An Expert's Tips on Transforming Cheap Threads

An Expert's Tips on Transforming Cheap Threads

You’re one of a kind, and you want to dress accordingly. But, all too often, it’s a lose-lose situation: Either you wear the same dress that thousands of other women also bought at the Gap, or you shell out a lot more money for special designer pieces, a bank-breaking habit. No go.

The solution: Save money by buying cheap threads off the rack, and then make easy, small modifications that will set you apart from the girl standing next to you in line at the register.

No need to fret if you didn’t exactly get an A in Home Ec. A good tailor should be able to make any of these small tweaks for way less than the cost of a more expensive piece. Prices can vary by tailor and the intricacy of the work, so shop around to find the best quote or ask for referrals from friends and family.

Here are three basic (and inexpensive) tweaks that can make that Forever 21 dress or Gap tank top all your own:

1. Cut & Crop

Clothing companies can’t offer skirts and dresses at many different lengths for different people because it costs too much to develop that many separate patterns. So, sometimes the trend can get lost in translation depending on your body type. This spring, trends call for long maxi skirts, short printed skirts, asymmetrical hems on blouses, and capri-length denim.

Make alterations depending on what is most flattering to your body type--try shortening longer hem lines, getting the front panels of your skirts trimmed off a couple of inches, or altering a pair of skinny jeans to fall just above the ankles. That way, you’ll retain the original print, structure, and style of the trend, but the piece will be more tailored to you and your figure.

  • Shorten sleeves: $20
  • Hem a skirt or dress: $15
  • Take in the waist of a dress (no lining): $30

2. Button It Up

Stores want to stay competitive when it comes to pricing, so a great jacket or coat may sometimes come with cheap buttons to cut costs. Ditch any inexpensive-looking plastic buttons and spring for some of higher quality. Ask your tailor for any buttons she has, shop online at stores like M&J Trimming for ideas, or spend a weekend afternoon browsing at a local flea market for some vintage buttons and trimmings. Sometimes special buttons can completely change the look of a jacket or sweater.

  • Buttons: less than $1 to $3 each

3. Mix the Old and the New

One of the easiest ways to identify an inexpensive outfit is to look at the accessories that accompany it. The first pieces companies tend to skimp on are the belts, attached waist wraps, and embellishments that come with the piece. Shop vintage stores and flea markets for unique belts, brooches and scarves that you can use as replacements. These usually require minimal (if any) alteration work and make the most dramatic difference.

Toss the thin shoddy fabric belt that came with the tunic, snip the belt loops, and wrap a vintage braided leather belt around your waist instead. Detach the cheap black fabric band off your straw fedora and sew on a thin vintage patterned scarf instead.


  • Embellishments and accessories: Varies, but easily less than $20

At the end of the day, tweaking off-the-rack looks in your own way can give them a finishing touch that creates a sense of ownership—even without shelling out in a big way, you’ll still have an investment piece that was custom made for you.

More Ways to Be at the Height of Fashion—For Less

Before spending on the newest spring styles (and then re-spending in the fall), choose trends that will go the distance. Here's how.

Outlet malls are supposed to have cheap finds, but they're not always as good as meets the eye. We air their dirty secrets. Read this.

For totally unique threads for a lot less, try vintage clothing (Chloe Sevigny does). Click here.

Lillian Lee is a buyer for a department store in New York and loves hunting for designer deals that won’t fit in her tiny New York apartment.


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