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.
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]