With spring wedding season kicking off and prom just around the corner, formal wear is back! If, after rummaging through the depths of your closet, you find yourself with nothing to wear, keep these tips in mind while searching for a fabulous, formal and affordable find.
1. Set a budget. Before you start your search for the perfect gown or suit or tux, decide what you can afford to spend. Don't fall prey to the "Say Yes To The Dress" syndrome, where every time you try on a beautiful dress you can't bring yourself to say "no," even when the price tag is twice your budget. Remember, your formal wear will be some of the least worn items in your closet, so don't allow the temptation of designer labels and flashy designs cause you to overspend.
2. Keep it classic. Unless you're buying a wedding dress, you'll likely need your formal wear for more than one occasion. Stick to colors and styles that work for a variety of events and seasons. Simple dark and neutral colors can always be dressed up and customized with accessories for each event.
3. Think seasonally. Just like anything else, formal attire goes on sale at the end of peak seasons. Get reduced prices on evening wear just after prom season and the December holidays.
4. Shop the department stores. Major chains like Macy's and JCPenney often have excellent specials on formal wear. Pair those deals with a coupon from the newspaper or an end-of-season sale, and you'll score a great deal.
5. Sample sales and trunk sales. A few times a year, designers hold sample sales to clear out the previous season's merchandise and to sell clothing that might not have made the final production cut. This can be a great time to score deals on high-end fashions.
6. Warehouse sales. Warehouse sales are like sample sales on a bigger scale. Essentially, a whole store puts everything on clearance in an attempt to sell off all its excess merchandise. Be ready to sift through the racks and boxes to find your perfect fit.
7. Shop secondhand stores. The great thing about buying formal wear secondhand is that it's generally barely used. There are only so many occasions you need a gown or tux for, so it's not like purchasing secondhand shoes or jeans that were likely worn on a daily basis. If you don't like the idea of buying used, just use the word "vintage" to reframe your perspective. If you're having trouble finding evening attire at your local thrift shop, consider higher-end consignment stores that are more selective in what merchandise they accept. By skipping the routine retail stops, you're also more likely to find a unique design that no one else is wearing.
8. Shop online. Another approach is to find a dress you love, then comparison shop online. There are a ton of online discount formal wear websites. Since you won't get to try it on before you buy, make sure you have accurate measurements of yourself. Chest, waist and hips are the essentials when shopping for gowns. Double check the return policy so you don't end up stuck with an outfit that doesn't work. And don't underestimate what a difference a few alterations and the right accessories can make.
9. eBay. The secondhand items on eBay are generally sold to make room in someone's closet, not because there's a defect. Even dresses and suits that were never worn might be heavily discounted if they don't have their original tags. The pricing structure is in the buyer's favor, as sellers generally want to get rid of their merchandise as soon as possible. Just be sure you're dealing with a well-reviewed and reputable seller in case you need to make a return.
10. Get a rental. While tux rentals have always been a popular option for men, the ladies now have more access to short-term leases on formal wear. If you're into high-end labels and designer style, consider a service like Rent the Runway. Yes, you have to return your gown after event, but you'll get to enjoy it for a fraction of the purchase price (generally between $40 and $250, depending on the dress). Browse through dresses online by designers like Dolce & Gabbana, make a selection and have it shipped to your door in two sizes to ensure the perfect fit. If you can't decide between two gowns, you can rent a second dress of equal or lesser value for just $25. With Rent the Runway, dresses can be reserved for a four- or eight-day rental.
Getting formal can be fun, especially when you don't have to stress about cost. With these tips you can find an outfit that works for you, at a good price.
Stefanie O'Connell is a New York City based actress and freelance writer. She chronicles her struggle to "live the dream" on a starving artists' budget at thebrokeandbeautifullife.com.
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