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