Dressing like a French woman — and shopping less

By Caitlin Kelly

Clothing in history
Clothing in history (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the air gets chilly here in New York — and much of the Northern Hemisphere — we’re pulling out our sweaters and scarves, putting on wool and leather (or not, if you’re vegan.)

For some of us, that also means pulling out the same garments, shoes and accessories we’ve been wearing for years, maybe even a decade or more.

I loved this recent piece in The Guardian, by British designer Margaret Howell:

I think for someone to make something that’s going to last, there is undoubtedly an amount of love as well as skill that goes into that. And things that last are important. I’m happy to pay more for something if I see it as an investment. I would rather spend £80 on a saucepan if it means that I’ll be buying one that lasts. I’ve always felt that about things, rather than thinking something is too expensive. I’ve noticed that the French think like that about clothes – they’ll have fewer but better quality.

I agree with her.

I’m grateful for having grown up in Canada, a country whose consumer market was small enough that going shopping meant limited choice, (no Internet then). Canadians generally earn lower salaries and pay higher taxes than in the U.S., (where I now live,) so the whole notion of shopping-as-recreation never made much sense to me.

I also spent a year living in Paris when I was 25. That, and many visits back since then, also shaped how I view the buying/keeping/mending of my wardrobe.

I love beautiful things, (and have expensive taste), which de facto limits how much I can acquire. Keeping good things longer also lowers the CPW, (cost-per-wearing), a wiser use of limited funds. The CPW calculation essentially amortizes the cost of acquisition as the more you wear/use something, the less it costs you in the long run — if you buy a $30 pair of shoes that last six months, and have to go buy another pair — you’ve spent $60.

I’d rather find a $200 pair on sale for $120 and get many more seasons from them instead. I have limited time, energy and patience for shopping as well.

(Which is also why blowing $$$$$$$$$ on a white satin wedding gown you’ll wear only once is a crazy use of hard-earned coin.)

Like Howell, I’d much rather have one or two thick cashmere sweaters, (found in thrift or consignment shops for a fraction of their original prices), than a dozen cheaper ones that will probably shrink, pill or date.

Here’s one of my go-to high-end finds, found in a consignment shop, still cosy and warm after…five? years.


Like Howell, like French women, I prefer to buy fewer things and keep them in good shape for years.

— It saves money

— It saves time

— It helps the environment

— It’s a good practice to consistently care for your things — polishing your shoes and boots; using shoe trees to keep their shape; making sure your footwear has new heels and lifts so you don’t wear them out; mending your clothes; tailoring things to fit you properly. The idea of simply throwing something away because it needs a little work? Bizarre and wasteful.

— If you can make/mend your own items, even better!

— Doing so also employs skilled experts, like tailors and shoe repair shops

— It re-focuses our attention away from the hamster wheel of get-spend-get-spend-getmorenow!

— It reminds us to focus on what we have, and to savor it, not simply to greedily rush to the next acquisition

— Wearing vintage, thrift or consignment shop clothing is a smart and frugal way to recycle

— Vintage clothes are often better-made of finer materials like silk, cashmere or wool

— We tend to care more for things we plan to keep for many years, so shoe trees/polish/suede brush and a good sewing kit, lint roller and steamer, good-quality hangers and storage options all matter

I admit, I’m also enjoying a few new purchases as well: a thick new Patagonia fleece (half-price), a long black four-season dress and two cotton midi-skirts.

Of course, the stylish Cadence, author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — recently relocated to London — just posted about an amazing vintage shop she discovered there:

One of best aspects of quality vintage clothing is how well some of it holds up. I peered through riding boots that are decades old but look and feel more solid and better than half of what I could find new at a store for the same price.

If you haven’t read this book, it’s worth considering what an addiction to trendy/cheap/fast fashion really costs.

Here are her 10 simple tips to shop more frugally and mindfully.

And here’s a fun book I own on Paris street style.

Men Shopping for Clothing Accessories
Men Shopping for Clothing Accessories (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Are you a big shopper?

What’s the oldest item you’re still wearing and enjoying?

Cheap Chic Reigns at Consignment Shops

Left to Right Robert, Anne, Bent and Mary Ball
Image via Wikipedia

If you love gorgeous clothes but have little disposable income, very few retail stores can satisfy both your yearnings for triple-ply cashmere or glove-soft leather and a clear fiscal conscience. Thus the enduring allure of upscale consignment shops. While every fashion magazine these days advises “shopping your closet”, you still need a few great pieces in there to work with.

Throwaway clothes like those pumped out by Kohl’s, Target, H & M and Zara — wildly popular, as many of them are attractive, on-trend, flattering and cheap — just don’t fit the bill. The reason their clothes are so cheap is a ruthless focus on cutting out every possible cost: cheap fabric, less of it, fewer details, no room in the hem or seams for alternations. If your heart beats a little faster for the wit or originality or interesting colors or textures or details offered by French or Japanese or Italian or British designers, of whatever decade, you’re simply SOL.

Unless you can find a great consignment shop. It’s not difficult — fish where the fish are. Rich women, whose closets overflow with clothing and accessories they may never even wear once, like to have cash to go buy more stuff they may never wear, which is where upscale consignment shops perform their crucial link between manicured fingers eager to ditch that tired old (to them, maybe only last season) Chanel or Lanvin and yours, itching to acquire a luscious new bag or pair of shoes or interview jacket.

However counter-intuitive when your money’s tight, you need to head to the nearest ritzy town or neighborhood where these shops often cluster. You never know what you’ll find, so you need to be both open-minded and ready to buy at once if you spot a treasure. In addition to my two favorite Manhattan shops, Ina (15 years in business, with five locations) and Edith Machinist, I’ve found three stores in one wealthy town that have supplied me with some of the best — and most-complimented, hardest-wearing — additions to my wardrobe: a thick rust-colored cashmere cardigan (Neiman-Marcus), olive suede slingbacks (a favorite French label); yellow leather sandals (Prada); sturdy brown leather sandals (Robert Clergerie.) At Edith Machinist, I snagged a Genny silk dress (big ’80s label) whose price, almost $200, was by far the most I’ve spent on a consignment piece. I hesitated but went for it; comfortable, versatile, flattering, I’ve worn it in every season since, to chic parties, to Paris, to events.

I seek out great consignment shops when I travel. I love Secondi, a 27-year-old D.C. institution and Courage My Love, a Toronto landmark not as much upscale as quirky and fun, always offering some amazing little nothing — like the silk gypsy blouses made of vintage silk scarves I found there for $29 apiece a few years back. Here’s some good advice on how to shop this way.