Accept No Substitutes?

Detail: Susan B. wears raw hem jeans and Paul Green Nelly ankle boots. Info at une femme d'un certain age.

During a conversation with a friend yesterday about wardrobe edits and closet purges, I realized there’s another category of item that often winds up in my donate pile: Substitutions.

You know, when the thing you Really Want is on the spendy side, so you go hunting down The Look For Less. Maybe you find it, and are completely happy. It scratches the itch.

The Problem With “The Look For Less”

But more often, I’ve found when I try to substitute, it almost always backfires on me. Maybe there’s a noticeable difference in quality. Or maybe the one element of the original design that caught my eye is missing in the “dupe.” Whatever, the reason, the substitute item almost always feels like settling. And it never become something I love.

When the goal is to refine my wardrobe, and to have fewer-but-better pieces, the substitutes can trip me up. Like eating rice cakes when what would really satisfy is a few bites of cheesecake, we often end up consuming more than if we’d just had the thing we wanted.

Above, once I tried these Paul Green ankle boots, I knew that the others I was considering would be a pale second. Between the style, the incredible comfort and the rich color of the leather, they were the better investment. Now I can tick a pair of brown ankle boots off my wish list!

And don’t forget cost-per-wear. In the long run, you’ll stretch your wardrobe dollars further (and help the environment) by keeping pieces longer and wearing them more often.

I’m not suggesting you completely ignore your budget. And to be clear, nor am I suggesting that you should always spend more to be satisfied. (For example, some of my favorite jeans are well under $100!)

Rather than hunting for substitutes, it can be worth bookmarking pieces you’re interested in and watching for markdowns. Some pieces we drool over may be forever out of reach, at least new. In that case, you may get lucky shopping second-hand. Sites like Thred-Up and TheRealReal can be a great place to start.

Or, you can keep eyes and mind open for something original and unique that ticks all the boxes, makes you forget all about The One That Got Away…and will becomes a treasured favorite.

Have you been editing your wardrobe lately? Have you noticed certain types of items get purged more often?

Stay in touch.

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43 Comments

  1. Jill
    September 9, 2020 / 3:52 am

    Those are GORGEOUS!!!! And not a bad price for a boot, IMO.

  2. Sally
    September 9, 2020 / 4:15 am

    I might have those boots! And probably I got them at your recommendation–last year perhaps during Nordy’s annual fall sale. I do think that I’m guilty of buying substitutions and then am never happy because the quality or fit just isn’t great. I’m still editing my wardrobe right now and I think it’s because I’ve got too many clothes–once again. Always looking for the perfect pair of jeans, for example…..

  3. Karen
    September 9, 2020 / 4:15 am

    Yes, this. I am so guilty of settling for substitutes. I will have a hole in my wardrobe, see something I like; not get it, then go searching for a substitute. Either I find a substitute and never like it, or I circle back and the original is gone and I never find a good substitute. If it is at all in my budget, I try now to pounce.

  4. Joy
    September 9, 2020 / 4:20 am

    I understand this completely. Many times I will fall in love with a look and spend almost as much on substitutes as I would have on the original. Now I ask myself do I really love it and is it worth waiting for? If it is I put it on my wish list and save until I can make the real thing happen.

  5. Kellie
    September 9, 2020 / 4:29 am

    Susan, you are SO right! The food analogy is spot on. I’m trying to teach my daughter to buy fewer, but better (she’s 23). I have yet to feel regret after opting for the higher quality item. My strategy is to figure out exactly what I want (my exact size and color), and then watch. . . Eventually, most of it goes on sale or promo. I’ve found some lovely pieces at my local consignment shop. A bit of a treasure hunt!

  6. Diane B
    September 9, 2020 / 4:53 am

    This has always been a problem for me. I will think the item is going to work, then when I put it on something is off and it goes back into the closet. Eventually it goes to the thrift store or consignment and is never worn. I am training myself with a slow outcome that fewer is much better. Especially now, where am I going to wear all this stuff. Love the boots, but I would love in a medium grey tone.

  7. Wendy T
    September 9, 2020 / 5:04 am

    How right you are! The “substitutions” for me usually end up being disappointing & I feel like I’ve wasted my money. I now keep a list of what I need (or want) to add to my wardrobe so when I come across that have to have item I know if it will be a good fit. My list is surprisingly small but there will be no settling for the items on it. I will make do with the items I currently own until my dream pieces appear.

  8. Kelly
    September 9, 2020 / 5:18 am

    This can be especially challenging with online shopping. I’ve bought 2 items this summer that looked great online but when I got them, they looked cheap and were a different color than what I was seeing online. That being said, I do like a high/low approach to dressing. I always carry a more expensive bag and have quality coats and jackets but my jeans are generally Old Navy because they fit me well. One other area I will go inexpensive is summer sandals. My feet like a flat insole so I can get the cutest sandals at great prices.

  9. September 9, 2020 / 5:41 am

    You are right and you are steering me in the right direction. Next week I am going through my wardrobe again. Monday I will be getting styling lessons from Misja so perhaps that will also give me guidelines to go by.
    Greetje

  10. Cher
    September 9, 2020 / 6:33 am

    Love PaulGreen and once you wear a pair you’re kind of spoiled for the high quality and comfort!
    What brand are those jeans with the fringe at the bottom? .Ive been looking for that “look “ and seems they always have holes in the knees which I’m pretty sure yours don’t!

  11. Jean
    September 9, 2020 / 6:45 am

    I bought (resale) PG black suede booties because I admired a pair that Brenda Kinsel wore a year or so ago. I just put in an offer on cognac PG Nelly on a resale site. Fingers crossed! Yours are beautiful and I love “incredible comfortable” in my footwear!

  12. Sandra J
    September 9, 2020 / 7:14 am

    Susan — great post and excellent analogy re food. My mother always told me that I had champagne taste with only beer money. Often I have had to settle. Though rarely have I been satisfied with a substitute when I know that my first choice was truly the best choice. More often than not, those choices turn out to be wasted money in the form of donating that piece with little or no wear personally.

    You are really on to something with your wardrobe reset. In my retirement, I too hope to follow your path. Sadly, COVID restrictions have only exacerbated an already casual lifestyle. At this point, I am finding that it is utility rather than fashion driving my needs. Most of what is hanging in my closet there is an overabundance of items no longer suitable for what I am living day-to-day. Even when life returns to “normal”, I’m not sure that most of what I have purchased in the past will fit the bill (or me for that matter). Onward and upward!

    • M
      September 9, 2020 / 8:38 am

      Our saying is Champagne taste on lemonade money, similar and unfortunately true not just in clothes, but household fittings, linens, kitchen design….and more. I say, I just have good taste

      • Janice
        September 9, 2020 / 1:15 pm

        I think this is a great comeback for husbands who gripe about our spending. I worked with a guy who said no matter what it was, his wife always chose the most expensive item available without looking at price. He said something to her about it and she told him, that is why I chose you! Great comeback, I thought!!!! LOL. I, too have been disappointed with the quality of some of the items I have ordered on line this summer. Luckily, I got them on sale. I have always bought what I could afford, but after reading blogs about more expensive being better quality, I think you can find good quality at cheaper prices. I wear Lee jeans and have for years because they fit me well and I worked in a factory and wore them every day. I have been retired since 2003 and am still wearing them! I have sometimes dyed the black ones, but the rest don’t look as worn as some I have seen on racks for $100 or more. I think you can tell quality by the material and how they are made. That is what I go by . I have people compliment me on Walmart stuff and they would never shop for clothes at WM. It doesn’t matter to me where I buy it, if I like it. Most of my more expensive pieces have come from the thrift store on 1/2 price day or I have found it greatly reduced at season change. You can’t beat $5 for a coach purse of $1 for a Ralph Lauren sweater!

  13. Sharon Mulliken
    September 9, 2020 / 8:17 am

    And I really love the look of the jeans you are wearing with the boots! Can you say what brand they are and where to find them? THANK YOU!

    • Susan Blakey
      Author
      September 9, 2020 / 12:53 pm

      Hi Sharon, these are Madewell Stovepipe jeans. Unfortunately this particular wash/finish is no longer available, but here’s the same style in a similar wash: https://bit.ly/33cMkbE

      • Linda M
        September 9, 2020 / 3:02 pm

        When I was teaching, I felt I needed a lot of clothes, and that they had to be super easy to maintain. I hit the sales at Talbots, Chico’s etc hard. I have a pretty good sense of the colors and styles I like. But now, with an unexpected retirement due to Covid, I look in my closet and realize my -entire- wardrobe is filled with things I like ….but do not love. I feel a little perplexed. Some of these clothes were purchased (on clearance, of course) in the early days of lockdown and haven’t even been worn. I have sooo many clothes and accessories and shoes, most of decent, but not superior quality. I like clothes and fashion, and am really surprised this is where I am.

  14. Debra
    September 9, 2020 / 8:24 am

    When I’m looking for something spendy I’ll often wait to see if it shows up on RueLaLa, a flas sale site that has items from great brands, some at substantial savings. The Burberry trench that I have wanted for a year finally showed up and it’s mine! I rarely pay full price for anything but patience is required.

    • Debra
      September 9, 2020 / 8:25 am

      Ugh, that’s “flash sale site”!

  15. Francesca B.
    September 9, 2020 / 8:43 am

    Gorgeous boots Susan so perfect….
    I have a stop line as to what I can afford, and what is out of reach, and then halfway in the middle of those is my “put it on the list”. Recently I bought a jacket that became affordable that I have had my eye on for years and years and I did it. And I love it. I don’t do substitutes any more. I went into a shop in London recently with my friend and evey dress was triple the amount I thought it was going to be-beautiful heart dropping clothes with gorgeous details-but I left thinking this is not my life; when would i ever wear it and I would not be comfortable knowing it had cost me that much.

  16. JJHC
    September 9, 2020 / 9:17 am

    Great boots.
    For years I have preached about cost per wear (to myself and friends)..I find I keep and wear often a few special expensive items, making them better buys than some “sale” purchases that I never loved.

  17. Spacegeek
    September 9, 2020 / 9:19 am

    Agreed–but for some things like white t shirts that need to be replaced every season or so, I go less pricy. Was debating just now on some faux fur slippers. Guess I’ll aim for the “real thing” instead. LOL Thanks for the reminder. Also Poshmark is a great place if you are looking for the real thing for a bit less. I’ve satisfied my high end craving for bags at times with Poshmark.

    • Lagatta de Montréal
      September 9, 2020 / 9:51 am

      Well, there are reasons other than cost that some people might eschew real fur slippers…

    • eve
      September 9, 2020 / 11:33 am

      I shop posh ark. I just bought a nice pink, silk bomber jacket for about a quarter of new but I do have one in black just like it so I know already it will fit and be something I will like.

  18. susan klusmann
    September 9, 2020 / 9:42 am

    I love the Paul Green booties. I have resisted booties forever. At 73, I still don’t know how to wear them. Leggings aren’t flattering and if your jeans/pants aren’t wide enough, they get bunchy at the ankle. I like a straight jean, I have some wider legs, but that seems so limiting if I can’t make the straight ones work with booties. Help! I have them on hold…

    • Lagatta de Montréal
      September 10, 2020 / 5:35 pm

      Depends on where you live. In Montréal I can’t exist without boots or booties. I hate winter, but it is part of life here, despite global heating (which means milder winter temps, but alas more icy sidewalks).

  19. September 9, 2020 / 11:48 am

    Hi, Were the Paul Green Boots on sale this year for the Anniversary sale?

    • Susan Blakey
      Author
      September 9, 2020 / 11:49 am

      Hi Nancy, not this particular style, no. There were a few other PG styles in the sale.

  20. Nette W.
    September 9, 2020 / 12:41 pm

    Susan, you occasionally talk about your mother’s influence on your body image and fashion choices. I grew up in a large baby boomer family where money was tight. The 4 girls all reached six feet in height at a young age, and were thus very hard to fit. Mom grew up in the great depression, so “thrifty” was her middle name. We learned to make due with items that were adequate and a bargain. Forty years later it’s still a hard habit to break. Your words are wise, it’s a much better strategy to buy lasting quality items that you love, rather than churning through fast fashion, and items that are “good enough”. It is a challenge finding those items in tall sizes. Or, in the case of the Paul Green booties, in a shoe size larger than 11.

  21. Cathie
    September 9, 2020 / 1:29 pm

    Well the boots look lovely, but in Australian dollars 551, a bit under a week’s wage for me. I’m wondering what cost per wear you would expect to get out of them Susan ? Certainly the style should be good forever and leather boots will last a long time, but I’m curious as to what is your goal for cpw, I’m not sure I’ve seen it mentioned. Of course it will be better in US dollars

    • Susan Blakey
      Author
      September 9, 2020 / 2:14 pm

      Hi Cathie, I don’t have a specific CPW target. But I do know that the Paul Green boots I’ve owned in the past were in my wardrobe for years, and were the ones I wore most often. And that added the most panache to my outfits.

    • Book Goddess
      September 10, 2020 / 6:01 am

      I live in the tropics, so I don’t own any boots. But even if I didn’t, US$375 would be a big expenditure for me. However, I noticed that some other Paul green boots are on sale at Nordstrom‘s for US$218 which is getting a little bit more reasonable if it would be a shoe I wore several times a week.

      I do spend a fair amount of money on my shoes (sandals ). I have various foot issues and really need supportive footwear. But I wear them a LOT.

      Realistically, the readers of this blog come from different income levels. But I think buying good quality within your budget is always good advice. I have become a pretty good sale shopper in my pursuit of quality clothing that I will love.

      I think it’s so great that Susan has readers all over the world! My retirement trip was supposed to be to Australia and New Zealand. Hoping it won’t be too long before that can happen!

  22. Janet D.
    September 9, 2020 / 2:08 pm

    Yes! It took me far longer than I’m comfortable admitting to FINALLY learn that buying a substitute for the thing I really want — be it clothing, food, a decor item, vacations (remember those?) — never, ever works. I now either spend what I need to get what I want when it’s in front of me — or I put it on my “Wait” list, hoping I’ll find it one day at a price I’d rather pay but knowing that may mean never having it and being OK with that. But no substitutes!

    And those boots [swoon]! I have an addiction to boots. I buy both very good quality ones (the classics I wear for years) & ones that are frankly cheap but cute (the ones I wear a few times then donate to my fave thrift shop). The cheap but cute ones include weird colours (plum, pistachio), cut-out toes, sides & even heels (I have 2 pr that are just the instep & ankle part with an open toe & heel, so I’m not even sure they’re “boots” — sandal-boots?), & ones with lots of embellishments (chains, straps, lacing, beads, fringe, embossed or laser-cut panels etc). But even with these cheaper boots, I won’t settle if I can’t get what I love in my size. The heart wants what the heart wants 🙂

  23. Sharon
    September 9, 2020 / 4:50 pm

    Ever heard the phrase expensive only hurts once, cheap hurts every time you look at it. Of course on sale is always great!

  24. Renee D
    September 9, 2020 / 7:29 pm

    Yesss! I remember a pair of black riding boots I wanted but were more than I was willing to spend. I ended up buying 2 other pair of cheaper black boots but neither was quite right and finally said to hell with it and got the ones I originally wanted! And then I stopped wearing black…

  25. Eileen
    September 9, 2020 / 7:34 pm

    I agree, especially in shoes. The shoes I wear the most are not the cheaper ones. My only complaint is, too many great shoes are black, and I want more brown, grey tones ( i’m a summer), and one inch heels. In other words “walk all day ” shoes. great post!

  26. MaryInMaryland
    September 9, 2020 / 8:43 pm

    Paul Green shoes and boots are wardrobe constants for me and well worth the price. It doesn’t matter what I buy—PG is what I wear. Or did, when I wore actual shoes and boots, rather than slippers while working from home and hiking boots as my new “gym” shoes. The only shoes I have put on for months is a pair of perfect PG sneakers. You are so right about buying less but buying what one truly loves.

  27. RoseAg
    September 10, 2020 / 8:41 am

    I agree that substitutions need careful consideration, they tend to end up on my giveaway pile as well.

    I don’t go with the price per wear argument for anything except shoes. More often than not a spendy blouse, sweater, whatever become unwearable, out of style, don’t fit, or I tire of them before the per wear amount falls enough to justify a big price. I have a large wardrobe and live in a place with very defined climates, so I don’t wear the same clothing often enough.

    Shoes are another matter because they are more wearable across seasons and I have old finky feet.
    Experience has taught me that substitute shoes are bad news.

  28. Kay
    September 10, 2020 / 2:43 pm

    I don’t skimp on shoes. I find a pair I like and fits, I buy it in brown and black and wear both pairs to death.

  29. Anon
    September 10, 2020 / 2:45 pm

    I used to buy shoes, boots and purses from Arnold Churgin, for any Canadian ladies who remember the brand. The shop was quirky, crowded and wonderful, and smelled of real leather. Twice a year, I would go to the sales, and buy classic, handmade styles in gorgeous Italian leather. The shop owner had his own brand made in small factories in Italy, with specific lasts that fit narrow feet so well. I could have these shoes and boots resoled twice before they wore out. The shop is gone. The factories closed, and it’s all a memory now. Things have never been the same since. I miss it. I miss Arnold and his shoe shop fairy tale.

    • Lagatta de Montréal
      September 10, 2020 / 5:45 pm

      Depends on where you live. In Montréal I can’t exist without boots or booties. I hate winter, but it is part of life here, despite global heating (which means milder winter temps, but alas more icy sidewalks).

  30. Lagatta de Montréal
    September 10, 2020 / 5:58 pm

    Dear Anon,

    I’ve never heard of that shoe shop. Some of our best ones here in Montréal for sensitive or “abnormal” feet have shut down. I have duck feet – wide in front; narrow in the rear. For the moment I’m happy with my Doc Martens Winonas (fabric Mary Janes with extremely good support). I do have decent rain booties and snow boots, but need others for walking and cycling in cooler weather. When I talk of cycling, I don’t mean performance shoes; just ones with a good grip on the bottom. And not too “masculine”, please.

  31. Lagatta de Montréal
    September 10, 2020 / 6:06 pm

    Dear Anon,

    I’ve never heard of that shoe shop. Some of our best ones here in Montréal for sensitive or “abnormal” feet have shut down. I have duck feet – wide in front; narrow in the rear. For the moment I’m happy with my Doc Martens Winonas (fabric Mary Janes with extremely good support). I do have decent rain booties and snow boots, but need others for walking and cycling in cooler weather. When I talk of cycling, I don’t mean performance shoes; just ones with a good grip on the bottom. And not too “masculine”, please.

    For me, a slight chiunky heel is a plus.

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