When Angelina Jolie took to the red carpet earlier this month for the premiere of A Mighty Heart dressed in a black velvet dress that was subsequently revealed to have cost a big fat $26, women all over America found themselves wondering: Could I also get away with wearing a super-cheap dress to the fancy affairs I so resent wasting my hard-earned money on? Is there really a way I can avoid overspending for a silly frock I'll wear only once?
Jolie's dress, it turns out, hailed from a vintage store called Wasteland on Melrose Avenue in L.A., and was purchased a mere week before she wore it by a friend who was in the store shopping for baby clothes for Jolie's ever-expanding brood. Asked if all their dresses cost this littlemaybe it's worth a trip to L.A.Wasteland's manager says that they start at $20, top out at around $85, and that quite frankly she thinks Jolie's dresswhich the actress reportedly loved at first sight was in fact a little underpriced. (Apparently the proscription that Jolie or her handlers is trying to enforce on journalistic speculation about her family and private life does not extend to vintage-store managers.)
So, with Jolie's thriftiness in mind, I decide to spend a couple of early summer afternoons looking for something festive that would not rock Angelina's refreshing new budget. My first stop is Joyce Leslie on the corner of East 8th Street and University Place, which I have always had a soft spot forthe cheerfully slutty frocks, the tantalizing low prices. There I encounter a gold Lurex bolero for $16.99, which of course would have to be paired with something like a pair of Chloe, or least Theory, trousers. (But if Jolie can add $800 Christian Louboutin shoes to her $26 dress, can't you be forgiven for splurging on a pair of pants?) Still, maybe that's cheating, in which case two other distinct possibilities emerge: a $19.99 fuscia halter dress with a crystal-pleated skirt that is a dead ringer for Marilyn's famous subway-grating dress in The Seven Year Itch; and, even more festive, a sequin-covered mini tank available in silver, gold, and an especially nervy black and silver stripe for $29.99, which conforms to the spirit, if not the letter, of our self-imposed budget.
Surprised to find genuine contenders so early in the game, I visit the Salvation Army on 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. These neighborhood Sally Anns have a nice small-town feel, and you never know what you'll findon this particular day, a huge plaster rooster, marked high at $49.99, is sharing shelf space with sad stuffed animals. The rack of evening clothes is fairly fullfurther evidence that, after a single outing, this is invariably where these closet hogs end up. Unfortunately, a crimson number with crystal beading and slits fore and aft, tagged an inviting $14.99, is virtually the only dress on display that does not feature one or more unglamorous stains, proving that even if you only wear a dress once, an excess of champagne coupled with injudicious cake gobbling will result in a ruined garment.
So depressing are these items that I repair to Strawberry on University Place and 14th Streetwhere whatever else you can say about the offerings, at least they're stain-free and brand-new. Most of the stock is relentlessly casual, but downstairs there's an ankle-length op-art print dress with a padded-bra halter in a bilious green not seen around much since the 1970s. Though most likely intended for nothing much fancier than a pool party, it's easy to imagine it at an event like, say, the Independent Spirit Awards, a drunken fun-fest (at least that's how it looks on TV) held on the beach in Santa Monica the night before the Oscars.
But the real triumph awaits next door at Forever 21, a store that I have always had mixed feelings about, mainly because a) I have never once been able to find anything I see in the window inside, and b) printed on the bottom of the shopping bags is "John 3:16," referring to a Bible passage about God, his only begotten son, and everlasting lifethree subjects I prefer not to think about when shopping for a cheap dress. Nevertheless, it is upstairs here that I see the first frock that I actually fall in love with: a Kirsten Dunstworthy cream chiffon dress for $29.80, whose lace bodice and black velvet ribbon trim bear an undeniable hint of Chanel couture. It may be my personal favorite, but it is by no means the only option: There is also a slinky polyester dress in the hideous Dynasty-ish royal blue revived by Balenciaga this season and decorated with a crystal buckle for $19.80.
If Forever 21 is this good, can H&M be far behind? Sadly, the answer is yes. Just as your internal price-ometer adjusts dangerously upward after a few hours of shopping at Barneys ($200 for a T-shirt? Not bad! $800 for a coat? A bargain!) the reverse, it turns out, is also true. Suddenly, H&M's short, silver-brocade smock dress seems astronomical at $49.90; the black organza dress with appliquéd embroidery and covered buttons is positively ridiculous at $69.90. The only viable candidate is a gauzy, mustard-colored frock with a big sweeping skirt, a shirred top, and a 1950s attitude, reduced from $69.90 to $29.90.
Its vintage air reminds me of my original mission: Since Jolie's dress came from a vintage clothing shop, shouldn't I visit a couple of similar venues? I begin at Star Struck, which has been in business on Greenwich Avenue for decades. Alas, though there is a round rack of frocks that, like Jolie's find, date from the middle years of the last century, they are priced far beyond what I expect. A black velvet and taffeta example is $75; a chocolate-colored rayon with coral jimmies around the neck is $88.
A visit to Andy's on St. Marks Place only underscores the bad news. In the vintage world, there are your high-end, label-conscious venues like Cherry's at Eighth Avenue and 12th Street, where you wouldn't expect to find anything for less than three figures, and then there are places like Andy's, which I have always imagined draws a clientèle made up of equal parts impoverished trannies and rebellious suburban high school girls visiting the East Village for a transgressive shopping spree. Do either of these constituencies have $75 to spend on a stained, iridescent lavender ball gown, or $65 for a velvet number sporting a row of shabby bows? Apparently, the answer is a depressing "yes."
Of course, unlike the Forever 21 or Joyce Leslie clothes, these vintage dresses have already proved they can survive for at least 50 years. Which certainly gives you pause, at least until you remember how many times you intend to wear it exactly once.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.