Dressing Well Without Chanel: The Red Carpet At T.J. Maxx


Something like 30 years ago, I had to hurriedly buy an outfit for a fancy affair. I wound up in Carolyn Charles. She would become a favorite of Lady Di several years later, but that day I knew only that I had to be some place glamourous, with famous people, in a few hours. I spent an inordinate sum of money, mitigated only slightly by pounds sterling translation.

This weekend I was invited to an Oscar-watching party. Dress code – fancy. As it happened, my closet and I were in separate parts of the Bay Area. Purchase required. And I knew, without a doubt, that I didn’t need a new serious dress.

Off to T.J. Maxx we went. An experiment, to see if a) I could find something and b) whether I might extract some useful principles. Things looked good, right from the start. To whit.

5 Principles For A Budget Red Carpet

Red Carpet At TJ Maxx

I’ve never shopped at T.J. Maxx before, but dresses seem to be a strong point. I gathered veritable armfuls, and made my way to the dressing room. First try, sequins. Hmmm. I’d already had some fun with those, back at Lavish!

Principle #1: Unusual metallic sequins are almost always a safe bet. Unless you’ve been there, done that.

I also worried about te Big Shiny Rectangle. I prefer to gesture at my waistline somewhere, rather than hang fabric directly from shoulder to knee. And it was a loud rectangle – those sequins were in fact paillettes and they clattered a tad.

Principle #2: Find a simple but flattering silhouette. Budget complexity is rarely successful. In my case, flattering means taking your kind advice and owning my shoulders. Baring them, even. It also meant wearing the dress backwards. The intended front view was what we can only call, in all kindness, cheesy.

Principle #3: Look for a color that flatters you. A lot. So I went long, and blue, as you see above. I tried out red, and purple, but why bother? Of course I really wanted Penelope Cruz’s Oscar dress color, but I doubt she chose her outfit in 45 minutes, and I doubt she shopped at T.J. Maxx.

T.J. Maxx

Principle #4: Take a strong trend or two for a test drive. Along with the dress, I bought nude (for me) shoes and a lavender wrap. More experimenting. Below you will see the nude (beige) platforms, still on trend. Should they have been patent leather? For evening? No. But given the 45 minute shopping excursion I’m pleased. And 80s electric blue with lavender and beige counts as color blocking. Impunity. I personally think this blue ought to be called Joan Collins, but what do I know?

T. J. Maxx Find

Behold the receipts. Wrap, shoes, dress.

And the encouraging sign on the dressing room door. Clearly they know something, those T.J. executives.

One caveat. The earrings and bracelet above are real. But a similar impact could have been achieved with some additional judicious budget shopping. Cuffs are everywhere.

Principle #5: Hair, makeup, and underpinnings matter more than you might think. My hair is sort of a mess in this photo – but if you imagine I had curled it,  Grecian ringlets down my back, then I’d have a “look” going. If you imagine my shapewear hadn’t also been in another part of the Bay Area, well, no need to get into details.

So what would blowing the budget have gotten us? A more sophisticated color, certainly. But most impact would have come from a heavier jersey, probably silk. It would have hung with more gravitas, more style. But can you imagine how much fun it would be to have someone with a microphone ask you what designer you are wearing? Impunity trades off quite well for fabric quality.

Note: This post was inspired both by this one at Une Femme D’Un Certain Age, with a real stylist, a real red carpet, and a real sophisticated blue, and Terri at Rags Against The Machine, whose persistent style experimentation I admire.

Note: My gosh you all have been so nice in the comments. Thank you very much.

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  • I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a backwards-dress executed so well! Or – at all, even! I am very impressed.

    10:29 am
    Sheryl said...

    I know! I never would have guessed in the first shot that it was backwards … and after seeing second photo I have to say this dress was Knocked Out Of the Park.

  • All things considered, you look amazing, and turning the dress around was stroke of genius. And that’s my favorite hairstyle on you ever.

    7:04 pm
    Lisa said...

    How interesting. That’s how I always wore my hair when I was in my 20s and 30s. Felt that it was too young to do now, for the most part. And I agree that “all things considered” is the right thing to say.

  • the polar opposite of celine dion’s dress-reversal – marvelous in every way. you realize you’ll be invited to my all-sequins party, though, right? it’s like diddy’s white party, but it’s like being inside a disco ball, and as guests mingle it sounds as if a gentle rain is falling all around us.

    7:04 pm
    Lisa said...

    I’m there. I will sequin EVERYTHING.

  • you are goooooorgie and true confession- my red carpet dress for an Oscars event last night was also from TJ’s. you know what they say about great minds ;)



  • I wish I looked as beautiful as you with my clothes on frontwards.

    7:05 pm
    Lisa said...


  • Fabulous! How clever to turn the dress backwards!

  • Take the Kiton white cashmere suit out of the closet, straight to consignment and invest in a long gown and a style for the next dress-up event! Such a gorgeous face & fab body to see you in a cheap poly number (terrible seam sew) w/ cheap shoes, teacher-mom bad-dye hair and hippy wrap …. it just doesn’t do the strong, smart, clever tounged witty women with a many award-winning worthy blog justice. I’m sorry, I was just compelled to offer these 2 cents as constructive and most certainly not hurtful. Love your hairstye in the blog photo.

    7:06 pm
    Lisa said...

    Diana, this is not hurtful at all. It was an experiment, and the party didn’t need my best possible shot. If I ever go to a serious black tie red carpet event, at a guess I will go the whole 9 yards. Knowing me.



  • For my money, evening wear is your strong suit.
    You might have to consider being the Grande Dame!
    I’ve checked out all the Oscar wear and, yes, the understated Cruz grey is good and I like Paltrow’s caped outfit but otherwise I truly think your bold and simple beats ’em all.

    7:06 pm
    Lisa said...

    You are a doll.

  • Well. The blue is definitely your color, and you look very pretty in what you came up with.
    But- did the invitation come out of the blue too, or what?
    Even in case of emergency, I don´t think I would have been able to pay for the clothes, however cheap they were.
    But, then that only tells something about me.
    You managed wonderfully, bravo!!

  • That is a brilliant look Miss LPC, wearing it back to front (or however one describes it) absolutely made my day, you are *so* ingenious. Your hair is gorgeous, so, so pretty, I can easily imagine cascading curls down your back. (BTW, the cuff looks stunning.)

    A totally fabulous look, regardless of where you found it!

  • Love your idea of wearing the dress backwards. Very clever. You look fabulous.

  • You look entirely terrific in that! I have always found TK Maxx a depressing shopping experience, but you’ve encouraged me to have another go.

  • Wow that blue is stunning on you with your hair…grecian look….does help with cheap clothes to have a trim,slim body.

    Real jewellery finished the look. Ida

  • Double, triple, quadruple GASP! That neckline and cut-in shoulders are divine on you!

    Girrrrl, I’m tellin ya, you are radiant! And I hope you noticed when wishes-she-had-your-shoulders Gwyneth removed the coat at the VF afterparty, you could see that Tom Ford had attached shoulderpads to the gown so the whole ensemble would work.

  • well, you definitely worked it and OH BOY is that your color! you looked lovely!

  • Brilliant call to turn the dress backward!! I’m bookmarking this and Karen’s post for the next once-per-decade event where dressing up to that degree is called for.

  • All my formal dresses are from TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, and Ross. The bling and the attitude attract way more attention than the label on the dress.

    You look marvelous! I love how your hair is growing out and how your shoulders look so great in this dress. Brava!

  • “Budget complexity is rarely successful.” That is one quote to live by, stylistically speaking.

  • Definitely made my Best Dressed List! Very well done.

  • You look fabulous – that Joan Collins colour is stunning on you. This really does go to show, it’s how you put a look together that counts.

  • You look fabulous!!!! It would never have occurred to me to turn a dress around. How did you manage that slit?

    Your readers were right. Your shoulders are an asset. Your proportions look perfect here.

  • Colour looks great on you. I am a fan of TK Maxx in the UK and often find some great designer bargains there.

  • I gasped audibly as the first picture loaded! (And I had peaked at the Instagram last night). The color is absolutely beautiful on you and I am very, very impressed that you were able to put all of this together in such a short amount of time. Although I put my looks together inexpensively, the trade-off has always been the HOURS I spend at it. And I deeply appreciate the mention.

    7:07 pm
    Lisa said...

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  • You look absolutely fabulous and your savviness in the purchasing and styling catagories deserve an Oscar unto themselves…Brava!!!
    xo J!

  • Lisa, your fantastic physic and grace elevate this dress.
    You look so glamorous!
    Did you know that your body type is the most rare?

  • You look beautiful.

    7:08 pm
    Lisa said...

    Aw. Thanks.

  • If you had worn the dress with the slit in front you could have struck the same pose as Angelina Jolie. Very clever of you to have put together this look so quickly and inexpensively.

    7:08 pm
    Lisa said...

    Get this. I took the photo before Angelina posed. Prescient or what?

  • Nice looking outfit.
    You can’t go wrong with a rich flattering color. The sequin dress looks pretty good to me but I have to wonder if you’d be leaving a trail everywhere you sat down.

    It’s fun to go someplace like TJ Maxx or Marshall’s, particularly when they’re well stocked, and pick out an entire outfit that’s within your budget.

  • And the Oscar for the most affordable stylish outfit goes to……….. YOU ! Congratulations!

  • That cut & color could not look more fantastic on you, friend – well played! Funny enough I do the same wearing-it-backwards trick with a few dresses of mine . . .

  • Stunning! Your clothesreally show off your beautiful body, and your make up is so youhtful looking. Lovely to see you in some bright lipstick. Just lovely. If I had one little tiny quibble it would be the shoes. I think I would prefer something strappy. Maybe silver? Well, it doesn’t really matter but something a little more dressy.

    But you rule gilr!

  • You look lovely.

  • Backwards? Really? Amazing!

    My mother’s advice on “TJ’s” (she’s on a first name basis) is to stick to solid colors, preferably black. I think that color blue is beautiful on you and the purple scarf adds some spark.

  • You look gorgeous! Your hair/shoulders/arms are fantastic. The beautiful blue is amazing on you.

  • May I echo “amazing”? And wish you’d bought the gold sequins, too, because you never know when a disco ball will pop into your life. Also really like the mauve Grecian gown.

    As for the commenters advising that you upgrade the quality: one does not need it when a party involves a television. Your closet holds many beautiful things and you know when to which.

  • Hey! Isn’t #2 the dress that Angelina Jolie wore?

  • Fabulous! And very clever to wear it front to back. I wouldn’t have known as everything looked so intentional. A perfect choice for something not to be worn often, if ever, again. Geesh, I spend more on opera tickets.

  • Well done. Why not shorten the dress and wear it from time to time in the summer? Only you can decide on the fabric front if it would be worth it. That color, Klein blue, is very “in” it was confirmed to me recently so you were — in spite of what you may have thought — right on message.

    The shoes are great. And, as I’ve mentioned in the past, your cuff is sublime.

    Can’t wait for your visit chez moi this week.

    7:09 pm
    Lisa said...

    I’m looking forward to it soon. And I suspect this dress will wend its way to red-headed daughter.

  • I think Royal Blue may be your colour………….and I need to have you shop with me, I am far too impulsive. XO

    7:08 pm
    Lisa said...

    Any time:).

  • Great choice to go with the solid blue; turning it backwards really suits what you show of your style. Drapey front or solid sequins/paillettes = somebody else’s statement.


  • You look great and I am stunned at the price of your finds. Smart lady!!

    Penelope Cruz’s dress and hair were perfect!

    Art by Karena

  • Stunning colour combination and you have the most wonderful athletic legs.
    I too love your hair like that.

  • I think Tish’s idea of shortening it for the summer is brilliant.

  • Your beautiful shoulders are an asset. I’m so glad you showed them. You look great in this ensemble and it is fun that you could use it as an instructional moment.

  • You look great in that dress and color! I just wish Penelope Cruz’s Armani Prive dress had been this color. Honestly I was disappointed by the overall lack of color at the Oscars so I was happy to see your outfit!

    xo Mary Jo

  • Love that color and cut on you – beautiful!

  • Hm? Have you thought of going back and getting the sequins? It really looked hot on you and I’m sure there will be an occasion where you can wear it.

  • Yesss, another vote for the sequins! Really fun little number, why not?

    7:10 pm
    Lisa said...

    Hmm. My shopping partner asked me if I wanted to go back for it. Perhaps I should have said yes. Would need it altered though.

  • Holy smoking hot, gunna go out in style, girl!! And that’s all I’m going to say ’bout that!!

  • What a buy! I never would have thought of looking there! The color of your dress is actually the color of the dress I am wearing to my daughter’s wedding. I had to fight my 86 year old mother for the right to wear it because cobalt blue is “her color”. She graciously lent it to me for the day!

  • Nice work! I love it that you turned the dress around and I’m amazed that it worked.

    By the way, I clicked through to that older post and and thought it was hilarious. What a great story. I’m so glad you saved the dress — you should model it for us.

  • Whoa, Angelina ain’t got NOTHIN on that leg of yours! I love it. Why not wear the dress backwards indeed? And next year, flip it around and try it the front way to get a whole new dress. Your bod makes the dress look expensive. Did you have shapewear under that jersey? Karen

    7:10 pm
    Lisa said...

    No shapewear. Hence visible belly curve but what the heck!

  • Considering the short time frame you had you pulled together a smashing outfit Lisa.
    I’m a little envious because this blue is a shade I cannot wear and I love it.
    The price of fashion in your country is brilliant compared to the hefty cost of clobber down here.

  • hi lisa!

    brilliant idea with this dress. i would love to have seen it both ways. i think the color is just amazing on you and you look smashing in it. hope the party was fun and angelina’s legs got nothin on you girl. xo janet

  • I would have never thought to turn the dress around! You looked amazing and those legs, who knew? You need to show them more!!!

  • Well, Hellooooo….Sexy lady! What a great entrance…and your exit, I’m sure, was the talk of the town!

  • You rock it, Angelina! :) xoxo