Home Page Sharon's Articles Sharon's Resume My Photos Email Sharon
  From the
  A ball gown for $7 - try to top that
In these uncertain economic times, there's no point spending money needlessly.
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

When my editor asked me to do a piece for the frugal series, I knew she was on to me. It must have been my bragging that did it, because I do love to save a buck, particularly on clothes, and I do love to talk about it. I think it goes back to my university days at Dalhousie in Halifax, when I bought a "hot" sheepskin coat off the street for 20 bucks. I didn't know it was hot at the time, but when I recall how the "sales clerks" jumped off the back of a white, unmarked van with about 100 coats for a two-minute sales frenzy before folding up and disappearing into the night, I think it's safe to say the garment was suspect.

Although that was the beginning and end of the purchasing of stolen goods for me, it does seem to have been the start of my addiction to buying clothes at good prices -- really good prices.

And it can be fun being frugal. Last year I met CNN's Larry King, and he complimented me on the dress I was wearing. It was a Chinese-inspired red (with gold background) brocade that cost me a whopping $24. I graciously accepted the compliment as though I was wearing Valentino, instead of five-and-dime couture. Luckily, he didn't ask the name of the designer, although that has happened. I once wore a one-shouldered black sheath dress to a large awards show. I was an underpaid television news anchor at the time, and a Toronto columnist, recognizing me, stopped and complimented me on it. When she asked who designed it, I froze for a moment, before telling her I didn't quite remember. (I actually remembered very well. I had bought it from a clearance house for $19 from a rack of thousands.) I told her I thought I had bought the dress at Holt Renfrew, the most expensive store I could think of. Fortunately, she left it at that.

There are braver sorts than me out there. Take Toronto society maven Catherine Nugent, just back from France, who told me, "I bought a wonderful caftan in the market in the South of France for $30. It had three layers with silver weights holding down the layers. I bought it four years ago and wear it still. I dress it up with nice beads and jewellery." Nugent had no problem letting people know where she got the frock. "I told them the truth," she said. " 'I got it at the market.' And they all ran out to get one," she laughed, although she did concede that not all society types would shop for clothes at a market. "I think it takes courage and self-assurance."

Buoyed by Nugent's example, I'm now about to make a bold admission, to go where no woman has gone before. (I'll probably regret this, but here goes.) To last year's Brazilian Ball, I wore a copper-coloured gown that cost me $7 -- yes, that's $7. I bought it at Winners. Even for Winners this is a very low price, but I guess the price just kept going down because the dress didn't fit anyone. Of course it didn't fit me, either, but that didn't stop me -- a deal's a deal. The amazing thing is that I liked the dress even before I looked at the price tag, and then after looking at the price tag I really liked it. I feel I should admit that the night I wore the gown, I was also carrying a $1,200 Christian Dior purse. I should also admit that the Dior bag didn't exactly cost me $1,200. (I bought it at an outlet mall for about $200.) In my opinion, that purse, which I've had for years, is the only reason I was able to get away with the $7 gown, assuming I did get away with it.

I knew Marlene Borins, the president of the Mount Sinai Hospital Auxiliary, would tell me the truth. She's a fabulous dresser herself and a blunt and forthright type. I spent time at her table at the ball and asked if she remembered the dress I wore. Insisting she did, she said, "I thought it looked great." When I told her that it cost a mere seven bucks, she replied, "Best $7 you've ever spent." Was she surprised at the price? "Yes," she said, "I thought it cost a few more zeros." When I asked if she would ever consider wearing such a dress, she answered wryly, "I haven't been as lucky as you, to find a dress at that price point." Though she did admit that, unlike me, she wasn't looking for a dress at that price point. And, by the way, she doesn't even recall my Dior bag!

In my opinion, the best-dressed women I've met are not necessarily the ones who walk out of the couture houses, the ones who insist on being dressed from head to toe in Gucci or Chanel at all times, even while gardening or power walking. No, the best dressers I've encountered tend to be "costumers," "eclectic dressers," those who mix expensive and chic. Speaking of chic, take Suzanne Boyd, editor-in-chief of Flare magazine. The first time I met her, she was sporting what appeared to be a man's shirt, open to the waist, exposing a frilly pink bra. The effect was incredible. Let me point out that if I wore this outfit, I would be arrested, but Suzanne was not only able to pull it off with class, she actually looked dignified.

I'm even more frugal when it comes to my hair. More and more people, and not just women, are telling me that they spend hundreds of dollars on their hair every six weeks, some up to an incredible $300 for colour and streaks. There are options, you know. It seems that people are paying for a trendy place, for "ambiance." Frankly, I'm not interested in that. Having gone to a high- priced, in-vogue hairdresser for years, and watching my hair thin out and turn a whiter shade of pale from too much bleach, I decided that if I was going to have my hair ruined, I might as well pay less for the privilege. So I found someone new who isn't trendy. She still calls her workplace a salon (I call it a dive), but the price is right. First time in her chair, she charged me $8 for highlights that in some salons would cost me $250. By the way, she now charges me about $20 for a full head of streaks. Still not bad, but hardly her $8, rock-bottom price from the old days (just last year). I'm afraid I'm losing her. Next thing you know, she'll move to a downtown loft and charge $20 per streak. If that happens I'll take solace and join one of my wealthiest friends, who has long blond tresses and who colours and streaks her locks at home with products she buys at the drug store. Her hair is in beautiful condition, and she saves a fortune, even though she doesn't need to. "There's no way I'm spending hundreds of dollars on my hair when I can do it myself," she says. My sentiments exactly.

This summer I'm going to be even more frugal than usual. I'm not buying a thing, not even a T-shirt. But I am going to have a whole new wardrobe. How? By losing 10 pounds. That way, my summer clothes will all look different. And if that doesn't work, what with the weight I've gained over the winter, my clothes are destined to look different regardless. Either way, I'll win -- well, at least I'll save money. And maybe that $7 dress will finally fit me.

  Last update: May 6, 2009
© Copyright 2009, National Post
Email: Sharon Dunn
Email: Webmaster