Selecting the perfect back-to-school outfit can feel a lot like stepping into a John Hughes movie. You stand in front of the mirror praying that this outfit will get the year started right (and maybe even get you noticed by that crush you’ve been dreaming about all summer). Sadly, despite our inner fashionista aspirations, babysitting and scooping ice cream all summer doesn’t help us afford couture Blaire Waldorf-style dresses. But just because you weren’t jet-setting around the globe during vacation doesn’t mean you can’t have style worthy of The Sartorialist.
Here are some tips on how to be fashionable on a budget this year…
It may seem counterintuitive to look through the clothes our grandmothers threw away for fashion inspiration. But many designers and fashion icons, like Alexa Chung, have sworn their love for thrift stores as their secret style sources.
When you go thrifting, it’s important to wear clothing, like leggings and a tank top, that you can easily try things on over. Use your sense of touch rather than your eyes to make sense of a thrift store’s natural polyester madness. Run your hands over the racks of clothing. When you touch a material that feels nice, stop and take a look at the piece. The better the fabric feels on your skin, the more likely it will be from a good brand.
Another tip is to always look in the opposite gender’s section—great pieces are often miscategorized by store workers. Some of the best women’s jackets can be found in the men’s section. And don’t be afraid to go bold. While you can find basics at thrift stores, they are often better for those statement pieces that really show off your wacky personality.
We are lazy sometimes and expect clothing to do all the work, but “Accessorize! Accessorize!” should be every fashionista’s mantra. “Most people have the skeletons for a fashionable outfit right in their closet; all they have to do is spice it up with accessories,” advises blogger Shauna Miller of Penny Chic. One tip is buying three of the same inexpensive necklaces at Walmart or H&M and twisting them together to create a more “oomph” piece. “Now all of a sudden your shirt from five years ago is relevant again because there’s a stack of beaded necklaces around your neck.”
Don’t forget the magical powers of that belt you already own. It can add shape and style to most outfits. That big trench coat you bought last fall, can become a new dress by taking out the tie and replacing it with a leather woven belt. “The key is thinking outside the box a little and reinventing the pieces you already have,” says Miller.
Invest in the Best
Your wallet may be looking a little lean these days, but you should still consider investment pieces. In fact, buying well-made clothes that cost a little more can often save you money in the long run. While that cute Navajo print skirt at Forever 21 may be just $20, it could start to disintegrate into washed-out nothingness after a couple wearings. You’ll toss it to the back of your closet, never to be worn again. Since you only really wore it twice, your Cost Per Wear (CPW) was $10. Whereas a $100 skirt that lasts for years and gets worn, say, 50 times will only cost you $2 per wear.
One way to get higher-quality investment pieces is to skip the big names and shop young local designers who are still getting their start. They often charge less for unique pieces made of quality materials. Buying local designer pieces gives you the “added bonus of seeing the face of the person who created your garment, getting their story and the sense of owning something unique that only a handful of others own,” reminds Brooklyn designer Miranda Bennett.
Tailor It To Yourself
Expensive clothing tends to “fits just right.” Because of this, a loose-fitting dress, or pants that don’t match your curves, can tell everyone that you have a small shopping budget. One easy way to switch off the cheap clothing alert is to pay a little extra to tailor your clothing to your body.
“Tailoring is a growing trend for fashionable influencers these days,” Maryleigh Krasniewicz of Trendera, a trend forecasting and market research company, told us. “We are seeing young people buy inexpensive clothing at stores like the Gap or online retailers such as Asos and bring them to the tailor so they can get that perfect fit.”
Alterations like taking in a dress shirt or hemming skirt will cost you anywhere from $10 to $20. But if an article of clothing fits well, we are much more likely to wear it. So the additional bucks may actually lower your CPW in the long run.
Don’t Forget About the Big Box Stores
Sure shopping for fashion while you pick up toilet paper isn’t glamorous. But with all the collaborations that stores like Target, Kohl’s and Walmart are doing with designers, it can be a great way to save some cash on back-to-school outfits. Unfortunately stores that sell everything from camping equipment to high heels don’t provide the most comfortable dressing room experience. The combination of icy-cold air-conditioning and brutal fluorescent lighting is enough to make even the most dedicated shopper want to wave a white flag in defeat. Miller recommends that Big Box shoppers purchase a few garments and then try them on in the comfort of their own home. This way you can avoid an unflattering mirror-induced panic attack and see if the piece compliments your current wardrobe. Anything you don’t want can always be returned.
Maude Standish is a writer who lives in a tiny coach house in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a screenplay and blogs daily about trends at The (t) Files.