Timeless Style Advice from 70s Classic "Cheap Chic"
“Cheap Chic” is a 70s style bible that was written by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy in 1975 and, since going out of print, has turned into quite the collector’s item, with prices going up to $600.
The book contains lots of timeless style advice and interviews with 70s fashion icons, interlaced with tons of fascinating tidbits about American culture at the time, including now curious must-have items (leotards! army clothes! cowboy boots!), political (in)correctness (skip down to Diana Vreeland’s opinion on pale skin to see what I mean) and not-so-healthy diet tips.
Although most of the specific advice is of course pretty outdated by now, the book does focus on style rather than fashion and was written at a time when people didn’t buy more than a handful of garments a season, and so it still features lots of applicable material on cultivating a personal style and carefully building up a small, individual wardrobe.
Definitely worth a read! If you’re lucky, you might be able to find the book at your local public library (if you live in the US) or a vintage book store. Otherwise, stalk Amazon and Ebay for a cheaper-than-average copy, like I did.
Here are my personal favourites from the book, both timeless and curious:
On personal style
"Personal style is what this book is all about. Fashion as a dictatorship of the elite is dead. Nobody knows better than you what you should wear or how you should look. (…) Your look might be a $2.98 t-shirt with $4.00 strapped canvas shoe from Woolworth’s, or maybe it’s the day you stun the office with your St. Laurent blazer and $100 rodeo boots, but your look should be in harmony with the way you live, who you are, and not reflect what the fashion magazines (or even we) might say."
"The basic concept of Cheap Chic for both men and women is to have a few clothes that make you feel good rather than a closet full of mismatched fashions. Find the clothes that suit you best, that make you feel comfortable, confident, sexy, good looking and happy… and then hang on to them like old friends."
"We’ve become spoiled in America. Surrounded by mass manufacturing and mass marketing, we stuff our closets with masses of mistakes. Fashion seduces us from Sears to Sak’s in a dizzying array of styles, prices, fabrics, and colors. We end up with far too many clothes, without stopping to consciously work out our own personal style and gather together the basic elements we need to get it going."
"There’s one very good reason for stocking up on the basics: peace of mind. You’ll never have to get up in the early morning darkness and stumble about looking for something to match up with something else. If you’ve go the basics, they’re all interchangeable – t-shirts, turtlenecks, or cotton shirts; and with them several pairs of jeans, green GI pants, white pants, and a wide skirt."
"If you hate to think about what you’re putting on your back, and refuse to spend any time messing about with your 'wardrobe', you’re all set with the basics. You’ll have all the more time to get down to what you really want to achieve in life rather than spending hours shopping in department stores and dressing up in a 'fashion statement' or a 'look for fall'. "
On body image
"The most basic element of Cheap Chic is the body you hang your clothes on. Building a healthy, lively body is far cheaper than buying a lot of clothes to distract from it. And once you really know your flesh and bones, you’ll find it easier to choose the clothes you really need and love. Try standing in front of a full-length mirror some morning, not holding in your stomach, tightening your buttocks, or sticking out your chest. Take a look at your body – front, side, and back. Are you content with what you see? Is your skin clear and healthy? Could the muscle tone of your stomach, upper arms, and thighs be firmed up with a little jogging, swimming, or a ten-block walk each morning? It isn’t important if your breasts, hips, or legs aren’t those you would see in a fashion magazine or in the pages of Playboy. What matters is that you get acquainted with them as they are and treat them with care and respect."
"One good friend of ours who dresses like a modern-day John Wayne professes to care nothing, or very little, about the clothes he wears. And yet he combs the city to find the precise pair of jeans he wants – Lees. Why? Because jeans, like almost everything else, have fallen prey to the fashion cycle. You can find bell-bottomed jeans, boot-leg jeans, even flared jeans. But just try to find a regular, trusty old pair of straight-legged denim jeans with no frills. (…) Jeans are such a totem of American culture that they inspire that kind of mania for the marginal differences, for the tiny details that will set you off from the crowds, set you apart from the blue-legged masses. (…) Originally, jeans were coveted in Paris, and then Yves St. Laurent came along and knocked them off in couture. The French have taken the basic idea of blue jeans, restyled and recut them for that tight European fit… and now they sell like crazy in America at twice the original price. It’s typical of the French to pick up basic American design and transform it with colorings and proportion into something quintessentially Parisian, something almost like a national uniform. "
"Leotards come in a close second to t-shirts for all-around wearability. They are lightweight, durable, crushproof, quick drying, and they really shape themselves to your body, giving a custom fit at non custom prices. A leotard can go under all your basic pants, shirts, and skirts. You can perk it up with a cheap cotton scarf. You can wear it by itself for dancing, exercise and swimming. And you can pick one up just about anywhere – hosiery shops, dime stores, department stores. Sometimes you can even find a leotard on a rack next to the fruit stand in the supermarket."
"There are still certain things you shouldn’t fudge on no matter how cheaply you dress: the very best boots, a sturdy bag, a glorious jacket or shirt. You can’t afford cheap boots that will last a year and then crack across the sole. If you had loads of money you could; but since you don’t spend your money where it shows the most. (…) It might seem impossible to think of yourself laying out $100 on a pair of boots. If so, start saving, even if it’s only $5 a week. If you can’t manage that, then stop smoking, and start eating soybean protein! In five years you’ll be wearing those boots (inflation will then have jacked them up to $300) and they will look beautifully, aristocratically worn and weathered. They’ll save your wardrobe with a cheeky touch of class even when you’re really hard up and down to your last pair of jeans."
On splurging vs saving
"You’re always going to get the most out of your money by buying something really luxurious that makes you feel fantastic, wearing it to death, and paying absolutely rock bottom for the cheap things you can get away with. Draw the line at quality; don’t skimp on the classics. And in ten years, who knows? You might even have an air of shabby gentility! Classics are clothes that last."
Ingeborg Day on her office uniform
Note: Ingeborg Day was an author, best known for the novel "9 1/2 weeks". At the time of the interview she was a magazine editor, living in NYC.
"In the winter I wear black. Two pairs of black pants, a black shirt, a black wool turtleneck, a fisherman’s sweater. I have a pair of black evening sandals and Italian boots. (…) In the summer I wear a pair of loose cotton pants in a purplish beige and a similar pair in blue, both two years old. This summer I bought some black drawstring pants. And last summer I went on a binge and bought three identical pairs of lined white slacks, two white t-shirts, and two white halters. (…) If you wear white and have three of each thing you can manage, even riding the subway and bus every day. I bought a white hat and a white skirt, and I wear white espadrilles. (…) I always wear a simple ring given to me by my daughter, my mother’s wedding ring, and a gold necklace with a guardian charm from my grandmother. It’s all sentimental. In the summer I alternate two strands of pearls with the white t-shirts."
Ingeborg Day on “Cost per Wear"
“Summer and winter I wear a St. Laurent crepe de Chine skirt with narrow stitched-down pleats. I’ve had it since 1972, so I’ve worn it almost four years. It was on sale for $60, but the “Cost per Wear” is small. I’ve worn it at least 100 times a year over four years, so the CPW comes to 15¢ a wearing. In contrast, take what sounds like a cheap evening dress I bought on sale for $16 some years ago – I only wore it twice, so the CPW was $8. Compared with the 15¢ for my expensive skirt, that evening dress turned out to be a waste of money.”
“There are really only six areas in life you have to dress for. I’ve managed to get it down to three. The six areas are: bed, work, play casual, play elegant, sports, and social obligations. I’ve combined social obligations with play elegant. Sports, work and play casual have become the second category. Bed remains the third."
"If you also consider the time of year you can wear things, the clothes that fall into more than one season will give you the best CPW. One the east coast, winter would be the largest circle, but in other places, summer might be bigger. The French butcher’s smock I just bought is going to have a low CPW because I can wear it in the summer with pants and espadrilles and in the winter with a turtleneck and boots, and all the times in between. I love it."
Diana Vreeland on the natural look
"I am tired of the natural look. I am fed up to the teeth, God Almighty, some of the girls who come into my office. Oh, how they look! (…) The natural look is too colourless. Don’t forget that the white person is not beautiful. Pale skin is not beautiful. It is very rare you see extraordinarily clear white skin. It’s usually sallow. We are uneven owing to the many mixtures of bloods. So we’ve got to build ourselves up to something. "
Diana Vreeland on the foundations of style
"You have to start with your face and hair and your body. Forget about clothes until you’ve got that in hand (if you’re young you can do it very quickly), then you get with the clothes. I think clothes come second. Clothes are decor and you’ve got to have something to put them on. I’m not talking about expensive clothes. I don’t see why clothes should be expensive. But don’t forget I am talking about a girl with everything absolutely as best as she can do it… her hair, her eyes, her strength, her walk, her expression, everything. That comes before clothes. Men the same. And for children too, but they have it naturally. "
Diana Vreeland on fashion
I think we’ve lost some of the sense of what ‘fashion’ means. But I’ll tell you why I don’t think fashion is over. First, I don’t think any of us know what we’re talking about when we say fashion. If you mean dictatorship of fashion, no one at the moment has anything to dictate. But once they do, we’ll be very pleased and excited to hear it. Fashion is a rhythm controlled by the economic and social conditions of the times, and neither our social nor economic condition is very good. But I do think that clothes today are very pretty. (…) I believe I just really like clothes. People want to be a little too deep about the whole thing."
Diana Vreeland on wearing synthetics for the first time
"You need a sense of humor in fashion, you have to see where you are. For instance, I’ve never tried wearing synthetics. It just never came my way. But I do remember one experience very well. I was motoring up to Maine for the weekend. I went to Brooks Brothers and bought myself a Dacron shirt, the copy of the men’s pale blue button-down shirt – all the English and Europeans who came over brought them by the dozens and said they were marvellous. We’ve got through Boston and it was terribly hot… we were in a traffic jam and couldn’t move. And you know, I thought I was on fire! I had to open the shirt completely, I had to get out of it. (…) I really and truly was in flames locked in this synthetic thing. I wouldn’t have felt a chemical fire if I had been wearing pure cotton. It would have just been damned hot. But this was what I call an experience. Synthetics, however, have simplified the life of all of us. I suppose polyesters and so on are marvellous. They make clothes stand up and out and all that, which is great… for people who like it."
Yves St. Laurent on visiting the US
"It is good for me to come here, to New York. It is very exciting. The United States is going through the crisis we had in France after May 1968, like the consequence of the riots. Perhaps because they’re not accustomed to this kind of crisis, this kind of depression, Americans are much more upset than in Paris, saying that life must change, that new things must come. On the streets, I see only blue jeans… This is the first time I have been in the United States where there is so little involvement in the fashion sphere. Perhaps it is because blue jeans give more confidence."
Yves St. Laurent on classics
"This crisis, this depression, of course influences me in some way. More and more I believe in well-made, basic clothes without transformation – exactly like a blue jean. ‘Classics’ seems to be an old-fashioned word, but I think the contrary. A blue jeans is a classic and I don’t think it’s old. I believe in basics, a wardrobe for a woman that is like a man’s – exactly like a blue jean – pants, jacket, raincoat, not similar in details but in mind. But if an amusing thing happens in fashion, why not try… but I don’t like too much ‘fashion’. Things must have a direction, a continuity."
Fran Lebowitz on her style
“I have no colors in my clothes. The most colorful I get is with two pale-pink shirts. I get too hot if there is red around me. (…) It comes down to the idea that I don’t like my clothes to make me stand out. To me, if anyone gets remarked on because of what they wear, they are badly dressed. I can’t believe what some people wear. A great majority of kids in their late teens are the worst dressed… incredible platform shoes, glitter, hideous fabrics… useless extravagance."
Fran Lebowitz on clothes with pictures or writing on them
“A fan sent me a t-shirt inscribed with all sorts of ugly lines. I hate gimmicks and it prompted me to write a few paragraphs in Interview magazine:
(…) While clothes with pictures and/or writing on them are not entirely an invention of the modern age, they are an unpleasant indication of the general state of things, which encourages people to express themselves through their clothing… I mean, be realistic. If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?"