Shop retail last. I have an order of operations for buying clothing:
Hand-me-downs always come first. My fashion designer sister just gave me a huge load which I hope to wear for the next 5 years at least. (I hope she doesn’t find this post too blasphemous.)
Yard sales (for kids). Grown-ups probably won’t find anything not extremely outdated.
Thrift stores. Tons of good stuff here. Find out if there’s a half-off day & go then.
Second-hand/consignment stores. These are easier to sort through because they are pickier than thrift stores about what they take. Many also run clearance sales.
Retail clearance/sales/coupons. Generally a last resort. It’s so easy to go from “I need a pair of pants” to “Wow, look at all this clearance” and come out with more than you want or need.
(I know people also use ebay, usually for used brand-name clothing that is highly discounted. You really have to know what looks good and what fits to buy clothes you can’t try on or return, though.)
For denim, figure out one or two brands that fit you well. Then look for those at thrift stores, consignment shops, and retail clearance racks. Same goes for any brand you know matches your personal style and has quality products that last.
A few tips for work clothes:
- For men: Make your pants last by wearing your wallet in your front, not back pocket.
- Buy a full-grain leather belt. It could last 10 years. Those ubiquitous cheap plastic ones crack within a year.
- Invest in quality, versatile shoes that will not mess up your feet.
- Hang dry clothing to make it last and save on energy.
- Sign up for alerts from retailmenot.com for sales on your favorite work clothing brands.
- Try Clothes Mentor if you don’t find anything at the thrift store. (It’s Plato’s Closet for grown-ups.)
What are your frugal fashion hacks?