Dress Code: How To Shop Fast Fashion With Your Sanity Intact


There’s a terrifying new Forever21 flagship in Times Square, which is intimidating to even the most seasoned shopper. And since a couple of people have asked for a Dress Code that tackles fast fashion, here we are.

Pro: fast-fashion has democratized trends, allowed everyone to afford the latest styles, expanded our wardrobes and allowed even the newest neophyte to afford a small work wardrobe. Con: Practices are questionable, quality is low, and things don’t get sold that cheap because people are being paid fair prices for their labor. Pro and con: it’s addictive.

I get it, I do: when you’re broke, or need work clothes fast, places like Forever21 and H&M can be a godsend. I can only imagine how different the shopping landscape is for teens nowadays. I know plenty of reasonable, sage people who shop these stores very judiciously: a work basic here, Target undies there, the occasional coat – with buttons reinforced! – from H&M. For these folks, fast-fashion is what it should be: an affordable resource that expands horizons and allows those on a budget to have a little more fun.

I respect this. I wasn’t like this. I developed what I can only call a mindless proclivity for buying cheap stuff I didn’t need and, long-term, didn’t really want, and which became a source of guilt and irritation. Add to that the moral questions inherent in patronizing stores with questionable practices and, well, you’ll see why I cut myself off. Nowadays, I have a more reasonable approach; I shop for specific things and keep track of what I buy and for the most part try not to get anything I don’t really need. Even if you’re not an addictive type, these fast-fashion survival tips, culled from a wide range of people, may help!

  • Want Something Specific, Or The Opposite: Even if you’re not at the immense new Fo21 flagship, going into a fast fashion emporium is intimidating. It can help to look for something specific – ie, a V-neck shirt, an inexpensive work jacket, a summer skirt – or else go in with no plan at all and let things catch your eye. Anything in-between – ie, “something for the party” – is mysteriously tricky.
  • Make Sure You’re of Sound Mind! If you’re stressed, tired, depressed, out of sorts – anything but bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – an overwhelming miasma of blaring music, screaming tweens, visual chaos and endless lines – to say nothing of weirdly-sized clothes and unflattering mirrors – is not what you need. Oh, and if you have even the suggestion of a headache, walk in the other direction.
  • Avoid Weekends: Lunch-breaks are much less chaotic!
  • Have a Plan If the site has a website, it’s a good idea to do a scan before you go and get a sense of the merch. And if you have a specific garment in mind, write down the style number – if you are lucky enough to find an unoccupied staffer, they may be able to help you find it.
  • Try On Everything! It’s a hassle, but you simply can’t know how things will fit. Within stores, the different lines size differently, the fabrics stretch in ways you might not expect, and generally there’s a lack of consistency. (Also, you may discover some peephole or bow you missed the first time around.)

If You Want To Wean Yourself Off Of The Stuff:

It’s instructive to think of fast-fashion like fast food: an occasional indulgence won’t kill you, but it’s not good in large doses. They’re similarly bad for the planet and it’s also true that you can lose a taste for both. That said, if you are someone who genuinely wears the stuff you buy in fast fashion stores, and really do like the work clothes, or truly enjoy an occasional cheap, trendy piece, then by all means carry on. This advice is not for you. If, however, you find yourself not enjoying the process, or buying stuff you don’t wear, or generally not feeling good after excursions into Forever21 or Urban or H&M – if, in short, you feel the way I started to – then maybe these things will help you, too:

  • Do a Closet Inventory. You know how fashion magazines are always suggesting you go through your closet and throw out anything you haven’t worn in some given time period? Well, when I did this, I found a shocking number of said items were spontaneous fast-fashion purchases: low-risk embrace of trends, or retail therapy, or, occasionally, things purchased after a few drinks with coworkers. It was looking at that pile of cheap clothing n- well, that and the moral qualms I’d already been tamping down – that made me really decide to cut back.
  • Treat Yourself to a Couple of Well-Made Things. “Well-made’ does not need to mean expensive. Often, older pieces are much higher-quality, be they thrifted, consigned, or found on eBay or Etsy. It’s a little more expensive, but when you consider the lifespan of most fast-fashion purchases, it tends to even out. Once you get used to clothes that can be worn more than five times and weather a stint in the dryer, it’s hard to go back!
  • Force Yourself to Abstain. If ducking into Forever21 or Charlotte Russe at lunch or after work has become a mindless stress-reliever, force yourself not to for a couple of months. (I cheated, but I stand by the principle.) When you do go back, first of all – hopefully – you’ll have broken the habit. And it’s possible that, like me, you won’t find the process very pleasurable anymore.
  • Ask Yourself How Much You Really Enjoy the Process: If yes, is it the clothes themselves, the small sense of achievement, the need for novelty? Because it’s probably not the soundtrack and the lines. And if it’s something else, can you get the same effect from writing an email you’ve been putting off, or cooking something, or going for a run? Sounds like a preachy platitude, but sometimes our craving for novelty can be satisfied in other ways. What’s more, we’ve come to feel that cheap clothes are a right. While it’s great to have affordable options, it’s a new phenomenon to feel like we are entitled to new, short-lived party tops every few weeks, and it’s probably something we could get un-used to, as well.

I’d love to hear about your tips: either for navigating Fast Fashion Land, or learning to live without it. The modern shopping landscape has changed – we’re changing it right now – and it’ll be interesting to hear everyone’s approaches!

For all of our handy Dress Code guides, go here.

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