From Trash to Class: How to Shop at Forever 21 and Still Dress Like a Lady

Today’s critical question: Can a grown woman shop at Forever 21 and still dress like a lady?

There comes a time in a woman’s life when she wants to begin dressing like a grown up; a Real Woman, a Classy Lady, a mom who has her shit together and is still sexy. She values the assets in her heart, her soul, and between her ears more than the ones in her jeans and under her sweater, but she values those assets, too. She appreciates that sometimes being thoughtful and kind and modestly dressed can be sexier than simply looking pretty and showing a lot of skin.

green skirt

green skirt

What I’m wearing: Green full midi-skirt is a few years old from Zara, but this is similar, black and white striped tee is old and from Nordstrom, but this is similar, blazer is also old and from Nordstrom, but this one is similar, and boots by Rag and Bone. Click here to see more of this look.

In my experience, however, the price tags on the items I’m drawn to increase in direct proportion to the refining of my taste. I am drawn to fine, sumptuous fabrics, creatively cut skirts, dresses, and jackets, well-cobbled shoes with unique textures, and beautifully crafted leather handbags; investment pieces that will last a decade, if not have full-blown heirloom potential.

But the wardrobe I’d like to have and the wardrobe I can reasonably afford are very different. The gap between my taste and my budget present a dilemma: Should I spend more, but own less, buying only high-quality timeless pieces? Or should I sacrifice quality and get the look I like for a lot less money?

This gap is where Forever 21, and similar, low-cost, designer knock-off retail stores, fits nicely. But can a grown woman really shop at a store designed for trendy teens and 20-something youngsters and still dress like a lady? Put another way, can you buy trash and wear it with class?

Below are my tips on how to shop Forever 21 et al and still put age-appropriate, classic chic looks together, without spending a fortune.

Have the Right Expectations

If you’re looking for quality, Forever 21 is not the place to look. This is American Consumerism at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view.) We’re talking about low-quality, cheaply made items with inexpensive, sometimes flammable fabric (if it’s even fabric at all, which sometimes it isn’t). If you’re the sort of person who feels cheated because a seam came apart the first time you washed your brand new tee-shirt that you paid $6.99 for, do not shop at Forever 21. These pieces are your future cleaning rags and Halloween costumes, not family heirlooms.

bomber jacket

bomber jacket

What I’m wearing: Satin Bomber jacket from Forever 21, Star Wars T-Shirt from Forever 21, Levi’s distressed skinny jeans,  Puma sneakers (in Burgundy)Jo Saddle Cross Body by Haerfest, and Sunglasses by Quay Australia. Click here to see more of this look.

On the other hand, if you’re the sort of person that sews up said seam or hides it under a blazer, than Forever 21 is a great option for you! As long as you know that you’re getting what you pay for from the outset, you won’t be disappointed.

Fabric is Everything

Steer Clear of Rayon Big Box discount retailers like Zara and Forever 21 are really good at knocking off expensive, high-end designers on the cheap. That’s why millions of people spend billions of dollars at these stores.

pink pleated skirt

pink pleated skirt

What I’m wearing: Velvet pleated midi-skirt from Zara, t-shirt is PAIGE and old, but this one is similar, faux fur coat is a few years old from Zara, but this is similar and about the same price, platform t-strap sandals from old from Topshop, but try these beige ones or these in black. (This Burgundy pair are also super fun and a festive option for the holidays.) Click here to see more of this look.

But the similarities between their clothes and the expensive designer clothes they’re copying ends there. There are some fabrics that can never look expensive, no matter how well-designed the clothes may be. These fabrics include pleather, plastic (yep), and poor-quality cotton, as well as most types of rayon, and some types of viscose. Unless you’ll be wearing clothes made from these fabrics somewhere very, very dark, avoid them. Instead, look for fabrics that can disguise their own poor-quality. This includes denim, polyester, some cottons, beaded fabrics, and woven or textured fabrics, like jacquards. These fabrics tend to be just as inexpensive, without looking quite as cheap.

Wear it With Something Expensive

High-low fashion is an art form and it can be learned. Styling your cheap pieces from Forever 21 with expensive cashmere sweaters, designer shoes, silk blouses, and other high-quality articles from your wardrobe elevates the overall look. If you dress in head-to-toe rayon from Forever 21 or even Zara or Topshop, which offer a little bit more quality, you’re not going to look like a lady; you’re going to be a wrinkled mess. But pair a rayon blouse with a nice pair of trousers, designer denim, or under a well-cut blazer and you can add a nice pop of color or a playful print to a look for very little money.

forever 21

forever 21

What I’m wearing: Sequined bomber jacket from Forever 21, black t-shirt is by Madewell, black skinny jeans are Levi’s, leopard-print sandals are Dolce & Gabbana and not available, but these are similar.

Look for Great Coats and Jackets

forever 21

A great coat can make an outfit and I’ve had really good luck buying coats from Zara and Topshop, as well as casual jackets from Forever 21. Granted, coats are not very important in Southern California, so a $150 faux fur coat from Topshop might not cut it in a place like Chicago. But good coats and jackets are still useful to have, both logistically and stylistically, and I don’t want to pay a fortune to own them. Also, since I tend to wear coats in the evening and rarely wear them long enough to someone to notice if it was made of felt or wool. Moreover, while wearing really cheap faux fur will make you look and feel like a muppet (I say that from first-hand experience), I see very little difference between a decent-quality faux fur coat for $150 and one for $450, so why not pay less??

mixing prints

What I’m wearing: Blouse by Zara, turtleneck by Tees by Tina, high-rise, wide-leg jeans by J. Brand, leopard coat is a few years old from Topshop, but this one is almost identical, and black pumps are Stuart Weitzman. Click here to see more of this look.

When in Rome….

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Trends come and go. There’s no point paying top dollar for something super trendy just so that you can play with the latest fad. Forever 21 is a low-risk way to experiment with current styling trends. If you find out you like the trend and it’s worth paying more for, you’ll know an upgrade will be worth the money.

forever 21

forever 21

What I’m wearing: Leopard print mini-skirt from Forever 21, cashmere sweater by Equipment, black opaque tights by Hue, ankle boots by Rag & Bone, trench coat by Michael Kors, Jo Saddle Cross Body bag by Haerfest, and sunglasses by Quay Australia.

And if you decide to go kitschy, go all the way! Wear that sequined jacket, that rainbow mini-skirt, that leopard bra top like you mean it! A real lady doesn’t take her clothes or herself too seriously.

forever 21

forever 21

What I’m wearing: Quilted mini-skirt is from Forever 21 and no longer available online, but this is similarStar Wars t-shirt is from Forever 21, denim Trucker jacket by Levi’s, suede pumps are Loeffler Randall and no longer available, but these are similar, Jo Saddle Cross Body bag by Haerfest, and socks are Hue.

Having a minimalistic wardrobe filled with only timeless pieces in luxurious fabrics, made by the best seamstresses in the world would be lovely. But for most of us, there’s a place for inexpensive, disposable clothes that allow us to wear the most current trends without shelling out a mortgage payment’s-worth of cash. If you know what to look for and how to style what you buy from there, Forever 21 and it’s cousin stores are fun, practical places to shop on a 20-something’s budget, but still look like the lady you are.

Thanks for reading,

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