How to Find “Wardrobe Basics” Cheaply and Ethically

Ever heard of the capsule wardrobe? It’s an idea coined by Susie Faux in the 1970s during a surge of minimalism, and referred to a wardrobe containing between 12–30 items total — usually neutral pieces and essential layers. But now that Pinterest has got its hands on the Capsule, it’s become anywhere from 30–50 essential items per season.

Sorry, Polyvore, you’re doing it wrong.

I like a healthy dose of minimalism in my day, and I believe in the original concept of a capsule wardrobe. So I spent some time researching women’s wardrobe essentials and stumbled on this great* list by Elle.

* I agree with the theory behind all the items on the list… but the total price of all the items on that list is $12,295–not including the Dior black pumps which don’t come with a price tag. Who the fuck is going to drop 3–6 months of their income on neutral tones?

And don’t even get me started on a $350 evening clutch. I said I loved it for its theory, not its practicality.

You could go somewhere like Walmart, Target, or Kohl’s and pick up all of these items for probably a few hundred dollars — if you want to fund sweatshops. And even if you’re not in a financial place to consider the ethical implications (no judgment — I’ve been there), the stitching is so cheaply done that the items may not hold up after one wash, and will probably last you 6 months at most.

This is our fashion conundrum: millennials are known for being broke (thanks to low incomes vs. increasing rent prices and the student loan crisis), and so we can rarely afford to spend our money on ethical or “investment” purchases.

Does that mean we don’t deserve to look nice? No — but it’s more than that. We all use fashion to project our personalities onto the world, and the connections we make can help lead to better job opportunities. Who will want to give you the kind of salary you need to shop at Elle and Whole Foods when you’re projecting an air of “possibly homeless”?

You need good clothes, and the best way to do this simply and minimally is to stick with a few wardrobe essentials that you can pair with some awesome fashion pieces. So what’s the solution to our fashion problem? I’ve got a few ideas, and if you have more, feel free to share them with @valjosephine on Twitter. (Or just say hey; I rarely bite.)

1. Check out Project Just.

Project Just uses company records and interviews to determine how ethical your go-to fashion companies are (i.e. how transparent, accountable, and sustainable they are). They provide a “Seal of Approval” for companies that go the extra mile to be leaders in community-friendly fashion. The price ranges vary, but Project Just does disclose a basic price range for each brand on their website. While $100–200 for a pair of jeans may not be what you’re used to, at least it’s not a $350 for a fucking evening clutch, amirite?

Still, this isn’t the cheapest option. And unless you’re comfortable buying clothes online (that’s one bridge I just can’t cross), you may be out of luck anyway, as most of Just’s favorite brands are either international or only have physical stores in NYC / LA. So for cheaper and more accessible clothing.

2. Go thrifting.

Cue Macklemore.

I have a few friends who get all their wardrobe basics from thrift stores and/or Goodwill. Back in Columbus, I lived near an awesome thrift store that had a cami or T-shirt in every color — not to mention awesome dishware and furniture selections. But since I’ve moved to Asheville and gained 50 pounds… I find the options for smaller-city bigger-waist women are quite lacking. YMMV.

That said, while the clothes you’re buying from a thrift store may technically be made in China, you’re not directly contributing to the child labor or sweatshops that they may have come from; you’re only supporting the thrift shop itself. Still, you may want to be careful wearing anything with a brand logo on it, as you wouldn’t want to provide free advertising to a company with inexcusable policies.

2. Make your own.

I learned to crochet in 2014 as a quasi-self-sufficiency skill. It’s a super economical way to decorate your house; if you have $2 for a ball of discount yarn and access to YouTube, you can make yourself some customized coasters and you’ll never look back. Knitting is great, too; why buy a piece for the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party when you can make your own?

And of course, if you have the patience for hand-sewing or $80 to shell out on a sewing machine, you can sew many of your own clothes — especially layering pieces like T-shirts and camis. Sewing isn’t always the cheapest option, but if you do it well, you can create pieces that will last six years rather than six months.

But mastering even one of those skills takes time you probably don’t have, and mastering all three would take a lot of patience and money. (I’m the only one I know crazy enough to do it.) Which brings me to…

3. Make your friends make it for you.

Everyone needs a hobby, right? So why not put on your convincing-girl-pants and make your friends take up crafty hobbies with you? Imagine trading one knit scarf/hat/mitten set for a set of crocheted dishcloths and dish towels, or a sewn vintage apron. My kind of #squadgoals.

4. Go nudist.

Borrow a killer interview outfit, land an at-home or freelancing job, and do your work naked at your home office. And if your friends judge you, then you need better friends. That’s the fuckin dream.

— — —

Likely, you’ll need a combination of all of these. Make what you can, befriend crafty people, ask for Christmas gifts, go to the thrift store every couple of months, and occasionally wear the same outfit (or no outfit) four days in a row from your home office because fuck it, who’s there to see you?*

*Definitely not personal experience

Just remember that no list is perfect, and your wardrobe can’t be, either. It will take time to build up an arsenal of reliable, adorable clothes… and even when you have it, you’ll probably get sick of it after a few months.

Oh, and by the way — this article does focus on women’s fashion, and don’t even get me started on the differences between fashion expectations for women vs. men. (Or do; I actually wrote an article about that for a school assignment, which you can read here.) Still, while a man’s list of wardrobe essentials will look totally different, he’ll still run into the problem of finding affordable, ethical clothing — and can approach that problem in any of the ways mentioned above. (I’m picturing my husband trading a jacket he sewed for a sweater his BFF knitted & it would be totally cute. I’m also just picturing him nude, but that’s nothing new… man, that nudism thing is really appealing, isn’t it?)

Originally published at Val Josephine.