Reader Request: Price Versus Value


Musings on price, quality, and how the two factors interact. (AKA Just because it's cheap, doesn't mean it's a bargain. AND just because it's expensive doesn't mean it's high-quality.)

Elly made this request in a comment:

… it would also be good to hear your thoughts on price point versus value explored more. I wouldn’t buy a £14 dress from Primark, but I would buy a £40 dress from American Apparel. One has a better price point, but the other has a better value. Complex subject!

Samantha followed up with a related request:

I was wondering if you could do a post on how quality and price interact. I feel like I automatically assume that a $150 skirt from somewhere nice in retail-land is amazing quality. I feel like it’s drummed into our minds that higher price = higher quality, but this is not always the case. Could you write about how to scout out higher-quality clothes, still keeping price in mind?

So Samantha’s last request is best answered by this post about shopping for quality and longevity. But both women were curious about the price/value link and, like many of us, assume that more expensive clothes are better made and, therefore, better buys. As Elly points out, this is an incredibly complex topic and one that will be different for everyone. What seems like a good value to one person working for one set wage may seem outrageous to another person working for a different set wage. And aside from finances, the concept of “value” is entirely fluid.

Actually, let’s start there.

The value of a wardrobe item is incredibly personal, but a typical benchmark is use: Items that are worn frequently and stand up to near-constant use are generally considered to have been wise purchases, regardless of their price points. Now if you’re like me, you’re more apt to feel a little swell of pride if you spent big on something and it eventually becomes a wardrobe staple. I think, “Ah HA! I was right to invest! That whatchamacalit has turned out to be a pillar of my personal style. I am so wise.” And if you’re like me, the reason that you do this is because it feels incredibly difficult to predict which items actually WILL become wardrobe workhorses. If my old black pants wore out and my replacement black pants are the same style and fit just as well, that’s a pretty safe bet. But otherwise? Anyone’s guess. Items that are quintessentially “me” and seem quite versatile can go unworn, and total oddball impulse buys can end up getting regular wear. I certainly couldn’t have predicted that my dusty pink tulle skirt would get so much airtime, and I was so darned sure that this scarf would be in constant rotation but it has proven difficult to style. Anyone who grapples with this problem – predicting which items will be worn the most often – will find spotting good values to be challenging.

If you are in the fortunate position of being able to accurately spot and procure wardrobe staples from the get-go, you may feel well positioned to invest wisely in your clothing and accessories. But you may still fall into the trap of believing that higher priced items from higher end stores are automatically better values. As an avid thrifter, I must say that this is not the case. Not universally. I’ve tried on blazers at Ann Taylor that felt cheap and were awkwardly lined yet retailed for $100+. I’ve tried on used blazers made 30 years ago that were sturdy, beautifully constructed, and held up to decades of wear and tear and sold for $5. And! I spent ages looking for my perfect olive green skirt and broke one of my own thrifting rules by buying a Target one secondhand. It is durable, washes beautifully, fits like a dream, and is so sturdy I’m certain it’ll still be going strong in 10 years. On its own, price is not an indication of inherent value.

Finally, value is not tied exclusively to use OR price. Some items purchased while traveling or to commemorate occasions may have been wildly expensive or ridiculously cheap, and yet their value is magnified by their emotional significance. Some items would be great values and get constant wear due to their construction, color, or fit but since they are fussy or expensive to clean may go mostly unworn. Some items are only trotted out on special occasions, but make us feel so fabulous when they emerge that their price tags are virtually irrelevant.

Again, if you’re looking for some ways to determine if a purchase will last a while and hold up to use, consider the factors outlined in this post: Seams, lining and reinforcement, material, weight, care instructions, and – to a somewhat lesser extent – brand. Learning to spot quality construction and great fabrics is a great way to sift value from price, and evaluating a garment apart from its price tag can help you make more informed purchasing decisions. But each person will have different ideas around how price and value interact.

Image courtesy Joseph Brent.

Originally posted 2013-08-05 06:18:04.

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22 Responses to “Reader Request: Price Versus Value”

  1. Janice

    Love this article. It backs up what I have discovered in my 60+ years of trying to figure it all out. I worked in a factory 38 years and did not want to spend a lot on my clothes only to maybe get grease or ink that would not come out on them the first day I wore them to work. I learned to shop sales racks and wish I would have known how great thrift stores could be. Now that I am retired, I have a couple outfits for yard work and buy nicer, if sometimes thrift store finds as well as sales racks. Makes sense on a fixed income. My main problem is I get tired of clothes so easily! Do you have any help in that area, Sally?

  2. Lynnski

    Ooooh, I can help you with that hard-to-style scarf!
    If by help, you mean take it off your hands…

  3. Susan In Boston

    If it fits me well and flatters me in some meaningful way (pick one: color, style, current state of figure), I’ll pay the higher price if the materials and construction are good. I respect good work, and I tend to build around pieces like that.

    Also, FWIW, I find that sometimes the $100 skirt that doesn’t appear to be anything special is worth the price because of how it’s cut. It’s a subtle thing, but often the less expensive version of the same skirt just doesn’t look as good, usually in how it drapes around the butt and the belly. No matter how hard I squint, I can’t Photoshop the cheap one into the expensive one 😉

  4. mrs. eccentric

    Great points and very important questions. I find another important part of the equation is durability. A silk chiffon gown may be of exquisite quality but still may run and snag when you breathe on it. I am HARD on clothing, many secondhand pieces just kind of evaporate on me, so durability is very important to me (and a reason why i sew most of my wardrobe). I often see women, and salespeople, emphasizing ‘quality’ while not addressing the durability issue. This is fine unless you are talking about getting the best value for your money, in which case it’s very important.

    Fortunately, just like quality, recognizing durability in garments can be learned. Check garments for fiber content: a bit of nylon will often add durability with much less pilling than poly or acrylic. A beefier fabric with a tighter weave will be more durable. Well-finished seams last longer (quality serging, french or flat fell seams like on the inner legs of your jeans).

    As far as predicting the style part of things……keeping OOTD journals and checking back over a month or season is one of the most helpful exercises for finding out what you really wear, what you’re really happy with, what your lifestyle requires. It just takes time, but you do have to pay attention in order to learn 🙂

    Happy Durability Learning! steph

  5. Lynn

    I think the issues of price/value/durability also depend on where you are in life. When I worked in an office with a formal dress code (suits or dress and jacket every day) I bought the best I could afford because I knew I would be wearing it a lot. My body was also stable then, so I knew it would fit for a long time. These days, working in a less formal office and trying to dress a body that has undergone extensive changes due to age and health issues, I worry less about durability and more about comfort and style. I am still trying to figure out what I like best on me so I won’t pay the same amount I used to spend for suits.

    Location also matters. I live in a hot, humid climate so it would be ridiculous to pay $150 for tee shirts that will only last a summer no matter how well they are taken care of. Sweaters, on the other hand, will last for decades!

    • LinB

      Oh, very yes! I lived in wool, winter and summer, when I lived in Wisconsin. In middle Georgia, it was foolish to don anything but cotton or linen. Now that I’m back “home” in North Carolina, it’s still mostly cotton and linen year-round, but I can justify wearing washable silks now. Most of my woolen sweaters have been raveled to knit up into socks to send as gifts to my Northern friends and relatives.

  6. Ellie

    Interestingly, I often find that an exact replacement for a workhorse item doesn’t necessarily automatically become a workhorse itself. If the everyday black pants wear out and I buy the same ones again, they languish in the bottom of the drawer. I’ve wondered why, and concluded that I probably got bored with them after wearing enough to wear them out or my taste/general trends have shifted enough in the time it took to wear out the original that the same style doesn’t work anymore. The only exception seems to be Target’s basic black cardigan–after trying every black cardigan known to man, these are still the best for my purposes. I have bought one per year for the last like 8 years, and wear out every single one. Not so with favorite jeans, black pants, etc.

  7. Molly

    After all my thrifting, I’ve completely thrown away the notion of price = quality, and even of there being only one definition of quality: Look at all those amazing but unlined designer skirts, or cheap polyester blouses that keep their color and shape through endless washes! Both can be quality, if they serve a purpose in my wardrobe.

    So how do I shop? I stick to things that suit my style and fit my body very well, which look higher quality to begin with. As to construction: pieces must not be clearly destined to fade or pill, can’t already have torn or missing parts (though a seam can be stitched back up easily), and can’t have cheaply constructed gathers or waistbands or other visible shortcuts, because they’re obvious and don’t look good to my eye.

    Personally I’m unwilling to spend much on any item (thrifting and ASOS all the way), with a few exceptions for those whose construction and appearance go beyond basic and fit my body and my style just so. And I’ll always spend more for good leather boots, because I’ll wear them to pieces otherwise. It’s working for my wardrobe _and_ my financial peace of mind.

  8. No fear of fashion

    I do look at the way clothes are made when I buy them. For instance if they have a horizontal pattern, I want the pattern to continue over the seems. And not start all over again at the back. Hate that. But I do assume that higher prices give me at least more chance of getting a good item. As you can be sure that if you cannot pay the price, the retailer cannot make the item. Thrifting is of course another thing. You can find a Chanel jacket of 40 years old. I bet that still holds up. But it used to be terribly expensive; the person who bought it in the old days gave enough money to Chanel to invest that in quality. I always think that system works with shoes too. Alas, not always true. Some manufacturers rather but the extra margin in their pockets instead of invest it in the quality of their products. Cheats.

  9. Sonja

    Keeping track of what (styles, colours, actual items) I’m really wearing via Gochicorgohome has helped me a lot to identify and predict wardrobe workhorses. Now I’m no longer afraid to spend good money on something if I now that I’ll really wear it a lot, and I’m even prouder to make a snatch, like the black dress that I found for 2 euros the other day on a second hand market.I did not even try it on, I just new that it would make me look like a goddess and I plan to wear it till it falls apart.

  10. maria

    If I had the money I would surely buy myself a whole wardrobe made of sturdy and quality clothes that would stay with me many years…
    But since I’m only a student I prefer to thrift the kind of clothes I wear the most, like skirts and t-shirts/blouses/etc. because I like to change everyday, and paying only 2 euros ca. per garment I get my dream-closet without spending tons of money for 2 skirts and 2 t-shirts in stores… And since I tend to buy only clothes that I know will suit my style and I’ll be comfortable with, I’m reducing the problem of unused garments…
    But for things like shoes, jeans, coats, I prefer to have fewer pieces with better quality, because I know I will wear them constantly and need something more durable and sturdy, so I search for quality and I am ready to spend if it means having good quality (like a coat with a decent percentage of wool or well made shoes that don’t kill my feet after 5 minutes).

  11. AnnR

    Excellent responses. I am so very glad that you did not drag out that old sales-line, “cost per wear.” I feel that’s been used to justify a thousand foolish purchases. I never wear something more than 5 years. If I haven’t changed sizes then my life has changed or it’s so out-of-style that even I know it.

    Keeping track of what you have, what you buy, what got ruined, what was never worn and what was given away is an excellent way to determine value. You can see what works for you over time.

    • f.

      “Cost per wear” is such an interesting concept because you can only apply it post-hoc. When I think of fairly expensive purchases I’ve made, which turned into key pieces in my wardrobe, it’s easy to justify more expensive purchases in the future by reminding myself of, say, a black skirt that I really have worn for 5 years straight. A lot of those purchases have been really spontaneous and random, too, and they involve styles that I’m sometimes not so sure I actually like yet. But, I can’t tell myself “Buy expensive things that seem high-quality and are cut in edgy ways! Cost per wear will work out in the end!” as a shopping method, because it really doesn’t work out anywhere close to every time.

      I’d say that it’s important to not dwell on shopping mistakes, and to take part in the used economy as a seller as well (I usually haul my stuff to the flea market every other year or so) in order to get more of an idea what things are worth second-hand; that helps me figure out my own personal idea of the actual value of clothing.

  12. Anne

    Great post Sal. I read it this morning but mulled it over further this afternoon. I think the whole think comes down to use value, right? How do you know that you’ll get you money’s worth out of something no matter the price point. I’ve been keeping journals the past year and a half and the most instructive thing I did was construct a pie chart of how I spend my time. Then I compared it to what I have hanging in my closet. At this particular stage in my life I’m spending more time at home, taking care of my family or in the car shuttling them somewhere. This hasn’t always been the case but it will be for the next few years. It was a dose of hard reality that I didn’t need sheath dresses and blazers to do my job. But I do see the need for good quality jeans with plenty of stretch, washable sweaters and knit tops that hold their shape, and comfortable shoes with good arch support for long days on my feet (and seat;) Now I pay a little more for tops that I know will hold their shape with a minimum of pampering and most importantly, I invest in good shoes.

    Angie over at You Look Fab often refers to the idea that we often make “aspirational” clothing purchases; buying clothes for a fantasy life rather than your reality life. I have certainly been guilty of that. I think however, a tiny smattering of fantasy sprinkled into your reality is a good thing. I think when you are able to marry your personal style with your life style you find use value in what you own and wear.

  13. Keilexandra

    Like most people, I struggle to figure out what’s worth investing in as wardrobe workhorses. But I did want to point out something ironic: that multi-colored geometric print silk scarf that you pointed out as being difficult to style in your wardrobe? I adored it when I first saw it on you, stalked it at Anthropologie until it went on sale, and wore it non-stop earlier this year when I was in France. I still pull it out when I want a pop of color and a pattern-mix that goes with anything. (In fact, I went traveling in Italy for a week with only a backpack’s worth of clothes and that one scarf, which I wore every day.) Which just proves that the exact same item, bought with similar expectations of versatility, can have opposite results.

    • Sally

      Hah! Fascinating. Well, if yours ever wears out, holler at me and maybe I can send you mine.

      I have other multicolored scarves that are absolute workhorses, namely my Desigual cotton oversized scarf. But that silk square print one just challenges me for some reason!

  14. Mary

    I have issues with determining shoe durability, especially with flats. I have owned many that start to get scuffed or worn out within weeks. I might just be harder on shoes than other people. I think I walk more than the average American and I only own about 10 pairs of shoes at a time. Product reviews aren’t often very helpful because people usually review the shoes right when they first get them.
    Anyone have any suggestions for durable flats? I really dislike synthetic, plastic-y fake leather lining. I’m also not really a fan of really pointy flats because I don’t think they look good at my shoe size (9.5-10).

  15. Rachel

    For me, and especially for shoes, I try to estimate cost-per-wear. I’m much more willing to spend money on shoes that I’m going to be walking a lot in (so maybe cost per km?), or wearing to work every day. For dress shoes or once-in-a-while shoes, I’m not as concerned about them wearing out quickly, so I can’t convince myself that they’re worth the big money. Of course, that’s also why I’m the opposite of an impulsive shopper when it comes to shoes – I’m paranoid about the longevity vs. the price!

    For clothes, it’s kind of the same thing, with the added “how long is this piece likely to last?”. For instance, I won’t spend much money on shirts, because realistically, they’re more likely to get stained. And I will spend more money on locally made, handmade, (closer to) unique items, because I’m paying for the fact that it has impact in my wardrobe.

  16. E B Snare

    Great post Sally, and thanks for responding to my comment!

    “On its own, price is not an indication of inherent value.” Bam. Hit the nail right on the head. We’re trained to believe the monetary cost of things is the same as their value. It’s not. There’s a whole thing here about Marx and capitalism and use value versus perceived value I could go into…but I won’t. Anyway, you definitely can’t trust cost in demonstrating value.

    I ‘value’ clothing for quality but also individuality. If there’s only one of something, or I know that it’s a garment I won’t be able to find easily elsewhere, I value it more than other garments I can find multiples of. That’s why I love thrifting and dressmaking so much. I guess it comes under the ‘sentimental/emotional’ group you’ve identified above; the cost doesn’t matter at all when I know I’ll be the only person wearing that item!


  17. Lawrence Alexander

    I don’t think that you can abandon price as a measure of quality. As Robert Cialdini writes, price is a social shortcut not an indicator. There is an assumption that everyone has the time, skills and knowledge needed to determine quality. Sometimes this isn’t the case and in these situations price is a reasonably accurate marker.