Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cheap Chic

I woke up early Saturday morning to go to the book sale that the Friends of the Library puts on twice a year in Ithaca. I've gone to these warehouse-type book sales in Seattle and central PA before, and they're always fun to browse because of the interesting mix of books, some of which you rarely see. I came prepared with a thermos of hot tea and stood in line to wait my turn to enter.

Since I sold two storage crates of books before my move out here, I was loathe to accumulate a bunch more. But I was incredibly excited to find a copy of Cheap Chic, written by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy. I've heard about this book so many times, but it had fallen out of print since its publication in 1975.

Except for a few dated pieces of advice (like to steer clear of zippers on jeans) and the amazing difference that inflation makes (the authors balk at spending the then going-rate of $600 on an Hermes bag), much of the advice in the book is still fresh and relevant. Milinaire suggests that you begin by investing in high-quality classics to form the foundation of your wardrobe, and then look to other sources like thrift stores, workwear, and ethnic markets for color, variety, personality, and just to round out your wardrobe.

The book feels like it consolidates the advice written on current blogs that concentrate on wardrobe-building and individual style. A sample passage from the "Classics" chapter:
Sometimes Cheap Chic boils down to spending much more than you feel you can afford on the kind of classic, quality clothes we talk about in this chapter. We think it saves money in the long run. . . . There are still certain things you shouldn't fudge on no matter how cheaply you dress: the very best boots, a sturdy bag, a glorious jacket or shirt. You can't afford cheap boots that will last a year and then crack across the sole. If you had loads of money you could; but since you don't, spend your money where it shows the most.
I like how the book offers simple guidelines as well as the principles behind them. All too often, fashion becomes just a prescriptive list of do's and don'ts, as if style was just a secret code for winning acceptance rather than a form of creative self-expression. Although I suppose in some ways style could be both, it loses all fun if it's just the former.

What's really interesting to me is how stylish all the women in the pictures look, even 35 years later. Some of their outfits aren't my personal cup of tea, but they look great nevertheless.

From the "Antiques" chapter, Ewa Rudling is featured as a "ragpicker deluxe." She says, "When you are, or when you become, poor, you also become very inventive. You find yourself taking things you normally would not have looked at before." I like that the book says it's perfectly alright to be "throwing your last $150 into a tweed riding jacket and riding out poverty in style" even as it lists provides alternatives and various places to find $1 t-shirts and other basics.

From the "First Layers" chapter, Milinaire says to look for "solid colors, basic quality, simple cut and time-tested designs" to simply dressing in the morning. In the above pic, designer Ola Hudson models her uniform of painter's pants and long-sleeved cotton t-shirts, while Lauren Hutton wears a simple ensemble of jeans, man's shirt, and wool Shetland sweater.

New York photojournalist Helene Gaillet shown in variations of her layering system: t-shirt, boy's shirt, overshirt, and jeans. She also illustrates what the book advises is the most basic layer--"a lithe, supple body."

Two examples of style coming from original sources. The chapter on "Markets Around the World" is especially interesting for its breakdown of the ethnic items that distinguish various countries or regions, such as the lacemakers of Belgium and silver belts in Turkey. Milinaire advises seeking them out as an antidote to an increasingly Westernized world, worthwhile also because they are "functional, durable, cheap, and usually made of local raw materials." The first pic above illustrates the suggestion to look for a local market or bag wherever you go, completely relevant still today as straw market bags reach a small crest in trendiness. The second pic is of a traditional French jeweler's smock. Very reminiscent of Chloe, don't you think? 

I haven't finished reading the entire book, but already it's a trove of smart, useful observations, delivered in a non-condescending way. I can post more from it in future posts if others would find it similarly helpful.

[cover jacket photo: amazon; first interior photo: Unruly; all other photos: Mrs. Gorman]


  1. Thank You for sharing. I would love to get my hands on a copy of this book!

  2. OMG, YOU SCORED! This book is so valuable ($155 on Amazon, one copy only) so yes definetly share :)
    I got mine at a Friends of the library sale years ago. It is such a treasure. Congrats!

  3. Yay! This is one of my all time favorite books. It has great advice and like itsmidnight mentioned it is no longer very cheap Chic. I have an old copy that was my mother's but it's hard to find it for less than $200 now. Congrats and happy reading!

  4. R A. Maybe you can look on eBay? I google searched it a few weeks ago, and someone had listed it for sale for $2. It was snapped up, immediately I imagine, the day before.

    itsmidnight. I know! I was so thrilled. There are "discard" stamps all over it because it came from a library, but it's still worth more than the $4.50 I paid for it.

    Lindsay. After going through this book, my old Lucky manuals seems rubbish. I'm sure it's going to be a favorite too!

  5. I have this book!! I have always loved it and break it out to peruse every other year so. The book is classic, fresh, novel, trendy and nostalgic all at the same time. This is as relevant today as the year it was published. I remember being on a quest to find the jeweler's smock when I was 16! I gave up years ago but I may just start up again. Thanks for the memories.

  6. hey shebarie! This listing on LoGE is for a vintage YSL dress that I'm sure is based on the French jeweler's smock in the book. Take a look. The sale ends today. I'm not going to put my name in it because I already have too many APC dresses with the same idea that I don't wear. Anyway, thanks for visiting!

  7. I actually owned this book in the 70s, and I have regretted the day I got rid of it (sometime in the 80s). I actually found one of those jeweller's smocks in Paris in 1983 (I think it was La Samaritaine). I would love to find another copy of this book. It completely shaped my sense of style, and still does.

  8. Hey there, It's such a great book, and you reminded me that I promised to post more about it. I actually found the Update version of it about a year ago. And you might be able to find a cheap copy on eBay. I'd create a search. I remember when I first looked it up, there was an expired listing linked on Google that sold for $5!

  9. i have a copy that i bought when it came out! it is my treasure xxxxx it is the best book! i have looked at it a million times-it's soooo inspiring no matter what year or decade it is!

  10. Ola Hudson was Slash's mama.