Ten savvy ways to appear high style while keeping your costs low.

By Laura Sinberg
Updated October 19, 2011
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High heels on a scale
Credit: Ellen Silverman

Become a Fabric Expert

Your best bet is a natural fiber. “If it’s not from the earth or from an animal—think silk, cotton, and wool—the material often looks inferior,” says Beth Amason, a fabric coordinator for New York City clothing manufacturer Vandale Industries who has sourced materials for Anthropologie and Topshop. Still, not all finer fabrics are necessarily fine; make sure the material is soft and smooth and has a nice luster. To test the resilience of silks and knits, pull the fabric across its width and lengthwise. Lesser-quality materials will sag, an effect that will get more pronounced after multiple wearings, says Amason.

But don’t rule out all synthetics. Textile manufacturing has improved dramatically since the 1970s, the era of leisure suits—it’s now possible to find polyester, nylon, and rayon that resemble natural fibers. Polyester versions of satin and chiffon can be especially luxurious, as long as they’re not too shiny or stiff. When it comes to blends of natural and man-made fibers, like silk-and-nylon, check the tag, which lists the proportions of each. “Make sure that there’s a higher percentage of the natural fiber,” says Amason.

Choose Your Color (and Pattern) Carefully

Wear one neutral head to toe. Going monochromatic can instantly elevate a look, according to New York City–based celebrity stylist Amanda Sanders, who says black, ivory, taupe, and gray are particularly sophisticated. The shades don’t have to match exactly—unless you’re pairing black with black, in which case mismatched shades cheapen the outfit, says Samantha von Sperling, a stylist and the director of Polished Social Image Consultants, a wardrobe-advising service in New York City.

Expand your palette with deep tones. Go for burgundy, eggplant, or indigo instead of pastels and brights. “With dark tones, you focus on the silhouette, and imperfect details tend to disappear,” says Leah Feldon, the author of Dress Like a Million (On Considerably Less) ($14, amazon.com). But you can add any color in small doses—with a scarf, a necklace, or a cardigan.

Stick to classic prints. Opt for simple, uniform patterns—stripes, polka dots, plaids, or color blocking—which are nearly impossible to mess up. Splashy florals and abstract designs have the potential to look like projects from an amateur art class.

Be Picky About Embellishments

Subtle is safest. Zippers, small sequins, and beading with a matte finish usually pass for good quality even when made inexpensively. “A button covered in fabric looks more couture,” says Phillip Bloch, a Los Angeles–based stylist and the author of The Shopping Diet ($15, amazon.com). He also gives a thumbs-up to buttons that match the color of the garment or have a mother-of-pearl–esque sheen. Another flourish that looks fancy, not tacky: “Fabric manipulation—pleating, ruching, draping—is a designer touch that can be done well with synthetics,” says Rachel Roy, a designer of both upscale and affordable fashion lines. Unless you’ve dropped big coin on the garment, fake-gem embellishments tend to look like something plucked out of a gum-ball machine—particularly if they’re plastic. The same holds for shiny buttons, large sequins, and lots of logos, which are meant to advertise luxury but tend to have the opposite effect.

Construction Is Key

Turn a potential buy inside out. That’s where you’ll most likely find loose or jumbled threads (commonly at the hemline) and seams that aren’t perfectly straight, says Christian Siriano, who designs a line of shoes and bags for Payless. Also, make sure that the lining doesn’t look bubbly or hang lower than the hem of the garment.

Check the high-stress points. Clothing that has been tried on over and over again may be damaged before it leaves the store. Inspect each item for holes in the underarms, a stretched neckline, torn tops of pleats, pulled seams at the waistband, or threads dangling from buttons and buttonholes.

You Can’t Go Wrong With Simple Shapes

Think clean lines. A-lines, shirtdresses, wrap styles, sheath dresses, and straight-leg pants always look polished. Generally, the more complicated the design, the greater the margin for error in the execution. If you have to choose between a sleek pencil cut or something with a more elaborate structure, such as a tulip skirt or a trendy jumpsuit, “go for the basic silhouette every time,” says Von Sperling. Even if, say, military is all over the runways, buyer beware: “Things like epaulets and too many pockets can get very gaudy very fast,” warns Feldon.

Fit Is Everything

Alterations can make an average piece outstanding. Even a $1,000 Prada creation looks sloppy if it’s ill-fitting—so imagine the effect with a $30 dress. Luckily, you can upgrade a budget buy with a relatively low-cost visit to the tailor. Keep in mind: You have more leeway to take a garment in than to let it out. These alterations yield the highest payoff.

  • Lowering the hem. The most flattering skirt hemline is at the knee. If you have two inches folded at the hem, a tailor will be able to extend the length by an inch.
  • Narrowing a bodice. There shouldn’t be excess fabric under the arms or the bust.
  • Stitching up bulging pockets. Have the linings removed and the slits sealed for a streamlined look.
  • Shortening pant hems. They should stop just short of kissing the floor.
  • Taking in a saggy waist. You should be able to slide only two fingers inside the band.
  • Tacking up long shirt cuffs. Full-length sleeves should hit your wristbones.

But don’t bother with these pricey fixes: A droopy crotch area, too-big shoulders, and any problem that’s in an area with a zipper or pleats. These will require a complete overhaul, which in the end will cancel out the money you’re saving.

Find Costume Jewelry That Wows

When in doubt, go with the best imposters. You’ll have the most luck with reproductions of turquoise, coral, abalone shell, black jet, and silver-tone metal. Weigh your options: Jewelry that is heavier hangs better.

Hold the rest to the highest standards.

  • Artificial pearls: Choose resin, ceramic, or glass (anything but Disney-princess plastic). “A nice strand of medium-size globes, about half an inch in diameter, looks more expensive than small or oversize ones,” says New York City–based jewelry designer Katharine Sise, who has her own line and has collaborated with Target. Avoid pure white pearls in favor of ivory, beige, or even black, says Bloch.
  • Beads: Hold them at arm’s length. If you can tell they’re plastic from that distance, ditch them. Or buy a piece that mixes beads with other materials—fabric, rope, metal, resin—all in a restrained monotone color scheme, suggests Sise.
  • Gold-tone metal: Make sure it’s not too glitzy or yellow. Slightly distressed and burnished “gold” will seem more authentic.
  • Imitation gemstones: Smaller (less than one carat) is more believable. Opt for crystal, which “looks more realistic than cubic zirconia or plastic, because it’s natural,” says Von Sperling. And pay attention to the setting. Obviously, you shouldn’t see any glue.

Bags and Shoes Speak Volumes

Quality is paramount. Beware of peeling fabric, frayed edges, and visible glue, which scream “junky.” But if your budget permits, follow the advice of designer Vera Wang: “Spend more on an investment handbag and fabulous shoes that will last.”

Faux can be ok. Just wear it wisely. “Microsuede doesn’t look like suede up close,” says Von Sperling. That means artificial suede is doable for shoes, not bags. Pleather, on the other hand, works for either, if it’s distressed and has some heft. “Bad fake leather is really smooth and lightweight, and that’s a dead giveaway,” says Amason. Other convincing options are synthetic patent leather and mock crocodile. Roy suggests pieces that combine textures: “When I create an inexpensive accessory, my rule is to mix fabrics so the eye doesn’t focus on one shoddy material.”

Surprise! Classics are classy. Opt for the tried-and-true, such as peep-toe pumps and cap-toe ballet flats. Bypass flashy hardware, lots of straps, and chunky plastic heels, says Siriano. The same is true for obvious knockoffs. (No one is fooled by your wannabe Birkin.)

Shop Smart on the Web

Sign up for flash-sale sites. Members-only websites, like Gilt.com, Ideeli.com, and RueLaLa.com (Real Simple readers can join immediately at ruelala.com/realsimple), offer discounts of up to 60 percent on designer labels, such as JBrand and Michael Kors, for a very limited period of time (36 to 48 hours). Inventory goes quickly, so get there when the sales start (each day at 11 a.m. EST for RueLaLa and Ideeli; 12 p.m. EST for Gilt).

Ebay is not just for vintage. The auction site is rife with big-ticket purchases from shoppers who splurged and regretted. Search for items labeled NWT (new with tags) or NWOT (new without tags). Fear being outbid by voracious eBayers? Sign up for eSnipe.com: Enter the most you’re willing to pay, then eSnipe bids for you in the auction’s last six seconds (and charges 1 percent of the auction price if you win).

Check out social media and mobile apps. Follow designers on Twitter or Facebook to hear about exclusive deals, says Andrea Woroch, a Santa Barbara–based consumer-savings advocate and a frequent contributor to Fox News. One of her favorite apps is Coupon Sherpa. “You type in your store, click on a coupon, and present it on your phone to the cashier when you’re making your purchase.” For comparison shopping, Woroch likes Amazon’s iPhone app called Amazon Remembers, which has a feature that allows you to take a photograph of something while shopping, upload it, then get a roundup of similar items along with their prices.

Know How to Put It All Together

Follow the 70/30 rule. The ideal ratio is 70 percent nicer clothing and accessories to 30 percent cheap thrills. According to Wang, you want a mix of pieces—say, cultured pearls and Coach pumps to elevate an H&M dress.

Mask unfortunate details creatively. Swap a chintzy sash with a smart leather belt. Cover an elastic waist with a long tunic. Trade garish buttons for refined ones. Hide a cheesy logo with a brooch.

Think like a stylist. The reason everything looks cooler in magazines? Fashion stylists layer to add depth to basics. Try a blazer over a cardigan with a camisole peeking out. A little attitude helps, too: Push up your sleeves; roll up your cuffs; pop a collar.

Add one more accessory before leaving the house. Contrary to the old adage, moderation in accessorizing can read as mediocre. Go for the extra bangle and push your outfit to the next level.

Glam it up with red lipstick. Take a cue from perpetually crimson-lipped Gwen Stefani, who can make a Hanes tank top seem like the height of fashion.