10 Ways to Acquire Cheap Formal Wear


Prom and wedding season are just around the corner, which means that if you have a teenager who plans to participate in that annual rite of passage or friends or family getting hitched this spring or summer, you'll be in the market for formal wear before you know it.

Formal wear can be expensive — especially if you're renting several times a year — so it might not be a bad idea to invest in permanent pieces that you can wear over and over. How can you score a good deal on a tux or a gown? Lots of ways, in fact. Here are 10 of them. (See also: To Buy or Not to Buy? Criteria for Thrift-Store Clothes Shopping)

1. Craigslist

There are two ways you can "shop" for formal wear on Craigslist. First, scour the Clothing and Accessories listing in the For Sale section of your area. My quick search for this post produced results for a tuxedo blazer and pants for $55 and another listing for a blazer for $40.

The other way you can use Craigslist to find exactly what you need in the formal wear department is to post a listing detailing your needs. Savvy sellers aren't just listing on the site but also searching for those posts that they can fulfill with what they have.

2. Thrift Shops

Most thrift shops have entire sections dedicated to formal wear, the bulk of which are gowns for girls and women. These dresses end up at thrift shops for various reasons, the most likely of which is that the previous owner didn't want to wear it again. Men's formal wear, on the other hand, is a bit harder to find because men tend to hold onto their tuxes since, for the most part, we're not compelled to go to every event in a different getup. Nonetheless, there are great formal wear finds for both sexes in the thrift shop, especially if you're looking for something out of the ordinary (powder-blue tux with ruffled shirt, anyone?) or perhaps even vintage.

3. Consignment Shops

Consignment shops are similar to thrift shops in that the clothing is previously owned, but unlike a thrift shop, these clothes aren't just tossed out. Instead they're put on sale by the original owner who will take a cut of the sale while providing a percentage to the storeowner for selling the clothing in their store. Thus, consignment shops are great for finding low cost formal wear that's more current in terms of style and in better shape than thrift shop finds.

4. Hand-Me-Downs

If you don't mind wearing your big brother or sister's hand-me-downs, you can score big in the formal wear department.

If the items don't quite fit, you can have the pieces tailored  (which you can also do with pieces you find on Craigslist or in the thrift shop, too). Since you're saving so much dough on the outfit itself, this expense shouldn't be a big deal. And ladies, if the gown isn't quite what you want or isn't necessarily your style, get creative and think of ways you can change it by making it shorter, removing straps, or embellishing with sequins, beads, or other design elements. You'll probably need to enlist help in this area, but, again, you can justify it since you didn't put anything out of pocket initially.

5. Discount Retailers

There are plenty of retailers that have reduced-cost formal wear, like Burlington Coat Factory, for instance. Additionally, some of these discount retailers have occasional sales that offer steeper savings or buy-one-get-one offers.

6. Go Halfsies With a Friend

When your favorite discount retailer has a can't-miss buy-one-get-one sale, try to find a friend who's also in the market for formal wear. If you can both benefit from a tux or gown of your own, you can split the cost and walk away with new duds that are, essentially, 50% off.

7. Garage and Yard Sales

If you're looking for formal wear at a garage or yard sale, be smart about the sales at which you stop. If it's hosted by 20-somethings trying to make rent by selling off some inventory, you can almost guarantee that there won't be any tuxes on the rack (although there may be gowns), and if you don't want to wear your grandpa's tux, skip the senior center sales, too. Your best bet is to stick to family-oriented sales; mom and dad may have owned formal wear at one time, but since the arrival of kids, simply can't fit into those duds anymore or just can't get away.

8. Piecemeal It

Find the shoes at a thrift shop; grab the shirt at a consignment shop; tie and vest at discount retailers; and the blazer and pants at a yard sale. Eventually you'll have a full outfit for which you may have paid less than you thought possible.

9. eBay

As I did with Craigslist, I searched eBay for formalwear specifically for this post. For men, there were tons of very affordable new and used choices in an abundance of styles for every black-tie occasion. The same applies to women's formal wear. In fact, I was surprised at the level of quality for the low cost. I thought this green pleated dress was particularly pretty and well priced. I have no affiliation with that listing, by the way. It's just a great example of the inexpensive selection that eBay offers.

10. Barter or Trade

Does a friend of yours have formal wear that you need or want? It doesn't hurt to let them know that you're interested in the pieces and offer to barter or trade something of yours for it. My mother always told me that you'll never know the answer to something if you don't ask — and the worst thing they can say is no. If they say yes, however, you can add a great gala ensemble that'll make you look like a boss without ever breaking open your wallet.

Have other ideas on how to snag cheap formal wear? Let me know in the comments below.

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Meg Favreau's picture

At least for ladies, I find that clothing swaps are especially good for this -- especially if you know the sort of people who don't want to wear the same fancy dress to more than one or two weddings. At the last swap I went to, I lucked out and got a gorgeous dress. Now I just need someone I know to get married. (HINT HINT, couples I'm friends with.)

Guest's picture

Great article on tuxedos. I own a formalwear shop in Rochester, New York and one thing I wanted to add to the discussion is that most shops will sell slower moving rental inventory to make way for new models and styles they may be bringing in.

Typically, those sales occur early in the season (Jan - Mar) and if you're not fussy about having the latest and greatest designer of the moment, this could be an affordable option. In most cases, these tuxes have a lot of life left in them, they just aren't suitable for day to day rentals anymore.

Also, if you do score a tux somewhere for a great price, you do have the option of just renting accessories like a vest and/or tie that matches your date's dress. Finally, if you're near a locally-owned shop you might have an opportunity to trade-in a tux that doesn't fit for credit toward one that does (assuming that what you have isn't damaged or horribly out of style). I hope that helps!

Lars Peterson's picture

Long ago I worked for a boutique dress manufacturer -- Mother of the Bride and special occasion dresses and outfits. Every summer we held a "Sample Sale" on the parking lot out front of the factory in Culver City, CA.

Lots of pieces actually were samples from trunkshows and boutiques (so, sized to fit models...), but there were also plenty of returns in various sizes, usually in terrific condition. We priced the clothing 25-50% below WHOLESALE, depending on the style and color. Late in the day we increased the discount. Buyers had the option of paying for alterations or repairs.

If there's a designer or manufacturer near you who makes nice stuff, get on the mailing list.

Guest's picture

As Matthew said, a great time to look for formalwear on ebay is January, when many rental shops sell off their used stock. I bought two jackets that way and neither looks worn in any way.

Also important: take a little time to learn about the styles and tradition so that you'll know what you are looking for! I can't recommend the blacktieguide.com enough. He gives a thorough history and lots of pictures, including a hall of shame that is hilarious.

I actually like the fact that my formalwear was acquired over time from various sources, as now each piece has a bit of a story to it and reflects my style much better than if I had enough money to buy everything all at once (when I didn't know enough to make an informed purchase).

Guest's picture

Buying dresses and clothing for special occasions, especially prom can get out of control quickly. Dresses are way to expensive these days if you are shopping at specialty stores. I remember there were a few formal gown stores near my house growing up and everyone shopped there for dances because the store registered the dress so no one else would have the same one. These shops were expensive. If you shopped at a store less expensive, you ran the risk of at least three girls having the same dress. So what is better than that? All of the ideas you mentioned. My first home coming dress was bought from a vintage store on vacation visiting my family in Georgia. I cut a slit into it and added some beading to make it an entirely original dress, but I wouldn't have even needed to go that far. The dress was definitely unique on it's own.

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