Here’s my report on the mail-order clothing experience. (Just in case you haven’t been hanging upon my every word this month, here’s the background — I have gone back to teaching, and the vague sense that I ought to dress better for client meetings than I do for The Dark Art at my computer developed a bit more urgency as a result. While I should have just gotten over my aversion to going to the mall, I didn’t. Having had a good experience at a nice little dress shop but having found it expensive, I decided instead to order clothing online, and I told you I’d let you know how that worked out.)

I learned, back when I took up SWAPing, the perfect way to create a perfect wardrobe. You follow a mystical method to determine your best colors. From them you choose a neutral and a “fashion color.” You choose a print containing these two colors. From the neutral you make a jacket, skirt, and pants. You make a two-piece dress from the print. You pull a contrast color or two from the print and use them for a top of some sort, and use this palette to work your way up to four skirts or pants, six tops, and a jacket. If you have done this correctly, making sure that all the pieces work together, then you have finished and will be able to get dressed every day, in the dark if need be.

This is not what I did with my shopping. I determined to end up with the right number of pieces, but I didn’t want to go for perfect. I wanted to go for inexpensive. Not cheap, because I’m not happy with cheap clothing, and won’t wear it, and then what good did it do you to buy the stuff?

So, since I was bargain-hunting and really have no skills in this area, I just decided that I would track down pants for $25 or less and tops for $15 or less.

I chose these numbers because I had bought a couple of knit tops for that price at Target back when I was interviewing for jobs. Now, several months of washing and wearing later, they look shabby. One was a print, and it has faded. Both have the dispirited look that cheap fabric gets after you wash it a few times. So I didn’t want to go to Target and buy more, but I knew that those prices existed in the world, so they seemed good for a goal.

I told you I have no skills in this area.

I ended up ordering from four places: Amazon, Chadwicks, Land’s End, and Coldwater Creek. While it would be more useful of me if I had researched all possible online clothiers and chosen these for some great reasons, they were just places that communicated with me and so I had heard of them. I checked to make sure they weren’t known for using child labor or something, and went with them. I did have places suggested to me by other people, but they didn’t fit my budget. The four places I mention had outlets or, in the case of Amazon, random low prices.

The Amazon experience was the easiest. I owned a pair of pants that had not just a manufacturer, but also a name in them (I bought them at T.J.Maxx, with the help of #2 daughter, a year or so ago). I went to Google, typed in the name and manufacturer, and found that Amazon had some marked down from $70 to less than $25. There were two shades of gray in my size, so I ordered one of each. I already owned a skirt I could wear to work, so I had the four bottoms. Amazon takes payment directly from my bank account, the items arrived quickly, they fit, and while I’m not mad about the fabrics, I don’t walk around all day feeling miserable about them, so I’m okay with it. This was an efficient and successful method of shopping, and probably would work well for people like me who don’t mind wearing last year’s styles. I am not sure how common it is for RTW clothing to have names, as knitting patterns do, so I don’t know whether that was a terrific piece of luck or an actual practical method for buying clothing that fits over the internet. Still, I was happy.

Having succeeded with that effort, I moved on to the top-buying part.8

Since I had four neutral bottoms and a couple of neutral jackets, I figured I could buy any color at all. So I went to the outlets and searched for shirts or tops that could be worn under a jacket, for $15 or less. Since I did this at the end of the season, I had a lot of choices.

Again, this method is going to work better for less stylish people. Me, I will never think,  “I can’t wear coral in winter!” and I won’t care about sleeves, because I intend to wear these things with a jacket or a sweater anyway. So I basically chose the first six tops I found in the price range that struck me as reasonably attractive, likely to fit, and appropriate for work.

All four places were fast and accurate, and everything arrived safely. Chadwick’s sends their things in plastic envelopes, while the others send theirs in boxes. Chadwick’s sends you more emails than the others, but no one was excessive, and my spam folder didn’t get much of a bump from the experience.

Chadwick’s had the largest number of choices in the price range, but the poorest quality. Theirs were marked down from $25-$30 to $10-$15. My least favorite item was this one  of theirs. The fabric is very thin, almost sleazy, and they didn’t even bother to finish the edge — just serged it.8 The top edge is actually left raw. It might be worth the trouble of hemming it myself, but maybe not. The fabric is very poor quality.

I could have made this myself, for less, with a better quality of fabric. It does fit the nightgown-like theme of the things I sewed for myself this summer, though.

Since it costs you $7.95 in shipping to return an item to Chadwick’s (they send a UPS tag with your order), it isn’t worth sending back a $9.99 item, and this top is pretty tucked into a skirt, under a jacket, especially if you keep the jacket buttoned. True, there are bras for which you could say the same thing.

I had three tops from Chadwick’s, and while this one was the worst, the others were not much better. They were shirts, and while the fabrics were not what I would have chosen, at least they involved enough sewing that I felt 8there was some point in having bought them rather than made them myself.

 My favorite item was this blouse from Coldwater Creek. It was marked down from $49.50 to $9.99, the same price as the orchid-colored number from Chadwick’s, but it is a linen-rayon blend, and very nicely made. The other blouse from these folks was cotton, and also well made. I think this company may specialize in ladies my age and even older. #2 daughter is coming down this weekend, and we are going to visit their store in the Next County. It is very near the college, and it is conceivable that I might, in a couple of years when I need more clothing, be able to go and shop there if she assists me with an initial visit. (Yes, this is pathetic, but I answer my phone nowadays, so I can claim that I have improved.)

I have ordered from Land’s End a number of times in the past, and was confident not only about their quality, but also about their sizing, so I took advantage of their outlet’s under $10 section to buy the shoes below, as well.

It seemed odd to have to buy shoes, since I just bought shoes last year — or I guess it was the year before — but I have somehow nearly worn out the flat ones, and my teaching 8job involves standing, walking, and three flights of stairs, so it seemed reasonable to add a pair.

So what conclusions can I draw from this experience?

There were definitely some good lessons there. For one thing, a $9.99 shirt can be quite good or quite bad. While I tend to think that what it’s marked down from is not a reliable indicator (many retailers put an inflated price on items when they first arrive, for a day or two, just so they can show a large markdown), it may be that for mailorder that’s worth looking at. I also learned that the fiber content is a helpful guide. I really wasn’t happy with any of the synthetic fibers. Why I thought they might be some kind of special, better polyester blends I can’t imagine. After all, the pictures in the catalog have stylists and designers working with them, and I know what Photoshop can do.

So those are the lessons from an inept shopper.

The very good thing is that I am able to dress to go to class with confidence.

I had my second class meeting yesterday. Everyone showed up, all but one had done the assignment (she hadn’t been there the first day), and they got into groups and did their peer review very cooperatively. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you say, “Get into groups of five” and they stare blankly, even when you have — as of course I did — worked with them as a group on the concept. These guys did very well. One girl came up after class to tell me that she was a journalism major and — shyly — that she liked the class, and one wrote in her paper that her teacher (that’s me) “had an ora about her that was comforting.” Her paper was about how much she hates writing and how terrifying peer review sessions are, so that seemed good.

I can use that as evidence, I think, that I am harmless and not frightening, a question that comes up with surprising frequency.