Clothing choices

October 20, 2008

Beloved commenter (for we love you all) artandmylife asked when we would do a clothing post.

I confess this is an area where I feel inadequate. I oscillate between dandyism and novelty t-shirts, my vanity conflicting with my laziness. And I do have a sense of style—the problem is, I have a sense of several styles, and none of them go. In short, I am not a credible authority on how to dress. Neither do I have much to say about the process of clothes shopping. Like many men, my motto is get in, make your mind up and get out.

So this post is written very much in the hope that you will remedy its deficiencies. Maybe artandmylife will volunteer for a guest post…

Anyway, as a starting point, here are the ways I personally know of save money with clothes.

New and cheap

Thanks to globalisation, clothes have never been cheaper in my lifetime. So it is that I can pop down to the Warehouse, and buy things that look modern for very little, and weird clothes that don’t look like anything for even less. If they don’t last more than a year, what of it?

However, my ancestral tailor genes revolt at the quality. Also, I have nagging feelings about the exploited labour that must be responsible for the cheap prices. So I don’t often buy my clothes there.

New and expensive

Well, why not? Provided you only ever buy posh stuff when it’s heavily reduced, and it’s really quality, it will probably take years to wear out. This is the “Vimes’ boots” theory. Sam Vimes is a recurring character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

Early in his career, while he is still a nearly-impoverished Watchman, Vimes reflects that he can only afford ten-dollar boots with thin soles which don’t keep out the damp and wear out in a season or two. A pair of good boots, which cost fifty dollars, would last for years and years – which means that over the long run, the man with cheap boots has spent much more money and still has wet feet. This thought leads to the general realization that one of the reasons rich people remain rich is because they don’t actually have to spend as much money as poor people; in many situations, they buy high-quality items (such as clothing, housing, and other necessities) which are made to last. In the long run, they actually use much less of their disposable income. He describes this as The Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ Theory Of Socio-Economic Injustice.

This phrase has led to the use of the phrase “Vimes’ Boots,” or the description of a set of circumstances as a “Vimes’ Boots situation.” The phrase has widespread applicability. For instance, people who eat healthy food and get good regular medical care are generally healthier than people who do not. Although in the short run it costs more to provide medical checkups, wellness programs, and so forth, in the long run, those rich enough to afford them will not only spend less overall on medical care, they will have a higher quality of life. Thus those who cannot afford regular health care are said to be in a Vimes’ Boots situation.

The irony of the situation, coupled with the character’s own distaste for the wealthy and general cynicism, make the phrase a particularly effective and vivid evocation of the concept for those familiar with the Discworld novels, hence its becoming part of the vernacular in that subculture.

To economists and urban sociologists this phenomenon is known as the “ghetto tax“.

(From Wikipedia).

This is a strategy that works best with clothes that are merely stylish as opposed to fashionable. I particularly favour it for shoes, jackets and trousers.

For example, I was happy to pay about $180 for some trousers from Duncan and Prudence. That’s pricey for me, but the fabric was heavy, the cut was conservative, and the construction was solid. They were made locally and I expect them to last far longer than their cheaper Hallensteins equivalents.

Second hand

This is where we hope other people have been following Vimes boots theory too, casting off stuff with another year or two in it.

The problem I find here is that now “vintage” clothing shops hoover stuff up before I can get to it, the kind of thing I might like to buy isn’t cheap any more. Only anonymous crap like business shirts escapes without a hefty markup.

Oddly, there’s a few things lurking in Dad’s wardrobe that appear to fit quite well…

Hand made

My late mum used to make all our clothes when I was little. She was an excellent seamstress, and of course in the 70s sales tax and import duties made this a very worthwhile saving. I know sewing machines have got a lot cheaper, but are they cheap enough for this to be a frugal expenditure? I don’t know.

Mail order

I notice that catalogue clothes are often cheaper.

My issues here are that I am oddly proportioned enough that I really need to try things on and I can’t alter them myself.  And there’s something a bit tempting about catalogues. Dad used to joke, with respect my mother, that “Ezi-buy” should have been renamed “Ezi-sell.”

Our weakness in this household is novelty t-shirts off the internet. Up until a couple of weeks ago, the exchange rate meant that they were competitively priced with the local product, even taking shipping into account. No more, alas.



  1. My own clothing theory is basics (shoes, socks, tights, undies, thermals, etc.) in a single colour (in my case, black) and then mix and match the other layers (mostly secondhand). That way everything goes with everything and I don’t have to buy multiple basics in different colours for specific outfits.

    I think the key to successful secondhand shopping is to do the rounds often, and never with anything specific in mind. If you go in looking for a pair of jeans the odds of finding something you like, in your size, are pretty low. But if you go in for a general browse often-times gems will appear.

  2. And if you’re someone who doesn’t fit the standard cuts that roll off Chinese lines in the millions, then buying frugally is even harder.

    I’m kind of resigned to spending much more, buying something that lasts 3-10 years, and making the most of it. It also means that you get things that fit very well, and that you’re happy to wear every day. Problem is, as you note, it’s kind of capital intensive to start off with.

    Sometimes you get lucky though. About 6 years ago I found some Gore-tex Scarpa boots worth $400+, with maybe 1 years wear in them for $5. They’ve lasted incredibly well in that time, being an everyday shoe for many of those years. They’ll need resoling soon – it might cost a bit, but it’ll be worth it. My feet have been warm, dry, and comfortable all that time.

    I also find that if I find something good that fits at a good price, I’ll buy multiple copies. I never know when I’ll find one again.

  3. If you are taking requests for post topics I would be interested in your thoughts, if any, on “going off the grid”

  4. A phrase I heard a few years ago which really stuck with me is this:

    “Only the rich can afford to buy cheap”

    ie. if you buy cheap, you’re essentially throwing your money away.

  5. “Going off the grid” in the literal sense of disconnecting from reticulated power, or in the metaphorical sense of self-sufficiency generally?

  6. Disconnecting from reticulated power in particular. I just read a book by Nick Rosen called “How to Live Off-Grid” and I am trying to work out how I feel about it.

    Metaphorical self sufficiency would be interesting too though, I’m sure:)

  7. the metaphorical sense of self-sufficiency generally?

    god… i had the good life flash-backs for a second there.

  8. I have a long wordy comment about this but am snowed under with various writing projects.

    However – quality fabric and workman ship is worth it is you stick to some basic wardrobe essentials and splash on accesrories for trends and colours. Tim Gun has a great list of these ‘essentials’

    Look after your clothes – No point in buying a quality bra and then chucking it in the washing machine with everything else. My machine has an excellent wool and delicate cycle – its worth using these if you aren’t into hand washing.

    Train your kids to LOVE hand-me-downs. My 5 year old gets very excited when an older cousins drops by with cast-offs. She thinks its special. My 3 year old asks when she will be big enough to fit the older one’s clothes. More expensive brands (eg Pumpkin patch) use good fabrics and are usually well made and some of our stuff has lasted through 4 kids

    Making clothes from scratch isn’t that cost effective because cheap fabrics are cheap. It does work if you want something in a size or style that is unavailable or I have found for merino which you can buy for $3-$5 a metre at factory shops. If you have an overlocker and are proficient it makes it much cheaper than say an Icebreaker item. Also great if you can befriend a good sewer.

    Easier than sewing from scratch is remaking existing clothes to get more wear out of them or if you are bored with a look. Google wardrobe refashioning

    2nd hand – I am a terrible Op-shopper. I can never find anything suitable but I am part of a online clothes swap group which has been excellent. Also most towns have shops that sell “labels” second hand which are usually great quality at a fraction of new price.

  9. Another point of frugal advice: dress conservatively.

    If you buy things that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in previous decades, you’re most likely buying things that won’t look out of place in future years, and you’ll be able to wear it for as many seasons as it lasts. Simple, elegant cuts and colours. You’re also less likely to look like an idiot, should you (like me) often happen to wear the first item of clothing you find in the morning!

    This doesn’t have to mean being boring of course, as you can always add something interesting to the mix.

  10. obviously we need to get you into screen printing and making your own novelty t shirts

  11. A couple of years ago, I bought an $80 t-shirt at a design store in Napier. At first I was all “$80 for a t-shirt!!! Arrrgh!” But it’s served me well and is only just showing signs of decay.

    This all reminds me of a book I have, “Cheap Chic” a bible of wot it says on the cover, circa 1978. One of the experts interviewed has a “cost per wear” theory. If you buy expensive trousers but you wear them a lot, they could easily end up with a lower CPW than a cheap pair that you only wear a couple of times.

    And regarding home sewing – one area where it’s good is if you buy something second hand that isn’t in your size and then take it in so it fits you better. But I’d only recommend this for experts.

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