The Good Eye: Haul of Fame

The cost / wear ratio is an index of value

Julie Gillis from Settlers of Caftan
Julie Gillis from "Settlers of Caftan" (Photo by Amy Gentry)

Back when Mindy Kaling was a writer on The Office, she used to have a blog called Things I've Bought That I Love, where she would post pictures of adorable Dean & DeLuca peppermint cookies and scarlet-soled Christian Louboutins and horse-girl hair brushes that cost a hundred dollars but come with a lifetime warranty, and chat about their qualities in highly amusing, charmingly self-deprecating Kalingese. You came away from it wanting to drop $600 on an Eileen Fisher Seasonless Silk Comforter and then pretend you were in a Nancy Meyers movie, but a Nancy Meyers movie where you just hang out on a silk bedspread eating bonbons and gossiping with your best friend Mindy Kaling instead of having to date some creep. That is the kind of double-barreled aspirationalism I wish I could provide for you, dear reader.

The problem is, I don't have the money for scarlet-soled Christian Louboutins, or even Sam Edelman flats; my beauty routine includes stretching the makeup I applied for the Christmas family picture through New Year's; and the most fascinating thing I eat is the "good ramen," which costs two dollars instead of 50 cents, and to which I add kale and an egg. Instead of bragging about the quality and cuteness of the stuff I buy, I'm going to stick with bragging about its cost/wear ratio.

The cost/wear ratio is a particularly important index of value if, like me, you enjoy buying vintage clothing some might consider "outré." Look into my closet and you will find an array of truly unwearable garments that I somehow convinced myself were great vintage finds. The mascot for the Haul of Shame is a pair of patchwork black leather shorts I bought for five dollars. Not only were these shorts already too small for me on the very day that I bought them, but they were marked down because they were already ripped from where someone else tried to squeeze into them. These shorts had killed before. Thrift-store sirens, they had lured other shoppers into absurd behaviors, as evidenced by the peek-a-boo butt cheek with the lining showing through – a palimpsest of delusion.

There is no price, be it ever so low, that can redeem an unwearable piece of clothing. Any eighth-grader not currently failing math can tell you that the quotient of a number divided by zero is undefined.

But thankfully, there are, every year, some Things I've Bought That I Not Only Love, but Wear All the Time. I'd like to give myself a pat on the back for rescuing a drop-waisted secretary dress in dove gray pin-stripes from the final-sale rack outside of Blue Velvet. A baggy, blousy thing with a droopy bow dangling from its Peter Pan collar, it makes me look like a giant Edwardian baby. Paired with the Nine West Sloane ankle booties recommended to me by a cashier at Prototype Vintage at the beginning of the fall (thanks, Leslie!), I have worn it six times so far, never once accidentally flashing my bikini line, and making for a laudable cost/wear ratio of $0.83.

The crinkly black culottes I call my "Chico's pants" deserve a mention as well. Also purchased at Blue Velvet, they weren't originally from Chico's at all, but rather Carole Little, the brand that kept middle-school art teachers and bohemian aunts in flowing ethnic prints throughout the Nineties. The Chico's pants have one of those high waistbands with elastic in the back, which is perfect for the sloppy half-front-tuck currently in fashion, as well as for hiding from yourself the knowledge that you are wearing an elastic waistband. Plus they're perfect for riding bikes, which, if I were cool enough to ride a bike, I would definitely tell everyone is why I bought them. They cost $14 and I've worn them maybe two dozen times, costing me a satisfying $0.58 per wear.

However, the No. 1 most cost-effective garment I bought this year – get ready to be shocked – was my caftan. I expressed my love for these giant person-tents earlier this year, in a photo shoot with a bunch of becaftan'd comedians violating the produce at a local grocery chain ("Settlers of Caftan," July 24). That was a great experience for the models but a terribly scarring experience for me, because I had to leave my own personal caftan at home. And every minute I do not spend in that caftan, for which I paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 at Portl­and's House of Vintage, is excruciating. It's like wearing a cloud. It's like lying nude on a tuft of fragrant clover in a balmy glade. This year I wore that caftan all over town, up streets and down, with strappy sandals and a cult-leader necklace and a little straw clutch. When the air chilled, I tried wearing it over a turtleneck but was thwarted by aggressive static cling. Nevertheless, a garment that may be worn 'round the clock for eight months of the year has more than earned its keep. I'm going to ballpark it at 50 wears. At $0.30 per wear, caftans are clearly the most cost-effective option for the style columnist on a budget – especially compared to my knit jacket in mustard polyester with a pattern of playing card suits, only useful if you're an extra in the opening scene of Robert Altman's California Split.

Hey, was that a segue? Yes, California Split recently screened at the Austin Film Society, and I've been looking for an excuse to talk up an AFS film screening I'm co-presenting: Dressed Down: Phenomena and Labyrinth With Amy Gentry, an offshoot of the "Killer Outfits" series I wrote last year. Believe me, this is a crucial pairing. If you're the kind of person who's seen a lot of Dario Argento horror films, you may not have seen Labyrinth; if you're the kind of person who's seen Labyrinth a hundred times, you may not have seen any Dario Argento. Either way, you are missing out. Both feature a teenaged Jennifer Connelly being dropped into a pit of stinking filth, in, of course, amazing clothes.

Dressed Down screens Friday and Sunday, Jan. 16 & 18, at AFS at the Marchesa Theatre, 6226 Middle Fiskville.

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Austin fashion style, cost / wear ratio, caftan, drop waist, secretary dress, Chico's pants, vintage finds

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