Does "cost per wear" really work?

I read a comment awhile ago from a woman who'd spent years selling high- end real estate in Southern California. Her income, like many of the self-employed, fluctuated. She'd celebrate a big sale with a new outfit, she'd prop herself up in lean times with... a new outfit.

In hindsight, she lamented that she had bought
so many expensive clothes: "If I had invested the money instead of buying Chanel suits, I'd be so much better off today."

She said the suits gave her far less pleasure than she'd thought; the Chanel did not give her six times the joy of a Tahari (shown left), for example. She learned to stop bolstering her self esteem by making purchases she either could not afford, or that she could afford, but were hollow.

I don't want to sound preachy and life-denying. Beauty feeds the soul, and much beauty is found in clothing. I'm looking for balance and perspective.

The Canadian activist and writer June Callwood, speaking of her wardrobe, said, "I'm buying clothes that last, because as I get older, I expect to get poorer." Classic Callwood, pithy and true.

I have not quite mastered the cost-per-wear (CPW) tactic that so many stylists recommend.

Some of my expensive purchases did not get worn enough (Hugo Boss shell, $250, nothing special). And the "bargains", even worse! A Gap cashmere sweater marked down to $40: worn once before mutation into a '70s shag carpet.

I recently bought a rather pricey Chinese-print yellow silk kimono to wear... um, to wear where? Maybe for a party or to a good restaurant. Or reading in bed? Perhaps I'll hang it on the wall.

Last weekend, while in Ottawa, I visited Muriel Dombret's perfect boutique, Clothes, to buy another of her shapely fine black jersey "Maddy" skirts, because I wore my first one out. Probably the best clothing investment I ever made, CPW has to be measured in mills.

Do you usually apply the cost-per-wear rule? How has it worked out?


Anonymous said…
I've always found the cost per wear rule a bit of a joke. I never know what is going to turn into 'wardrobe gold', but things in lovely black jersey can usually be counted on.
I too am the owner of a gold kimono, it has lain unworn in my wardrobe for 20 years but is so pretty I can't get rid of it. Cost per non-wear $600.00!!
materfamilias said…
Like Cybill, I find the unpredictability factor rather detracts from the CPW promise. I've had pieces from the GAP that brilliantly earn their keep, and other pieces that I'll be happy to get down to $100PW -- and that's if I put them on and strut around at home in them!
And besides all that, the garments that promise a decent CPW yield as reward for their high initial investment often come with a list of care demands that mitigate against much savings, given the cost of decent dry cleaning.
Duchesse said…
Cybill: I feel better:) Maybe we could have a tea party and wear our kimonos.

materfamilias: Great point about dry cleaning! Besides the cost, there's the schlepping.
Dry cleaning is also highly polluting. My mum always insisted that dry-cleaned garments were to be hung outside before wearing. She was right. A son of a friend of hers is a stockbroker; he had his expensive suits cleaned every time he wore them. He started feeling ill from the fumes.

There are more eco and health-friendly alternatives, but they aren't cheap either.

Of course there is no alternative to such cleaning (preferably the environmentally-friendlier kind) for suits with linings and some formal dressings, but it should be kept in mind.

Not for the silk kimonos; garments like that, however fine, have been worn for thousands of years before dry cleaning and can be carefully washed by hand with gentle soap.

I'm very suspicious of cost-per-wear. People's professional needs, tastes and body shape can vary quite unpredictably. An exception would be certain styles of garment I know I'll wear (the fine jersey skirt would be an example of that).
CompassRose said…
Pre-evaluating the cost per wear, though, is a reliable way for me to determine whether I should buy something in the first place. Yes, it's true, sometimes things don't work out; they go funny or pilly after their first trip out, or prove to collect every bit of lint going, or are so electrically active they crawl up my legs constantly.

But a good brood on CPW points out versatile items that will work with the rest of my wardrobe, and weeds out those things that are marvellous - but will be perfect only with say one particular brown plaid skirt to make a striking outfit that can't really be repeated on the regular - or are special-occasion dealies that are going to live in my Dress-Up Zone (maybe I could find an even more striking evening dress at Value Village for $15?) - or are costume-level pieces whose eccentricity will confine them to weekend wear only (and eventful weekends at that).

I've just got to keep myself from simply buying outright things I LOVE, but can't possibly, even if they do turn out to be comfortable and durable, fit into my daily work wear. (And I feel you on the kimono. I own, among other things, a genuine vintage 20s cloche in silk velvet, and an 1890s corset, neither of which I would wear, but which I "had to have" because of their historical interest. They weren't cheap, and they live in a box in acid-free paper.)
Mardel said…
I've never quite figured out cost per wear and I haven't really seen that number or wears, or the pleasure from a garment, stems from its cost. There are successes and failures at all price levels, and some things are worth however much or little for the pleasure they bring even if they are worn less frequently.

Dry cleaning is an issue of course, and many things in the "Chanel" category are so fragile that there is little hope for wear unless one really has armies of people to look after one, not at all realistic, or, to my mind at least, even desirable.
some things do work out -- i have an ankle length, winter white, coat (i don't know what style, not terribly structured) that i bought in 1989 for $150 (which at the time, was an enormous amount of money for me!)... i just had it relined and re-buttoned because i love it still. i have some nice winter clothing - tops, shawls and coats that never go out of style because they were never *in* style. but not one summer thing i've ever bought has made it through two summers in a row. i think my velvet jackets and other wintertime clothing is made of nicer materials, better designed and appeals to me more, so they've paid for themselves over and over. but i am going to print and frame the saying about getting poorer. because it's certainly true in this day and age.
Frugal Scholar said…
There was an episode of Sex and the City where Carrie wanted to buy a house but did not have the down payment. One of her friends pointed out that she had 100 pairs of $300 shoes. Carrie said--that's only $3000. Then she said--Oops--that's $30,000. A down payment.

Amy Dacyscyn (Tightwad Gazette) has something she calls "cost per WOW" instead. That seems more what you are talking about--maybe you wear the Chanel 100 times, but does it give you 10 times the WOW of a Banana Republic suit?

P.S. I too have a kimono--passed to me by my MIL who never wore it. I've never worn it either. On to my daughter!
mette said…
The answer to your question is a no. I´m not planning my shopping. I buy, if I have the money, when I see something I like. Maybe jeans are my best investment, since I wear them daily. I´d like to add to my list a winter coat, starting it´s 4th season and yet in perfect condition. I´m ashamed to admit that I do have clothes, that have never been worn. Anyone interested ;) !
InfoDiva said…
Cost-per-wear does not always equate with real value.

The thousand-dollar-plus St. John jacket and silk evening pants I wore to my son's wedding made me feel positively ethereal. Light as a feather, comfortable, and perfectly fitted to me, the outfit was a delight to wear and dance in that night, as well as to enjoy in photographs afterwards.

It was far, far beyond my usual budget, and I may never wear it again. The cost-per-wear is utterly irrelevant, but the value was certainly there.
I use cost per wear when looking at buying staples - so a pair of black pants (or dark neutral) pants that you will wear 2 times a week for years is worth spending extra money on. An outfit you'll wear once to a wedding is not worth spending lots of money on.

I also will only spend lots on something that I LOVE, that I know fits with my LIFESTYLE. Even if I love a kimono - if I've no where to wear it - no point in spending the money (unless I want to put it on the wall as art).

I also am careful about reading the care instructions - I dry clean rarely, so my clothes have to be machine washable whatever their cost (pretty much).

I will spend more on a fabulous jacket or coat that I know I'll wear over and over.

I will spend less on something with a pattern as patterns tend to date more quickly, plus we usually get sick of them faster - so they're not as good an investment.

A $40 garment that you never wear or wear once is not a good investment - even a $10 garment that isn't worn is a waste of money (and is also unenvironmental).

Understanding what you need in your wardrobe - the garments that fill the holes that you will wear, helps you to make better purchasing decisions too.
lady jicky said…
On some things it has and some things it has not. Like life really.
Someone said…
I thing CPW CAN work...but it's going to be different for different wardrobes and lifestyles. It depends on the particular demands of the occasions required of you.

I do think you can consider each piece against its wearable potential if you're not an emotional shopper, which I'm not, and IMO if one spends good money on an item that proves itself bad quality quickly, one needs to get a better sense of fabric, fiber, construction, and to know which brands tend to be more dependable than others in that area. (And higher price does not always signal higher quality.)

I can't imagine that I'd ever want more than maybe 2 Chanel suits though. I think they'd wear me more than I them. And I don't buy any more must-dry-clean. There was a time when such items were really the only way to look better than casual, but it's no longer the case.

Here's a funny one just for the heck of it - I have a black henley-neck long sleeved T I bought in 1984 at Tello's (an early cheap-fashion-flash mart) for $4. It was never meant to be an investment piece but I was even amazed 10 years ago how well it had held up. It has faded some by now and is starting to near the end of its public life, but...yeah.
Duchesse said…
InfoDiva: Feeling fabulous and ethereal at your son's wedding: priceless.

Someone: Sometimes a cheapie item proves amazingly durable.

Imogen: Did you hear that Oprah and her guest Stacey London featured the "perfect black pant": Akris, $700. Well I guess so!
Belle de Ville said…
One of the problems with CPW is that you have to maintain the same figure to in order to keep on wearing what's in your wardrobe. In my case, after gaining weight, those beautiful, but size tiny clothes, are hanging in my closet's probably time to let them go.
Now I buy lower to mid-range clothes in neutrals and use my wardrobe budget for estate jewelry...which keeps its value and is wearable long after clothes go out of style. Real jewelry, not costume, not only makes sense in terms of CPW, you can sell it when you need downpayment money.
Duchesse said…
Belle: That's an important point, thanks! I usually buy less expensive clothes than I used to, and spend on accessories- less susceptible to size fluctuation.

Have you been able to recover the value when selling jewelry? What are the criteria for ensuring excellent resale results?
Susan B said…
I've found that CPW is usually best when applied to basics. I now have three Eileen Fisher silk jersey long-sleeved tees. They layer like a dream, can be hand-washed in the sink and will dry overnight. They were the only tops I brought along on this trip (other than one silk jersey tank) and they worked brillantly. Banana Republic black wool trousers (Jackson cut) are another item I'll pay full price for, as they fit like a dream right off the hanger, get worn 2-4 times per week for most of the year, and wear very well. I'm finding that getting spendy with accessories I love is a better bet for CPW.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: I am touched that you commented from your cruise. Items like the EF tops- high-quality essentials- are worth every penny. My unique pieces (that blasted kimono) rarely do.
Anjela's Day said…
I had an employer who collected antique kimonos. Every evening after her work she put one on to have dinner.
They were beautiful and she could probably have worn them with pants or a skirt and gone to a concert in the city.
I have always remembered that about her- Her sense of style.

I have found that the items I have bought that were expensive have worn well and so I wear them eternally.My sister bought me a Ralph Lauren skirt three years ago and I wore it like sweat pants- It worked in every place I went to. I
could wear it with a turtle neck and boots or high heels and silk shirt. One night I fell asleep in it and it was so comfortable. I also bought an Armani suit and threw away the pants as they never fit properly and I love the jacket. So not sure -have had different reactions to different things. Hmmmmm
Shay said…
"If I had invested the money instead of buying Chanel suits, I'd be so much better off today."

Not necessarily. Her 40lK has probably tanked but vintage Chanel will always fetch a good price at auction.
fiftyfifty said…
Buy a kilted skirt from a reputable mail order house. I have two kilts from "Scotch House" I bought in 1988. They had a ten year sabbatical but are back in action without one sign of wear and tear.
Duchesse said…
fiftyfifty: Love them and think with the right accessory they would be timeless, Congratulations for maintaining the same size for a decade. I'm a size larger!

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