Friday, May 6, 2011


How to Shop at Discount Stores Without Looking Cheap

You know that lady, maybe a friend, who always looks really great and when you ask her where she got that shirt she’s like, “Forever 21!” and it’s confusing because when you walk into Forever 21, you’re disoriented by pulsating Euro-rap and racks of extra-small leggings and you end up walking out with a bedazzled denim jacket and rayon hotpants that give you hives? And you know that other lady, who's definitely not your friend but maybe you see her at a bar, and she’s wearing some kind of dress with maybe a bubble hem or a bow around the empire waist and in your head you’re like, “Nice Forever 21 dress,” but you don’t mean it in a nice way at all?

We’re here to teach you how to be the first lady.

First: Know What You're Looking For

Before you go shopping, look for inspiration. You can find this almost anywhere, but the best place to start is by checking out pretty girls you pass on the street. This requires actually looking at what the pretty girl is wearing instead of just registering “pretty girl is pretty.” Take notice of how she wears things. That’s a cool skirt, what's she wearing with it? What kind of shoes are those? If she's layering, how is everything proportioned? Especially keep an eye out for pretty girls with your body type.

When you’re paying attention to people on the street, store windows (someone gets paid a not-small amount of money to dress mannequins at Barney’s, so walk by and see what’s up), and pictures online (NYMag's fashion section, Style.com, and Refinery29 are good places to go), try not to get bogged down by details. Instead focus on basic themes, colors, and shapes. Think "neon," not "an exact replica of that one neon yellow Miu Miu dress," and you'll be surprised how many nearly-identical items you can spot in the mall/chain stores.

Decide what you kinds of pieces you need. Cheapo stores are usually enormous and overwhelming, with all kinds of crap mixed in with decent stuff. So shop with an event or purpose in mind — “I need a new going-out top” or “I’d like a day dress that I’ll wear all summer.” Focus on scoring basic items that are in style now, since that’s what these low-cost stores can do really well. There’s no need to drop major cash on a striped shirt or a nautical tote or a bold-colored skirt at a high-end store when you can just as easily get one at H&M.

Also, think about finding pieces that can help update and transition your existing wardrobe. Already have a bunch of tank tops? Look for a maxi skirt, bright pants, or a pair of neon pointy-toe shoes to make them look fresh. Own 15 pairs of shorts from last year? Look for espadrilles, wedges or chunky sandals to pair them with, and maybe a sheer top. Accessories are great for updating existing pieces. Low-cost stores are full of super-cheap jewelry, bags and shoes that, though not built to last, can make your old clothes feel sort of new again.

Second: Know What Not to Buy

Before you head into these discount emporiums, it’s important to be armed with the knowledge of the things you absolutely should never buy there. That way you won’t have to waste time getting distracted by items in these categories, and you can focus on finding things that you might actually want. Here are the universal “do nots” for shopping at cheap stores.

Do not buy anything in stretch lace or fake leather. They will always look cheap, so don’t bother. The one exception to the fake leather rule is a bag or a pair of shoes, but if you do that, (a) make sure the item doesn't have a shiny sheen if it's not meant to be patent, (b) make sure the item has some characteristic that makes it visually interesting enough to distract from the material — a bag in a great new shape or a combination of striking colors, for example, and (c) don't let anyone touch it, because that’s how you get caught with a crappy bag. For instance, some good bags and shoes:

Do not buy lingerie. Sorry, but that stuff is right up against your skin in the most important/fun/sensitive parts — not the place to cut corners. Go to Filene’s Basement or Nordstrom Rack and get the good stuff at a discount.

Do not buy anything too juvenile. That means staying away from things with elastic ruching on the top or on the waistband; any print, embroidery, or other detail that involves butterflies or hearts; or shirts with words on them.

Do not buy things adorned with knock-off logos. An almost-identical print, shape, or color is OK, like this H&M skirt that looks like it could be Prada, but an almost-identical brand logo is not. Just say no to bags with patterned LVs or mirror-image Gs or flats with kinda-like-Tory-Burch gold plates on the toe. Also? Even the real versions of those things are kind of terrible, so unless you're a Real Housewife and are getting paid to be terrible, stay away.

Do not buy spandex unless the piece is worn as an undergarment. You want to be the nice lady whose ass looks hot in H&M pants, not the tragic lady whose ass you can see through her H&M pants.

Third: Pick a Piece

OK, now you know what you’re shopping for (and what you should stay away from). The next step is to actually step foot in a store and look for things you might want to buy. When you see a piece that fits your bill, there are a few things to think about before you decide to buy. Low-cost clothing manufacturers cut corners to keep prices down; they try to use as little fabric as possible, and they tend to only add the cheapest details. Looking at the details can help you pick a looks-expensive piece out of a pile of clothes that look like they're from the $1 bin.

1. Touch it and check out the fabric.

- Most fabrics, and especially the fabric on basic cotton pieces, should be soft to the touch. Cotton shouldn't be stiff; nothing should feel scratchy.

- Be careful with anything shiny. Shiny can look real cheap real fast:

-Buy pieces that are made with a fabric that holds the shape. If you want a drapey dress, you should be going with jersey. Avoid techno jerseys — just go with the cotton and modal blends. If you want a fitted dress, the fabric needs to be stiffer (but not uncomfortably so) — no one wants lumps and bumps under cheap (also known as “fake”) silk. These shorts are a good example of an appropriate heartier fabric for that garment:

- Going for the jeans table is fine, since these stores often do denim well — just be mindful of unflattering butt details. Fit is the biggest concern, so make sure you find a style that works well on your body. (Public service announcement: BDG stretch jeans from Urban Outfitters are cheap, amazing, and comfortable, and now come in a high-waisted cut if, like us, you enjoy the belly-covering Mom feel.)

2. Look at the construction.

- Stitching should be tight, small, and almost invisible, unless it's purposeful contrast-stitching.

- Fabric should be even across the stitch. If a sleeve is bunchy around the armpit or if a hem is uneven, it's a no.

- Avoid pieces with lots of hardware (like buttons and metal details). Low-cost stores will use the cheapest metals, which can make the whole piece look bad (and make you break out in rashes).

- Some pieces, like leather belts with buckles, are just not going to look right if you buy them on the cheap. For instance, Forever 21 is not using real leather here, and they're using cheap metal for the buckle, which shows. Get fabric or elastic belts from the cheap places, and go a step up price-wise for real leather and better-quality metallics.

- Look for hem detailing that requires use of extra fabric, like scalloping as opposed to a straight hem — like these skirts:

- Zippers can make or break the look of an item. If the zipper is obvious, it should be well-made; a small, chintzy, obvious zipper can ruin a garment. If you like a piece with an exposed zip, make sure it sits flat. The zipper tape and zipper itself shouldn't look cheap. Here's a good zipper:

- If a piece has beading, sequins, or lots of sewn-on fabric detailing, eye it carefully. It shouldn't look like a 12-year-old went at it with a bedazzler. (You shouldn’t ever say something like, “Well from far away it looks fine.” No, it doesn’t.). There should be no visible seams where fabric details are attached. Sequins should be tightly sewn without obvious threads attaching them, and if there’s beading, it needs to be extremely detailed and fairly dense to look good. Large embellishments, like inch-tall jewel details, should be cleanly affixed to higher-quality, dense fabrics — they shouldn't be obviously weighing fabric down or pulling it, and they should be attached without obvious glue or thread.

3. Think about the bigger picture.

Obviously if you’re happy with the construction and the piece seems promising, you should try it on. If the fit is flattering and you like the look, then you’re golden. However, even if the item isn’t 100% perfect once you get it on, there are still some ways to perk it up and/or make it look more expensive.

- Add a (nice) belt over an elastic waist. Discount stores love the black elastic waistband because it's flattering on your body, and it's cheaper than actually tailoring the item properly. The problem? It's ugly, and it exists almost universally on cheap items of clothing. Solution? Cover it up with a nicer belt. Here's that elastic waist:

- Just belt things generally. Discount store clothing is not sized as consistently as the clothing produced by a single designer. Try adding a belt (purchased somewhere other than Forever 21) to a slightly ill-fitting garment and see if it helps the fit. Belting also adds another dimension to the outfit, making the whole thing look more put-together.

- Layer. A great jacket over a cheap dress makes everything more interesting, and a more complicated outfit can distract from pieces that have less-than-ideal construction. But if you're going super-minimal, every piece has to look perfect and the silhouette has to look clean — totally doable even in the most affordable clothes, but things have to fit properly and fabrics have to look luxe.

- Get items tailored to fit you. This can be a great upgrade to cheaper clothes, but there are some major caveats. First, consider whether it's worth the added cost of tailoring. If you're paying $19.50 for a jacket that doesn't quite fit right, it only makes sense to get it if the jacket is so great that you would pay $50 for a well-fitting version. If the jacket's not that great, skip the whole thing and look for either a cheap jacket that fits or a cheap jacket that's slightly imperfect but that you'd be willing to pay more for. Second, know what can be tailored. Unless you find a $350 jacket at a sample sale for $35, it's probably not worth tailoring much more than the length of the sleeves. If a jacket is too wide or too narrow in the shoulders, or if you want it to nip in more at the waist, that's an expensive fix. It's cheap and easy to hack off a few inches on a skirt or straight-leg pants; it's less easy to do that on bell-bottoms, where the flare needs to start at a particular place on your leg or on a skirt that gets really full at the bottom. If you're buying a super-trendy item to wear a handful of times, it can be better to wait until you find a version that actually fits.

OK! By now you’ve hopefully found some things that you like the look of and that fit you well. Now the fun part: bring them home, put on a man’s watch and some bright lipstick, and fool everyone with your $40 ensemble!

Jill Filipovic is the editor of Feministe, and has broken the bar in her closet three times. Ines Garza is the fake name of a lady who works in the high-end fashion industry and should not be telling you how to buy knock-offs. Neither of them has clothing-related credit card debt.

57 Comments / Post A Comment


Great piece that nails exactly how I have felt the less-than-a-handful-of-times I've walked into a Forever 21! I have also noticed that the blog anthroholic.blogspot.com sometimes features "From Forever 21 but looks like it's not" pieces which seems helpful too.


WHERE do I get the orange skirt with the scalloped hem?


@insouciantlover Just guessing by the way the displays look--probably H&M or Zara.


@insouciantlover Found it!

(@martinipie I thought it was H&M from the display, too. But apparently not!)


@DorothyMantooth Wow, whatever F21 that is is WAY neater than any I've ever been to!


I'm so not the usual makeup/fashion tips reader on this site but I learned a lot here! thank you!


I feel like my fairy godmother is writing me a very special & specific letter every day via this website. If the Hairpin were a person, I'd squeeze it so hard its eyeballs popped out.


@bananab0at Me too! I guess maybe there are some people who are enough alike to share one fairy godmother website.

(Where's the terrible YA novel about that?)


@Saaoirse Hahah oh yeah, I don't for a second think I'm the only one who needs these things explained to me (sometimes even by Jane Feltes for fuck's sake! Who could even ask for more?) I forward Hairpin articles to my friends all the time, so I know these things apply to many many people. Sometimes it addresses questions I've had for years, sometimes it answers questions I didn't even realize I had. Btw, it's called "Fairy Blogmother" & I'm gonna make a fortune off writing it.


This requires actually looking at what the pretty girl is wearing instead of just registering “pretty girl is pretty.”

Damnit, you caught me.

Kristin M Bonelli

BDG jeans at Urban Outfitters ARE amazing.


@Kristin M Bonelli They ARE amazing. But I had one pair of black ones that I wore so much they got faded, so I bought another of what I thought were the exact same pair later, and it was a totally different material that sucked after I washed them. So now I just wear faded black jeans. This all makes me want to try again though.


@punkahontas that happened to me too! and they started doing the whole ankle pants nonsense, so now everything is too short AND not the old awesome soft material.


@Kristin M Bonelli I just got some high waisted black BDGs and they rock.

Tragically Ludicrous

@contrary Being a short person, I love the ankle pants nonsense. I don't have to get them shortened!


I kind of want to change the title of this to "How to Shop at Regular Stores and Get Mistaken for Being Rich"

I did like the article, though, it just kind of makes me feel bad for being poor.


@ilikemints Indeed. I will continue my usual "leave work and get to H&M twenty minutes before they close and run madly through the store to buy three shirts that will end up being see-through oh fuck it I'll layer them" thing. That is my thing.


@ilikemints - Seriously. I thought the article was okay, but what's so wrong with looking like you shop at Forever 21/cheap places? Not everyone wants to look like they shop at Prada/really gives a crap if people think they're rich.


@ilikemints I disagree. I think that a lot of the time, people think you can't look nice or look put together unless you spend a lot of money on items or are completely fashion forward. This article tells you how to find good quality clothing at affordable prices. It's also good advice for people who thrift shop. it's not necessarily about the money. cheer up.


@ilikemints Thrift stores w/ student discounts, yes! I used to be really self-conscious and worried that people would look down on me for not wanting to spend $30 on a shirt when I could buy 6 shirts with that money, then I became a grad student and stopped caring.

Kevin Knox

@D@twitter I don't think the article is for people who want to look like they're rich/shop at Prada per se, but more about how to spend your money on inexpensive clothing that looks good and will wear well, as opposed to inexpensive clothing that looks poorly sized & shoddily made. YMMV.


Okay, so when you buy this stuff, especially the polyester stuff, how the heck you take care of it? One wearing/washing and it's wrinkled and I can never get it back to looking nice without dry cleaning and I mean--who's gonna dry clean a $15 blouse?!


@parallel-lines Have you tried those dry-cleaning bags you put in your dryer? Dryel? I use it for sweaters, but it's worth a shot with blouses. All you've got to lose is $15...


@parallel-lines that's the thing - you SHOULD dry clean a $15 blouse! Instead of spending $400 on a new blouse, spend the money in taking care of your cheaper clothes. Not all of them, of course - honestly sometimes i wear a cheap piece until it's time to wash it and then leave it at the bottom of my hamper for all eternity. but for the pieces i really like and want to keep looking nice - dry clean!


@punkahontas I LOVE DRYEL SO MUCH.


Everything depends on your tastes and how you can combine the clothes, the last week-end I attended a party and I wore Jimmy Jazz shoes, two ladies told me they love the shoes and want to buy them for themselves. In fact, I have a lot of clothes bought from discount stores and a lot of my friends think I spend a lot of money on clothes.


Just a little something on the "avoid leather" clause -- Target can be a primo spot for faux leather jackets that are indistinguishable (or near enough) from the real thing. I have one and it's a cackling delight whenever people are fooled by it.


@winslow seconded! I have been enjoying the exhilaration(TM) kids' XL "leather" jacket I got at a thrift shop for years!


@winslow I'll have to look into their jackets, because I just tried to purchase that proenza-schouler ps1 knockoff and...it smelled so bad of PVCish chemicals that I had to return it the next day.
Of course, not before I spent the entire 45 minutes of a job interview thinking "they are never going to hire me because they think my natural smell is offensively plastic".


@winslow This is so true, I remember one time there was this really cute girl in one of my classes and she was always wearing this awesome leather jacket, and at the end of the semester my friend asked her where it was from and she was all "Oh it's fake! From Target!" and we were all "Ooooooh!"


This post confirms that I'm just going to look like a cheap ragamuffin forever :-/


@charmcity Cheap ragamuffins unite! I'm a poor grad student and everything I own is from H&M, F21, Urban Outfitters, and boutique stores that offer Scoutmob coupons. Somehow, though, people always seem to rave about my F21 garbage and then gasp when I tell them where I got it. IT CAN BE DONE, LADY FRIEND! I had some wine, I'm sorry.


One thing I'd add (I learned this from Mindy Kaling's old shopping blog): you can replace buttons and little doo-dads on Forever 21 stuff and they will look waaaaaay more expensive. And you can do it yourself for cheap!



@Megoon This is a good point. Also, hemming things yourself is not that hard! I do this with jeans all the time, because all womens' jeans seem to be made for the ladies who are 7 feet tall, which I am not. You just have to be sure to hem both legs the same so that they aren't uneven.


@theharpoon I would LOVE a how-to on this on the Hairpin, targeted at absolute 100% don't-judge-me beginners.


@theharpoon it's funny you should say that because jeans are actually not made for women who are 7 feet tall at all. They are made for women who are 5'6" and usually shorter. As a woman who is 5'9" I laughed loudly at your comment. At least you can hem it! Or you can buy a short if they have them. I cannot however add material onto cute trendy jeans that don't ever come in longs ;) ;) PERSPECTIVE :D


@intheflowers Ok so you caught me exaggerating, but I'm 5'6" and most of the jeans I buy are at least an inch too long unless I buy ankle length, which I often do for just this reason. Maybe all the jeans are made for women who are exactly half way between our heights?


@thenotestaken I would totally be up for this, but a) I'm sure I would be terrible at making a video of myself doing it and b) I'm terrified of hearing my voice on the internet. Maybe a real NYC Hairpin lady will do it?


@theharpoon Or we can all cheat and just use hem tape and an iron...


Zara has great cheap basics in their mid-range line, but the stuff you have featured here (like the cute shoes) are part of their higher end line which means shoes run $120+ and dresses are at about the same price. Not exactly cheap in my opinion, but then again I might just be more broke than the rest :-/


Also, know your return policies -- even though dressing rooms at Forever 21 are a nightmare, TRY STUFF ON, because their return policy is not good. And sizes can vary WIDELY.

The other two things are: You can sometimes get stuff wayy marked down at J.Crew/Anthro/Madewell for not much more ($10 per piece?) than you'd pay at Forever 21, and depending on what you're buying, sometimes you're better off watching the sales -- stuff is often still in season because of crazy retail timelines. And don't automatically write off the quality of Forever 21. I'm currently wearing skinny jeans (almost jeggings, before jeggings were a thing) that I bought there four years ago and wear all the time, and they look like new -- in the meantime, clothes from Banana Republic, J. Crew, etc, have more or less fallen apart.


I really wanted to like this post, and the one Megoon linked to above, but I just can't. The reason this clothing is so cheap is that already-rich corporations take the money that should go to workers who produce their goods and stick it in their own pockets. This creates so much human suffering and ecological destruction! When we shop at these stores, our money lines the pockets of rich men who get that way by exploiting the poor and demolishing the environment in the process. Stop supporting them! Seriously, take a minute to think about this: You don't need any of the bullshit they are selling! Every single thing you buy at these stores is going to go into the garbage. And soon too. Resist the allure of that crappy clothing, save up for good stuff that is responsibly made, and create the kind of world you want to live in!!!


I'm with you on this. I get the pleasure of a super cute new shirt cheap and on demand, but at what cost (as in, actual cost)? And, given how little pleasure there is in shopping in a discount store, you might as well shop in a thrift store and keep your money from supporting things you wouldn't tolerate--like child labor and environmental destruction--if they impacted your actual life. Or better yet, as you say, spend your money where people are doing cool things in thoughtful ways.

Lily Rowan

@tiptoemammal -- I don't think any clothing affordable for the typical person is made any more responsibly. Thrift store, sure, but I'm not convinced Gap Inc. (say) has better corporate practices than H&M.


i agree with tiptoemammal. plus cheap polyester clothes smell awful and make me have BO.


@tiptoemammal yes! this!


ALWAYS remember that you are a hot mama when you're shopping. When you're trying shit on, make sure it makes YOU look AWESOME. I always ask myself "Would I pay $20 more for this?" and if the answer is no, it's because it sucks and I put it back. AWESOME or NOTHING.


ALWAYS remember that you are a hot mama when you're shopping. When you're trying shit on, make sure it makes YOU look AWESOME. I always ask myself "Would I pay $20 more for this?" and if the answer is no, it's because it sucks and I put it back. AWESOME or NOTHING.


and THIS article is what i was waiting for, without knowing it. thanks hairpin!


Thrift 4 ever, ya'll. Find which local store the malls dump their unmoved merch into; I could use Banana Republic as toilet paper over here, for the cost of regular toilet paper (not even the good kind) + having to listen to Christian rock for a few hours.
Which $5 BCBG dress should I wear today?


@svb Can you elaborate on HOW to find out which thrift store gets the goods? I live in a shopping-heavy city, and I'd love to know where banana republic and jcrew are dumping their stuff. Is there a trick?

Allison Davis

@svb in general, the higher end neighborhood the thrift store is in, the higher end the clothes. Or I should say, the closest thrift store to A higher end neighborhood. It's where all the society ladies drop last seasons "rags". I've found gorgeous designer wear, in perfect condition at these places. Second-hand resale shops too!


Late to party as usual, but I'd definitely add that in general, don't try and buy party dresses from Forever 21 because they really do just look cheap. Anything that tries to be 'fancy' but is 100% synthetic ... it's a bad scene. Stick to the basics (stripy tops etc) and the odd sundress.


I'm fat (size 18) and I don't know how to, or if I should, wear a belt. Maybe we need an ask a fat fashionista column?


@lala lee lala I've wondered this myself, having disproportionately large hips, I always shy away from belting dresses, and don't bother with them on pants (the hips hold up the pants just fine), but maybe I am being overly sensitive and should in fact be rocking belts?

Paul Tierry@facebook



Where is that blazer from? The white one with zippers? It needs to be mine...

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