Chic-for-less becomes a fashionable way to shop

Thanks to high gas prices and higher food prices, the days of the Starbucks-toting, gluttonous fashionista are over.

“People are shopping, but instead of choosing to go upscale for the simple things, they are going downscale,” said Kathryn Finney, who writes the Budget Fashionista, a New-York-based blog. “For a while, it was about mixing up the high and the low,” she said. “Now it's all about the low.”

So what exactly are we buying during these belt-tightening times?

After three summers of strong sales, the dress is still selling very well, said Marshal Cohen, market analyst for NPD Market Research. But the motivation behind purchasing the frocks, Cohen says, has changed from novel idea to necessity.

“Women bought them, first off, because they were fresh,” Cohen said. “But now it passes the complete-outfit test. It's economical, and it will be strong into fall.”

The tight squeeze on the economy is forcing us to look at our finances, but it is also taking the whimsy out of fashion. Until now, fashion was not only a creative endeavor; it was a carefree pastime.

Recently, 39 percent of 7,500 adults polled said higher gas prices have caused them to spend less on clothing, according to Big Research. That's up almost 13 percentage points from the same time last year, when only 26.6 percent said their closets were affected by the fluctuating prices.

So what's a girl to do if she's to stay chic?

Unlike lean times that sent people to the sewing machine, our chic-for-less culture has created a bevy of places to shop. And according to Cohen, they are doing well and will continue to do so: namely, the Forever 21s, Targets and Zaras of the world.

Even Wal-Mart is going beyond its basic George line to include a collection by California luxury designer Norma Kamali. Paige Premium Denim is now at T.J. Maxx. And more designers like Kate Spade and Alice + Olivia are having online sample sales. Of course, there's always consignment.

What does this mean for fashion?

There will always be people who can afford the best of everything – from a $250 Neal Sperling T-shirt to a $1,000 Pucci pantsuit.

But as our true necessities become more expensive, those of us who got a tiny taste of luxury may be forced to perk Maxwell House at home and dream about the Diane von Furstenberg dress.