How to Find Inexpensive Clothes That Don’t Look Like It

dress for less

While there are certain clothing items worth an extra investment (like a coat and boots that will last you many seasons), you don’t have to break the bank to have a chic wardrobe overall. With a savvy strategy, it’s possible to give off the illusion that you spent much more than you really did. The trick is to know which items you should buy for less — and how to wear them.

Here are some dress-for-less rules that will leave your compliment count high and your credit card bill low.

You Don’t Have to Break the Bank

You Don’t Have to Break the Bank

While there are certain clothing items worth an extra investment (like a coat and boots that will last you many seasons), you don’t have to break the bank to have a chic wardrobe overall. With a savvy strategy, it’s possible to give off the illusion that you spent much more than you really did. The trick is to know which items you should buy for less — and how to wear them.

Here are some dress-for-less rules that will leave your compliment count high and your credit card bill low.

Mix High and Low

Mix High and Low

When you mix more expensive items with some cheaper finds, the higher-end pieces set the tone and elevate the look of the entire outfit. Your discount-store skirt will go up a few glamour notches when paired with a luxe cashmere sweater. Balance the high with the low as often as possible — it adds flavor and nuance.

Try these: Topshop navy space dye tube skirt, $44
Club Monaco Daniela cashmere sweater, $169.50

When in Doubt, Buy Black

When in Doubt, Buy Black

There was a time when everything I owned was black. Why? Because I could only afford a few things, and black makes everything look a little more refined. Plus it goes with everything and offers maximum versatility. But beware of black cotton. If it starts to fade, give it a refresh with a little black dye and wear on.  

Try these: Target scalloped hem ponte dress, $27.99
Target twill pencil skirt, $22.99

Resist the Trends

Resist the Trends

Follow the “less is more” mantra and opt for as few embellishments as possible. Instead, focus your low-budget items on plain, simple, classic pieces, all of which will look more expensive than something tricked out with the season’s latest trends — and they’ll last you longer, as they won’t go out of style as quickly. Sophistication correlates with understated, regardless of price.

Try these: Nordstrom Olivia Moon linen blazer, $79
Calvin Klein dolly classic dress pump, $41.40

Go Pure and Natural

Go Pure and Natural

Acrylic and other synthetics can be difficult to masquerade as luxe, and they pill quickly. Stick with natural fibers like cotton, linen and silk, all of which can be sourced in nice, durable quality — relatively cheaply. They’re also breathable and feel nice on the body.

Try these: Victoria Secret bateau sweater, $39.50
Zara lace linen T-shirt, $29 

Invest in a Tailor

Invest in a Tailor

Sometimes it pays to buy the lower-priced item and then invest the extra money to have it tailored. The right fit always registers as more expensive, no matter the item’s price. Pay a little extra to have pants hemmed or taken in at the waist, and a tuck under the arms can transform the drape — and perceived value — of a dress.

Try these: Nordstrom halogen stretch cotton crop pants, $69
Target twill ruched dress, $29.99 

Add a Printed Accent

Add a Printed Accent

Inexpensive prints are best reserved for accent items, like a belt or a scarf. And when you do go for a print, stick with classics: Animal prints never go out of style, and paisley and polka dots can be used year round to add a perennial pop.  Pair with neutrals and a monochromatic look for the sleekest effect.

Try these: Anthropologie spring leopard sunglasses, $38
Anthropologie wool brushed paisley scarf, $34.95
Nordstrom calf hair belt, $38

Embrace DIY

Embrace DIY

As with most things in life, it’s the little things that count. Your clothes are no exception. Maybe a jacket was inexpensive, but swapping out cheap buttons for some more refined finishings or trading the free-with-purchase belt for a quality leather one can make for a showstopping look that’s anything but bargain basement. And many DIY improvisations don’t cost anything: Roll up your sleeves or give your collar a little lift to add a bit of life and panache to a tired top.

Try these: Lord & Taylor Via Spiga trench coat, $64.50
Anthropologie tabbed leather belt, $48

Buy Vintage Jewelry

Buy Vintage Jewelry

Cheap accessories are often easy to spot. But vintage jewelry is in another league altogether. It’s doubly desirable: Not only are you getting quality pieces for less, you’re all but guaranteed to be the only person wearing it. Simultaneously quirky and chic, vintage jewelry is a great conversation piece that adds a layer of style to even the most modest ensembles.

Try this: Etsy vintage art deco brooch, $25

Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is the "thinking person's stylist" and the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image-related issues and offers holistic wardrobe and image consulting services.  Find out more and follow her on Twitter.

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