AS much as I like the word “cheap” and its variations — cheap-jack, cheapskate, el cheapo and the effervescent cheap and cheerful — I seem to have a hard time actually getting the word into a fashion article. “Use ‘inexpensive,’ ” I’m told.
Well, no. As the opposite of expensive, this choice only serves to make you feel less bad about the fact that you can’t afford the thing you want, and it seems as well a kind of outmoded exercise in virtue, like covering the eyes of a small boy when passing Victoria’s Secret. If cheap suggests something low and inferior, remind me what that is the next time I’m trying to find a parking place at Target or Kohl’s.
Lately I’ve been on a quest for the perfect cheap dress. It started when my sisters at Vogue declared this the year of the dress, and I thought I’d go them one better: the year of the cheap dress. If you’ve been downtown in the late afternoon, on Lower Broadway, or in one of those cheap-jack dress shops on Second and Third Avenues, you know exactly what I mean. Halters, tubes, tanks, tents, baby dolls, shirtwaists — not a single style goes unrepresented.
Though it’s pleasant to imagine yourself as Keira Knightley playing Isak Dinesen on safari in a Bottega Veneta dress, some of the nicest dresses I’ve seen on women in New York this summer don’t appear to have cost more than $100, and probably a lot less.
For many women $75 or $100 is a lot to spend on a single garment, and for others, despite a love of shopping, there’s a stiff reaction to the price of clothes. More and more the consumption of fashion involves ethical concerns, like fair-trade issues and environmental pollution. Simply: do we need all this stuff?
Sometimes a fashion looks good to us because we sense the wearer isn’t so invested in the outfit, in herself. A black cotton jersey dress with a high elastic waist and some shirring over the bust — like the one I saw recently on a 30-something woman crossing Madison Avenue near 50th Street — looks good because it is at once modest and immodest. It winks at the onlooker, but there’s no ironic game, as you might get, say, with a Marni dress. The good cheap dress doesn’t get tangled in irony.
I popped into DKNY on Madison. Funny: I almost never go to DKNY. I fear being mugged by ruffles. But I quickly found a black knit minidress, a blend of silk and cashmere, with a V neck and long sleeves I could push up. It was $195. Not bad but not exactly the cheapness I was aiming for, either. Still, I bought it.
At Barneys Co-op, my thoughts were further clarified. Who would pay $350 for a washed silk dress in a mottled beige print? It was cheap in concept and construction but not in price, and therefore seemed an insult. Whether I was looking at Theory, Marc by Marc Jacobs or the sad, pleading garments of little-known designers, it was hard to find a dress for less than $250. (This was, of course, before the summer sales started.) I had to unstitch myself from fashion to find the exquisite el cheapo number. I had to go downtown.
At Dirty Yellow Bastard and Necessary Clothing, both on Broadway, I found $39 India-silk scarf-dresses, $29 skimmy cotton shifts in every color, and a cute uniform-style shirtdress in bleached khaki by House of Freedom for $39. Unix, the big T-shirt emporium on Broadway, had some adorable striped cotton dresses for $49.50. But nothing tempted me.
The thing is, as soon as you start looking, you realize that the success of a dress or a flouncy top depends on your improvisational skills. The fit of the clothes makes you think the manufacturer stepped outside and used a lamppost for his fit model.
It helps to layer a dress over a T-shirt or wear it with a pair of leggings, to mask the cheesy quality of cotton/polyester fabric. (Have you noticed that, just as hotel breadbaskets get smaller, so cotton jersey gets thinner?) Lots of women finesse this snag with layering. I saw a young woman in SoHo in a long dress of black cotton eyelet, which she had left unbuttoned at the top. Under the dress she had on a filmy white T-shirt, its sleeves pushed up, and she had on white anklets and scuffed red pumps.
As I headed toward Mott and Mulberry, the quality improved. I saw some classic long-sleeved T-shirt dresses at Poppy for around $170. At Maria Cornejo, where the designer herself happened to be in the store and was helping the actress Tilda Swinton, there were her imaginative, breezy dresses in linen or silk from $300 to $500.
Fashion is a trade-off of private desire and social principles. If you’re shopping on the cheap, you have to accept the possibility that a $39 dress may have been made in a sweatshop. Equally, if you’re contemplating a $1,000 designer dress in plain cotton and can’t square the price and the value, it’s possible that the company arbitrarily set the price, knowing that’s what a customer will pay. Caveat emptor.
Even the middle ground isn’t always a sure thing, but it helps if there’s a clear spirit of design and value. The other day I ordered a matte jersey dress online from Victoria’s Secret — $65. El cheapo delight! The ultimate test for anything nowadays, cheap or dear, is whether it’s the real deal.