Challenged to create bar-worthy ensembles for less than $25 each at Charleston’s thriftiest shops, here is what SWIG contributor Maggie Winterfeldt learned.

1. Study Your Prey

Forever 21
King St. Downtown.
(843) 937-5087

With the steady stream of loud music and tweens flowing out of its King Street doors, shopping at Forever 21 is downright daunting. However, experience has taught me that for every 20 polyester designer knock-offs I fight my way into a dressing room to try on, I find one fabulous — and fabulously affordable — gem. Not wanting to miss out on a stylish deal, I scoped out what the store had to offer on one recent weekend morning. I ferreted out garments that fit my style and budget from the comfort of my living room, eliminating initial moments of confusion in the overwhelmingly enormous store.

Armed with a mental list of styles and a Bieber-fever vaccine, I made my way to Forever 21 a little after its 10 a.m. opening. Inside the cavernous store, I was hit with a preternatural calm. The only other shopper exclaimed to me, “It’s usually so crowded that I’m intimidated to come in here.”

After an hour of peaceful shopping and diligent price-tag checking, I found an outfit: a geranium-red pleated skirt in a filmy feminine fabric ($10) paired with an oversized black tee silk screened with an iconic Marilyn Monroe image ($15.80). The combination was edgy, youthful, and — paired with the motorcycle boots and a studded leather bag already in my closet — capable of lasting from a late night at J-Pub to an early morning mimosa brunch at A.C.’s.

2. Exploit Advantages

Butterfly Consignments
King St. Downtown.
(843) 577-8404

Butterfly Consignments, a local chain of high-end used clothing stores, has few items under $25, so putting together an entire outfit for that price required finagling. Using every resource to my advantage, I took the sales consultant up on her cheerful offer for assistance. After listening to my challenge (and bringing me a complimentary glass of wine), the helpful staffer informed me that a dress would be my best bet for staying on budget.

Leading me to a rack of new fall arrivals, she pulled out a black-and-khaki dress in a clingy, lightweight fabric, perfect for Charleston’s mild fall weather and grabbing a glass of wine après work at Social or rendezvousing with girlfriends mid-week at the Cocktail Club. The short hem endowed the dress with sex appeal while the cowl neck and color-blocking provided visual interest. However, putting the entire budget into one piece seemed extravagant, so I pled my case for why I should receive the 20-percent off student promotion the store was currently running. Triumphant, I was able to use the extra five bucks on a chunky wooden bangle.

3. Have Patience

Uptown Cheapskate
Johnnie Dodds Blvd. Mt. Pleasant.
(843) 216-1416

Uptown Cheapskate, the newest edition to Charleston’s stylish thrift shops, is a mixed bag, and it takes time and diligence to sift through rack after rack after rack of clothes. While the pricing is a bit inconsistent and the selection of garments rather indiscriminate —a worn $15 Old Navy dress hung next to a perky Betsy Johnson dress at the same price — there are numerous treasures to be unearthed.

Bargain hunting is not an instant-gratification sport. The satisfaction comes when, after nearly 45 minutes of browsing, you’re almost about to give up hope of finding anything when you stumble upon a like-new $16 BCBG mini dress with a plunging neckline that begs to be worn to Trio. Yes, this happened to me, and it was glorious. Half an hour later, accessorized with strappy metallic pumps ($6) and red hoop earrings ($3), I fist-pumped my way out of Uptown Cheapskate and readied myself for a night at NV Lounge.

4. Be Creative

Various locations

An hour into my Goodwill expedition, I was frustrated and losing steam. Looking through the racks for traditionally cute items had left me with an armful of mismatched pieces. It was time to switch up my technique. Hardcore bargain hunters don’t take garments at face value. Amid racks of plus-sized sequin suit sets, decades-old bridesmaid dresses, and pounds of stone-washed denim, these clever recessionistas see potential. I readjusted my focus and went back through each rack.

This time, I was struck by the chic shade-of-winter white on a silk top ($3.79). Overlooking the size 18 tag and protruding shoulder pads, I picked it up. On a nearby rack I found a felt blazer ($4.79) in the same creamy hue. The fabric and color combo was sophisticated, but it needed direction. A pair of tailored plaid shorts ($3.79) and some preppy high-heeled loafers ($3.99) lent the look a sexy menswear vibe.

In the dressing room, I discovered that the shoulder pads could easily be pulled out, while cinching the natural waist with a belt made the blouse look flowy instead of big.

In the accessories department, a skinny snakeskin belt ($2.99) and brown alligator embossed shoulder bag ($2.99) completed the look with bar-worthy flair. I would feel downright elegant sidling up to the bar at McCrady’s or Halls Chophouse.

The Bill

Forever 21 ($25.80)
• Logo Top $15.80
• Short Skirt $10

Butterfly Consignments ($25)
• Soprano Dress $20
• Wooden Bracelet $5

Uptown Cheapskate ($24.97)
• X-Appeal Gold 10; Strappy Pumps $5.99
• BCBG Dress $15.99
• Hoop Earrings $2.99

Goodwill ($22.34)
• Genuine Snakeskin Belt $2.99
• Worthington Wool Blazer $4.79
• Eva Laurel Silk Top $3.79
• Gap Plaid Shorts $3.79
• George High Heel Loafers $3.99
• Harold Powell Leather; Shoulder Bag $2.99

TOTAL $98.11

Plus Tax (Butterfly and Forever 21) $102.43

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