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How to 'Stay in Style' for Cheap: Beating the Fashion Cycle at Its Own Game

Updated on September 30, 2012
Note: all the items shown in this article I either received as gifts, have had for at least two years, or acquired through "recycling" - thrift shops, clothing swaps, garage sales, etc.
Note: all the items shown in this article I either received as gifts, have had for at least two years, or acquired through "recycling" - thrift shops, clothing swaps, garage sales, etc.

Frankly, I myself am a little surprised by the fact that I’m writing a fashion article, much less an article about how to stay “in season” with your wardrobe. Yet I care deeply about self-sufficiency, creativity, and thriftiness, and so think it’s important to offer alternatives to traditional wardrobe planning. To style yourself this way may take more time and effort than you’re used to, but there are several reasons why it’s beneficial to do so.

The Benefits of Crafted Seasonal Wardrobes

First, crafting your wardrobe (rather than just buying clothes) allows you to maintain your childlike sense of wild individuality and fun. When I was little, my idea of fashion consisted of anything that “popped” – even if that meant mistaking a joke-pair-of-men’s-briefs-turned-tank-top that I found in my stepmom’s closet for a legitimate shirt, using a hat brim as a tie, or getting together with my friend Charmain (now a terrific, eco-conscious fashion designer herself at Integrity Designs) every week before Brownies so we could “accessorize” our uniforms because we just didn’t see the benefit of looking like everyone else. In adolescence, many of us lose that individuality in lieu of the constant stress of trying to look enough like everyone else but not exactly like everyone else. As adults, we often become more concerned with looking “appropriate” and balancing our finances when it comes to wardrobe. Of course, this is very responsible, but can result in just wearing a lot of basics that go with everything, which doesn’t exactly give us much room for individual expression.

Secondly, rethinking your fashion choices can ease burdens in your wallet and your eco-footprint. With an adolescent mindset about clothing, chasing seasonal styles and trends, we can often end up with a lot of cheap crap that is out of style very quickly and falls apart. We waste our money and we create waste for the earth in the form of literally scrapped materials. When I began consciously buying less in the way of clothes, and buying everything possible (read hygienic) secondhand at Value Villages and consignment shops, I noticed a huge difference in the value for my money. I also loved knowing that my clothes were recycled objects, and that I was decreasing my contribution to the overproduction of goods in our world today. I actually felt a rush leaving a mall purchase-less, or returning home with an excellent, recycled find.

A peplum skirt I made out of a below-the-knee, flared skirt last winter.
A peplum skirt I made out of a below-the-knee, flared skirt last winter.

Thirdly, this process takes us outside our traditional, simple, ‘consumer’ role within the fashion industry and gives us new roles: designer, tailor, and innovator. As I think is pretty common among new ‘adults,’ in the years following university I personally grew to despise and want to beat the “beauty machine.” I almost entirely gave up wearing makeup for over a year, which was my own feminist and personal stand against that machine that tells women they need to paint their faces – and in particular colours and brush strokes, no less – to be beautiful, accepted, and admired. That time allowed me to think of crafting my style, the outward signal to others of who I was, in a way that was more under my control, and motivated me to seek new ways of creating that image. I started cutting up old formal gowns to make new cocktail dresses, and finding multiple purposes for stray items, like using ribbon to fashion a necklace or a belt. Human beings are not naturally just consumers; we are also producers, but the traditional fashion industry doesn’t give us that opportunity.

Fourth, it’s fun. Yep, just plain fun. Through the course of my personal crusade of forays into the secondhand world of thrift shops, I grew to love the hunt. I began to get a rush not only from avoiding purchases at a mall, but from finding particular items at a thrift store. I started making goals, deciding exactly what types of colour, fabric, or style I sought, and then stalked the rows of old blouses, skirts, and dresses determinedly. It was like a game, seeing how much of a gem I could find while achieving specific goals. Eventually, an additional challenge came in the form of seeing how “in style” I could be while still avoiding shopping for new clothes every season. Suddenly I was researching “fashion trends spring 2012” months ahead of the season and making lists of items I would try to find before some other thrift-store hunter could. It became my game for beating the fashion cycle at its own. My rush now comes from finding something that looks slightly off what I see in the runway shows and fashion blogosphere, taking it home, altering it with some thread and creativity, and relishing the fact that I spent $7 and a little bit of time, rather than $60 and the chance to match hundreds of other people who bought the same dress this year.

A garage sale find for $15; after about a week of evenings spent sewing mostly by hand last spring, I had a new dress to wear to summer events!
A garage sale find for $15; after about a week of evenings spent sewing mostly by hand last spring, I had a new dress to wear to summer events!

I treat my wardrobe like an art project – a constantly evolving display of my own interpretation of both what’s “fashionable” and what I think fits my personality. In some ways it takes more time than traditional wardrobe-planning (ie. go into the mall with some vague ideas and come out with whatever is on sale), but I personally come out much happier. If you value creativity, self-sufficiency, and your budget, I think you will, too.

Here is my step-by-step process for creating your “new” wardrobe each season:

#1. Do your research

A few months before a new season hits (February or March for spring/summer, July or August for fall/winter), start trying to find out what the new trends will be. I only do this for two seasons, warm and cool, because I find the trends don’t change significantly enough for it to merit my time to do the process four times a year. You can look at magazines in drugstores or bookstores, or do simple google searches like “fall fashion trends 2012.” Doing this will give you the trends that are on the fashion runways, instead of the trends that will actually be in a lot of stores and commercials come spring or fall – which are the rather blander, mass-public-friendly versions of the actually “fashionable” look to which they pay homage. One site that I particularly like for this phase is fashionising.com, where they compile images from the runway shows and simply categorize them to decipher the overarching trends.


Alongside trends, look up the major “colours” for the season, as you might have items that already fit those colours. You can often find these divided into “neutrals,” “warms,” and “cools.” Doing this may give you more options for items in your closet that may not fit any particular trend, but because they are a classic style and in a seasonal colour, they’ll be great mixed with some other pieces that do bring out the trends you like.

#2. Go through your existing wardrobe FIRST.

It takes extra time and patience to follow this step, but it’s really important if you want to be minimal with your purchases. (It helps to avoid that all-too-common experience of buying something you instantly love in a store, only to discover at home that the reason you adore it is because you have five other navy tops already.) Look back to those “in season” trends, and make a list of the elements you like from each, by which I mean, while looking at the pictures, identify if there is a particular neckline, collar style, pant fit, etc that you enjoy in multiple images from the runways. Jot down next to each element the items you already have that fit those elements. Remember that fashion recycles itself constantly, so that leather skirt you bought two years ago and only wore once because it seemed slightly out of style might be right on trend this season – bring it out!

If you are a really visual person, it can help to physically take out all the items that you think will make a great seasonal wardrobe, and lay them out in a sort of overlapping collage on your bed or on hangers, as I did below. When you see the fabrics, styles, and colours all together like that, you’ll get a better sense of whether or not you have a cohesive plan. Snap a few photos on your phone if you want to take the visual reminder with you to the consignment shop.

My "already own it" Fall/Winter 2012 dresses.
My "already own it" Fall/Winter 2012 dresses.
My "already own it" tops that go with the "sixties school girl" vibe of Fall 2012.
My "already own it" tops that go with the "sixties school girl" vibe of Fall 2012.
My "already own it" tops with baroque elements for Fall/Winter 2012.
My "already own it" tops with baroque elements for Fall/Winter 2012.

#3. Make a planning/wish list

I find it easiest to do this in a chart, but do it however it works best for yourself. Make three columns: Have, Want, and DIY. Give each trend its own row, and the colour categories, too if you like.

In the Have category, write down everything you have that fits into your wardrobe plan. I also make little marks next to the items so that I can quickly assess the balance across clothing types, like whether you already have more tops or bottoms, or casual or formal clothing that you want to wear in the coming season.

In the Want category, write very specific notes about individual items that could fill in some gaps in your plan, such as, “opaque tights in a light colour, maybe wool.”

The DIY column is where you fill in ideas for projects or alterations you could do yourself that would save you money. For example, I love the baroque trends surfacing this season, but I imagine it might be hard to find the type of baroque items (ie. ones that don’t scream 80s or 90s revival) that I’d be looking for in a thrift shop. However, you can find tons of baroque-esque fabric edgings and other decorations in fabric stores – hand-stitching some of those onto a neutral cardigan could make a fabulous piece out of a classic item you can find at any secondhand store, or that you might already have in your own closet.

#4. Get out there early.

There will be other secondhand-hunters out there like me, so you’ll want to go ahead of time to your local Value Village, Goodwill, or other local consignment shop. As I write this in mid-August, these stores already have out their fall/winter stuff, and it’s ripe for the picking. With over a year’s worth of experience being almost exclusively a secondhand-only clothing shopper, I can attest you will definitely see a difference if you wait until the season has started to do your shopping. Quite simply, there isn’t as much there, at least not in terms of high-quality, stand-out items.

#5. Focus when you do shop.

If you find there are things you do want to shop for, be very specific with yourself before you enter a store. Review your list and know how the items you’re hunting fit with your overall plan. Take your list with you. Only try things on if they fit with the plan or if you’re desperately in love with them. Remember that a large point of this whole exercise is to save money and make smarter purchases.

#6. Re-order your closet

The last thing to do is to make sure you actually wear the seasonal wardrobe you’ve planned. So again, take a little extra time to re-organize that closet. Put the things you find to be the most of-the-moment in the most accessible place, and this goes not only for your closet but for drawers and shelves, too. Put things you know you won’t wear until another season in garbage bags or garment bags, and put the things that are somewhere in between (not quite on trend but possibly needed in the coming season or two) on the less accessible shelves or in the back of the closet.

BRAIN CHECK: TIPS TO REMEMBER

  • Don’t aim for trends just because they’re trends – avoid any that you don’t like. For example, plaids and tartans are shown on quite a few runways and fashion blogs for fall 2012, but I don’t like them, so I didn’t include them in my planning/wish list. The same thing applies to colours, so remember to just say NO to colours you don’t like, even if they’re the “it” colour of the season – if you don’t like it, you won’t wear it.
  • Don’t forget about accessories like jewelry, scarves, and purses in your attempt to dig through your own wardrobe for the season. For example, I may not have a lot of Baroque-looking or Oriental-inspired items, but I do happen to have an awesome purse that I got in Thailand, which to me looks like it fits the bill for both trends in its own unique way: I used it all last fall and winter just because I loved it, but now when I crack it out again, it’s going to be a central focus of my wardrobe.
  • Don’t be afraid to get a little innovative. Maybe wearing a hat brim as a tie wasn’t actually such a good idea when I was younger. But I have a short black skirt with a flared section at the bottom that looks wonderfully like a peplum tube top when I belt it around my waist. You can’t even tell it’s not meant to be a shirt when it’s paired with a cardigan or short jacket. See the true potential in the things you already own.

Wearing a flared mini skirt as a peplum tube top.
Wearing a flared mini skirt as a peplum tube top.
  • Don’t be afraid to get a little innovative. Maybe wearing a hat brim as a tie wasn’t actually such a good idea when I was younger. But I have a short black skirt with a flared section at the bottom that looks wonderfully like a peplum tube top when I belt it around my waist. You can’t even tell it’s not meant to be a shirt when it’s paired with a cardigan or short jacket. See the true potential in the things you already own.
  • Know that you will always find more gems and great deals at secondhand stores another day. Sometimes when you come across a fantastic find secondhand, you feel some it-might-disappear-if-I-don’t-snap-it-up-today pressure. I find something great nearly EVERY time I go into a thrift shop, so I always have to ask myself, “Do I really want this because it’s great and fits with the plan? Or do I want it just because it’s a great deal?” If it’s the latter, I always put it back.
  • Include your own favourite pieces in any seasonal wardrobe, whether or not they fit in with the current trends – if they’re your favourites and you wear them with confidence, they are ALWAYS in style.

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      Dylan 4 years ago

      Good job Lindsay! I got some great ideas for this upcoming season. I'll be looking through my wardrobe.

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