Fashion For Real Women

How To Avoid The High Cost
Of Formal Attire

Cocktail Party.  Charity Ball.  Weddings.  Reunions.

If you have any of these events on your social calendar, you may be stressing out about where to find the "perfect" formal attire.  With all those eyes upon you, you want to look your best.  If you're known for being a bit of a clotheshorse, you may feel compelled to give your audience the kind of ensemble they've come to expect from you.

Evening wear
Formal wear

But before you blow your clothing budget on ONE outfit that you wear for only a few hours, remember the smart woman's mantra for clothes shopping:  spend the most money on the clothes you wear the most, the least money on the clothes you wear the least.  Don't drop a lot of money on formal attire that's going to be worn once before it's shoved to the back of your closet.  Invest in your everyday items.  Go cheap on everything else.

Now before you start thinking that I don't understand your situation or your circle of friends, trust me, I do.  I've been to social gatherings that run the gamut from small country weddings to big city charity events and have hung out with all sorts of people from housekeepers to surgeons.  As the saying goes, "I know from status."

And my advice remains the same:  spend as little as you can on the clothes you wear the least.  Even for special occasions.

Remember:  high impact doesn't have to mean high cost.  All you need are a few sure-fire strategies that will allow you to make a grand entrance without spending grandly to do so. 

Here's how:

1. Start With Your Own Closet

If you've been to a few similar functions in the past, you may already have something on hand that will fit the bill nicely.  Pull out those clothes sitting in the back of your closet and take a good look at them.  Do you have something that can be worn "as is?"  What if you changed the accessories?  Added a different top?  Paired the jacket with a different skirt?  Wore your hair in a different style?  What could you come up with?  Just because you wore something one way doesn't mean you have to wear it the same way again.  Allow your imagination to wonder a bit and you may be surprised at the abundance that you possess. 

2.  Borrow From Someone Else

Don't have anything that meets your needs?  Who do you know in your size that might?  Would they be willing to lend you their finery?  Oftentimes, they will.  If they spent a lot of money on formal attire that's just sitting in their closet, chances are they'd be more than willing to put it to good use.  I've loaned gowns to friends many times over the years, and have borrowed just as many.  Who wants to drop $200 on a cocktail dress for a function you need to attend when you're 8 months pregnant with your 3rd child?  Not me!  The money is better spent elsewhere.  Borrow if it all possible.

3. Comb The Sales Racks

When my 16-year-old niece refused to wear the beautiful, atypical $200 bridesmaid dress she'd worn for her aunt's wedding last year to prom this year, my sister-in-law informed her that she would have to pay for her own prom dress.  Undaunted, Kiley started combing the sales racks at the designer outlet mall not far from their home.  The result?  A sales rack dress beautiful enough to compete with her status-y friends' $400 gowns - for the amazing low price of $14.99.   Glance through the weekend circulars in your local paper for similar buys in your area.

4. Shop Consignment Stores

I never knew what a goldmine consignment stores were until after I was married and had moved away from home.  While my mother always dismissed second hand clothing as being second rate, I knew I must be missing something when one of my early co-workers revealed that consignment shops were the secret behind her fabulous wardrobe.  They allowed her to dress incredibly well on her $16,000 a year income.

Have rich tastes but a peasant's pocketbook?  Shop upscale consignment shops in your area.  You'll be astounded by the merchandise and bargains to be had.  Since many of the clothes will still have their original tags still attached, the only thing you'll be losing by shopping consignment is the hefty retail markup - nothing second rate about that.  Shop often and grab when the getting's good.

To find local shops in your area, visit:

5. Shop Donation Sites

Donation sites like Goodwill and the Salvation Army also offer some incredible bargains if you're willing to do some sifting.  Since a lot of people who clean out their closets either don't know about consignment shops or can't be bothered with the extra stop when they're in disposal mode, you can benefit handsomely from their inertia.  Wedding dresses, Prom dresses, New Year's Eve apparel - you name it - can all be had for next to nothing.  My sister once bought three prom dresses for $6 each and brought them home for her 5-year-old to play dress up in.  Buy it, take it to the cleaners, and wear it like it's brand new - for a fraction of what you'd pay at the mall.

So what if you decide that the event truly warrants something spectacular enough to spend a lot of money on?  Then remember this rule of thumb:

6.  Buy Classic Separates. 

Go for the long-term approach instead of the short-term quick fix.  Basic, classic styles that you can mix and match for maximum versatility are a far better investment than a single, unforgettable garment.  Well made basics will last you for years, and they can be instantly transformed by adding a snazzy necklace, a lace jacket, a trendy belt, or whatever.  The best part?  You'll never be caught unprepared when you get a last minute invitation.  Like the time my husband called me at 4 o'clock to report that a colleague had just handed him box seat tickets to that evening's performance of a touring sold-out Broadway musical.  Having classic separates on hand can mean the difference between looking good and having a great time…or sitting home with nothing to wear.

So don't "break the bank" to buy cocktail attire or formal wear that you'll only wear once.  Tap your closet first, your friends second, and inexpensive retail third.  It's the only way to justify the expense.


Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of "Occasion Magic," an ebook that shows women how to dress appropriately for every occasion, regardless of where they live. Visit her online at .
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