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Looking good on a budget

As the times they are a-changing, how about some help with looking chic on a budget?

Since times are tight and we all need a little help to look good, I thought I'd trawl Amazon and see what's out there for those of us who have a beer income but champagne fashion tastes.

I can't recommend any of these books personally, but they all look worth a punt. Maybe I should write my own...

How to be a budget fashionista, by Kathryn Finney. 

I'm sure most of us are familiar with Kathryn's blog, The Budget Fashionista, which is always worth a visit. This book is very definitely for the American reader, dealing as it does with outlet malls, shopping at Sears and other things that Europeans aren't familiar with, but it gets nearly five stars on Amazon, so current readers are clearly very happy with it. 

Closet smarts, by Emily Neal

Written by an image consultant, this book, which also gets four and a half stars on Amazon, is all about going shopping in your own closet - something I'm a big fan of. We all know those horrible stats about how few of our clothes we wear (about 30 per cent), and one reason is that we buy stuff that doesn't go with our other stuff. In theory, after reading this book, you should be able to make your existing clothes work better for you without spending a fortune on new things. 

Secondhand Chic by Christa Weil

"Pointers not just on finding great buys in consignment, thrift, vintage, and resale shops, but for quality shopping in general," according to one ecstatic reviewer. This book covers how to get great clothes second-hand, including how to buy online. Again, aimed at the American reader. 

Any or all of these books might be a good stocking filler for the fashionista in your life - even if it's yourself. 




Fashion sales soar despite the downturn

As the economy tanks, British women are still buying clothes

It looks like nothing can stop the British woman's love of fashion.

As the economic downturn continues, fashion sales - to the surprise of many - are apparently rising. 

Economists think it's because people can't afford larger items, such as a washing machine or a fridge, so instead, we girls are treating ourselves to something to wear instead. Twenty quid on a top is going to go a lot further than £200 towards a washing machine, after all.

It's interesting in general to see what's selling and what isn't in this time of economic crisis. The head of Waitrose, for instance, yesterday said that the company's 'Better than going out' range of high-end ready meals is selling in shedloads. Presumably the people who would once eat out on a Friday night are now eating in instead, but pushing the boat out ever so slightly. Hard on the restaurateurs, of course, among whom we number some of our friends.

Another area that is selling well, according to Thornton's, is chocolates. Well, who wouldn't want some choccies when they're feeling blue?  And again, a few quid in Thornton's will go a lot further to cheering you up than spending it on a holiday - or even in Starbucks, where a latte costs half the national debt. 

I notice too, from telly advertising, that kitchens are for sale at 40 per cent discounts. I think that might be tempting for a lot of people who now find themselves in negative equity and decide, instead of moving, to do up their existing place instead. Let's not forget that the last DIY boom came because of exactly the same problem back in the 1990s - when you're stuck in a house you don't like much, you may as well change it to suit you.


Look stylish on a budget - part six, maintenance

Maintaining a groomed appearance means taking care of your clothes - especially important if you're on a budget.

Nine-tenths of a finished appearance is to do with grooming, not with what you're actually wearing. Your hair, nails, teeth and skin are all more important than your clothes, but if you're dressing on a tight budget, you still need to take care of your garments. Sadly, the last 10 or 15 years of cheap clothing has meant many women have forgotten how to mend a tear, change a button or darn a sock, but these might all be lessons we have to re-learn. Here are a few tips on maintenance.

* Treat everything you own as if it cost 10 times the price. No matter how much it actually set you back, treat your clothing with respect.

* Deal with stains immediately - products such as Stain Devils or Vanish are very useful. Don't give stains time to set.

* Iron garments that require it, using starch or silicone spray if need be. It's well worth the time and trouble to pep up a white shirt, for instance.

* Hang up your clothes rather than dropping them on the floor at night. You'd think this one would be obvious, but so many women don't bother.

* Don't pack things tightly into the wardrobe so they get creased - buy extra racks if you need them, or get rid of something instead.

* Keep your footwear in shoe trees, and out of season, store them in boxes.

* Put mothballs in the pockets of coats when you store them.

* Never put clothing away dirty - it's asking for a moth infestation. 

* Tape down your clothes with parcel tape before leaving the house, or keep a clothing brush handy. Fluff can completely ruin an outfit.

* Keep a mending pile and one Sunday per month, fix loose buttons, hanging threads and dragging hems so that all your clothes are in wearable condition. 

* Change when you get home. For instance, don't go straight to the sink or the cooker as soon as you get in. Hang up your workwear on a proper hanger and brush it down - stand a dish of vinegar underneath if you've been in a smoky or smelly atmosphere. Over your house clothes, wear an apron when you're doing dirty work - don't ruin your casual clothes with grease splashes and stains. Pension off your old jeans for gardening and make sure you have one outfit dedicated to filthy work such as hair dyeing or painting the house. 

* Keep your sweat and skin oils off the necklines of tailored garments by religiously wearing a scarf. This is particularly crucial with leather or suede. 

* If money is tight, avoid clothes that need dry cleaning. It's horrendous for the environment and bad for your pocket too. Underwear, shirts, blouses and knitwear should all be machine washable, along with as many of your skirts, dresses and trousers as possible. Jackets and coats tend to be dry clean only, but try to keep it to once per garment per year. 

* Wash on 30 degrees or zero to save electricity bills. Modern wash powders are designed to work at low temperatures. Even better, use soapnuts.

* Use the economy programme on your washing machine. This tends to take longer, as it works by soaking. Or if you have a top-loader, soak your clothes then put them through the fastest wash cycle. 

* Line-dry rather than tumble-dry. Not only will it cost less, it results in less wear and tear on the garment. 

* Ironing ramps up your electricity bill, so consider buying clothes in fabrics that don't need ironing. I wear mainly jeans, skirts in moleskin or suedette, long-sleeved cotton jersey tees and knitwear, and I barely pick up an iron from one year's end to the next. 

* Change the buttons for better ones. Nothing peps up a garment faster.  I buy good buttons whenever I can find them, usually vintage.

* If you wear skirts long enough to cover the tops of your boots, you can save a lot of money on tights throughout the year as less of them will be visible if snagged. But keep a bottle of clear nail varnish in your desk drawer in case disaster strikes.

* If you buy a suit as two separate pieces, buy two bottoms with it - trousers or skirts. The bottom half always wears out faster than the jacket. 


Look stylish on a budget - part five

If you're on a budget, you need to think laterally about where to buy from

When you're on a budget or a reduced income, you need to be disciplined about your clothes purchases. Here, let's look at how and where to buy. 

How to buy

* Set a budget and stick to it. My personal spending budget is £15 a month, but that has to cover ALL my personal expenditure, not just clothes. I do allow myself to have new clothes - mainly knickers and socks - as part of the weekly food shop, but something else has to be sacrificed. 

* Buy only twice a year, during the sales. This is what British aristos do - believe me, they don't pay full price for ANYTHING. My friend Peter (now a merchant banker) used to shop twice a year at Harrods - his undies were worn to a thread by the time he replaced them, but at least they were Zegna, as he was all too keen to remind me. He also bought cashmere at fantastic discounts every Christmas until he had a beautiful collection. Overall, I reckon he spent far less money than I did, but he was much better dressed. 

* Use those sales to stock up on well-cut basics such as good tees, jeans, footwear, bags and belts, rather than fashion items. When you're on a budget, your 'backbone' clothes are what really count and they should be as distant from fashion as possible - not OLD-fashioned, but NON-fashion. 

* If you want to try a new fashion colour or texture, try it first in an accessory rather than a garment - you'll echo the trend without breaking the bank. This autumn, for instance, tartan is a trend - a tartan bag might be just the thing. 

* If you do want to buy a fashion garment, at the start of each season go around and make notes on all the current collections. Work out what the style statement is and buy ONE THING that echoes it (this year, for instance, it might be a charcoal grey, knee-length cableknit cardigan, a version of which appeared in every ready to wear catwalk collection). If you buy at the start of the season, you'll get plenty of wear out of it before the trend moves on. 

Be warned - this approach will not make you popular - I got some serious sniping from shop assistants when I used to do it in London, but it's your right as a consumer. My advice, if you can only buy one thing, focus on your top half.

Where to buy

If you're used to shopping in boutiques and named stores for your clothes, learn to think a little laterally. 

* Buy on Ebay. If you hate the idea of buying second-hand (and I'd advise anyone on a budget to be less squeamish), look for items that are [B]NWT ([brand] new with tags) or [B]NWOT ([brand] new without tags). Look for vendors with at least 90 per cent positive feedback, and pay via Paypal. 

* Buy in charity shops. If you have a good eye, you can dress very well here. My Yves St Laurent, Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes, Burberry, Benny Ong and Jeanne Lanvin clothes are all from charity shops. 

* Buy vintage. There's no better way to get statement clothes or to build a unique look to go on top of everyday basics. About a third of my wardrobe is vintage, including nearly all of my jackets and coats, and many of them cost peanuts.

* Buy from other outlets: army surplus stores (overalls, thermal underwear, shirts); ship's chandlers (waterproofs, wellies, great knitwear); country outfitters (shooting jackets, viyella shirts, hats, scarves and boots); sportswear shops (hard-wearing tees, polo-collar shirts, fleeces). 

* Stores such as Target, Lidl and Walmart (Asda) sell perfectly good basics such as tees, non-label jeans, knickers and socks on top of which you can ring the changes with more expensive, more individualistic items. 

Tomorrow: maintenance


Look stylish on a budget - part four

You can keep to a tight budget for clothes and still look great, provided you buy the right things. Here, let's look at the specific qualities you need in your clothes.

When you're on a tight budget, you need to be disciplined about your clothes purchases.  That doesn't mean you can't be seduced by something extraordinary, but it does mean concentrating on really good basics so that your statement pieces have something to build on. Here are some tips. 

* In general, stick to dark colours. Poor cloth and finishing don't show up nearly so much in dark colours such as black, navy, charcoal grey and chocolate brown. Particularly avoid pastels in cheap fabrics, which simply scream 'budget' - these kinds of colours look best in high-end fabrics like silk and expensive wool. If you can't afford those, leave well alone. 

The exception to the 'dark' rule is white t-shirts: invest in three new ones each winter (winter-weight tees last much better than summerweight ones) and when they're past their best, either cut them up for dusters or dye them. I do a batch-dye once or twice a year, usually in either navy or charcoal. Plain white cotton shirts can also be picked up at reasonable prices and are endlessly wearable.    

* Stick to plain colours and when you buy prints, choose classic prints that don't date. Avoid florals (they date terribly) and multi-colour prints with lots of splashy effect and go instead for prints such as polka dots, stripes and paisleys in subdued colours that either include a dark neutral or have a white background. Black and white, navy and white, black and taupe etc are the kind of combinations you can't go wrong with. 

* Avoid shiny items, which attract attention and aren't suitable for some occasions, in favour of matt finishes that you can dress up or down. Stretch matt fabrics are the best wardrobe friends you will ever meet.

* Build a wardrobe around just two, maybe three, colours. Don't buy major pieces other than in those colours. Keep colour for more disposable items such as accessories, blouses and tops. Your colours might be neutrals such as chocolate or black, or something softer like sage green and violet - just make sure all your basics such as jackets, skirts, trousers and coats are in those colours. 

* Buy clothes with clean, simple lines that will go on from year to year to year. Think of classics such as biker jackets, hacking jackets, wrapover coats, riding boots, almond-toed court shoes, bootcut jeans, crewneck sweaters, man-tailored black pants, white cotton shirts, knee-length pencil skirts and button-down v-neck cardigans. 

* Avoid extremes. You never get enough wear out of them to make them worthwhile - big floppy collars, huge shoulders (buy jackets, blouses and coats that meet your shoulderline), lots of trim such as sequins, appliques or big patch pockets. 

* Medium-weight fabrics give you more mileage than very thick or thin items. Choose cotton jersey, brushed cotton, thin leather, cotton knits, merino wool and denim rather than linen, chiffon, fur or fun-fur, chunky Arran knitwear, mohair or angora and the like. Medium-weight items can also easily be layered over one another to ring the changes and create interesting colour combinations. 

* Choose classic necklines - crewneck, v-neck, poloneck, shawl collar etc. Fancy, asymmetric, fussy necklines date easily and are hard to pair with other items. If you want variety at your neckline, ring the changes with necklaces or scarves.

* If you don't know where to start, build a mini-capsule wardrobe and spread outwards from there. You probably have most of the items you need in your closet already. For instance, Diana Vreeland once suggested that all a woman really needed was three black skirts and three black sweaters. When I first got a job I followed this advice and it worked like a charm - a crewneck short-sleeve sweater, a v-neck cardi and a poloneck sweater did me for knits, plus a knee-length wrapover skirt in wool crepe and a longer, swishy one in woolmix crepe that was good for day or evening.

Instead of skirt number three I bought well-cut black wool pants and that little lot took me through my first two years in an office. I wore the pants and long skirt for about 11 years and 25 years later I still wear all the sweaters plus the wrap skirt. Topped off with different accessories every day - silver jewelry, wooden beads, chiffon scarves etc, a basic wardrobe like this can be changed dramatically from day to day and built onto incrementally with blouses, different shoes etc.

* Buy good shoes. Cheap footwear will let you down very quickly. Wait for the sales and buy the best you can afford - leather, leather linings, leather soles, decent wearable heels (about 1.5"-2.5" suits most occasions). Keep them nourished, polished and in shoe trees when you're not wearing them. Round the house, wear slippers rather than your good shoes and make sure you have some foul-weather boots for getting to and from work. Avoid suede - it's too high maintenance - and also avoid fake leather. If you can't afford the real thing, buy an honest espadrille, canvas plimpsoll or rubber boot instead. If you absolutely MUST have fake leather, make it as dark as possible. 

* Invest in a smart pair of indigo bootcut jeans that can take you from the kitchen sink to casual Friday to the school gate to the supermarket. Wash them inside out and take care of them and you'll get almost more wear out of them than anything else you own.    

* If you can afford one really good item per year, make it a jacket - nobody looks at your bottom half. 

* A good quality matt acrylic knit such as Courtelle is a perfectly acceptable substitute for a quality lambswool or merino and you can't tell them apart even in close-up. 

Tomorrow: how to buy, where to buy


Look stylish on a budget - part two

You can look very stylish on a budget, but it takes application and practice

In part two of this series on dressing on a budget, let's look at making the most of what you already have.

Look stylish on a budget - part one

Style is attainable at any age and even on a modest income

Looking stylish takes persistence, application and flair, but you don't need a large budget.

Champagne tastes and a beer income

My dad always accused me of having champagne tastes and a beer income, but what's the problem with that?

No matter what your clothing budget, you can have beautiful clothes if you focus on fabric, cut and finish.