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?

Now that it is autumn, and a definite nip is beginning to appear in the morning air, it’s time for the twice-annual ceremony of getting out the seasonal clothes. 

I enjoy this routine, and the reappearance of old friends, but even a quick shufty through my things made me realise what a clothing snob I am. 

Not that I think it’s a bad thing, I should add instantly. My snobbery isn’t for labels – it’s for quality. I am addicted to quality clothing like I am to good chocolate – butter-soft leather, cashmere knits, thick moleskin trousers, silk-velvet scarves. If there’s no sensual pleasure in dressing, then what’s the point at all?

What rather amuses me though is that I haven’t lowered my horizons much despite becoming a downshifter. I used to spend hundreds of pounds a month on clothes when  lived in London, while now my annual clothing budget is about £100 ($200). But I still pick and choose very carefully and get really amazingly pissed off if I make a bad buy, even if it’s for a euro-50.

It would be an understatement to say that most of my current clothing wasn’t expensive. When I worked in London I dressed mainly in wool business suits from places like Jaegar, but those kind of clothes aren’t appropriate for my country life and I mostly gave them away to workmates when I left the city. What I kept was the vintage stuff, the evening clothes and my good gloves and scarves – some of these were pricey but on a cost-per-wear basis, we’re well into negative equity by now.

My Burberry macs are probably over 20 years old, my Barbours about 17. I still wear scarves, blouses and jackets that I bought in my teens – mainly Victorian or 1930s. Never in fashion, they are never out either. As long as they continue to suit me, I can continue to wear them. 

Here in cabbageville, my daily trousers and skirts come mainly courtesy of Boden, with the odd bit of Next and Damart. Boden is my go-to label when buying online because I’m confident of their quality and their sizing, but I buy them all from Ebay, not Boden direct. This year I’ve also bought a couple of Dorothy Perkins cardis from Ebay too and although I don’t expect them to last more than one season, I paid an appropriate price for them.

Most winter days I dress in cashmere but apart from one primrose sweater and a grey cardigan, all of my cashmere is vintage and probably cost a 20th of the price it would cost new. I used to favour a lovely shop called Rebecca’s in Covent Garden, and when it closed down and sold everything at half price, I loaded up. That was probably about 15 years ago and those sweaters are still going strong, washed and worn and washed again. In classic styles like turtleneck, crewneck and v-neck, and colours such as cashmere, black and soft pastels, they could go on another 20 years. 

Some recent acqusitions (as in ‘gifts’) that I’m pleased with come courtesy of my friend M’s mum, who has ditched a bunch of her clothing my way recently (the deal is that I have to make her a bracelet in return). What I mostly got was long-sleeved crew-neck t-shirts with the Cherokee label, a name that was new to me, as I don’t get back to England much. But Cherokee clothes are available at Tesco’s, as apparently they are at US outlets such as Target. And very good they are, too, if these items are anything to go by – not dissimilar to Gap. Nice thick cotton and proper stitching, they should do me nicely for a year or two before my acid water rots holes in them.

If you’re on a fixed or reduced income, there is no need to go without, nor to give up or wear any old crap and decide it doesn’t matter. Quality can be found at every price point – you just need to tailor your ambitions to suit your pocket. There is no need to buy cheap fake leather when you can buy good velvet for the same price. There’s no need for a mean little coney fur jacket when you could get a good wool coat instead. You can buy lovely foiled glass beads far cheaper than fake diamonds that are an imitation of something you can’t afford. There is no need to look either cheap or nasty just because you haven’t got any money. What you need to do is to plan and to think and to be careful in your purchases. 

You can also take care of your clothes properly. A change of buttons, a good press and treating everything you own as if it cost ten times the price remain sound tips for making the most of any item, no matter how little it originally cost. I learned that advice as a student, forgot it in my 20s when I was earning shedloads, but it applies again today in mid-life. 

When I moved to France a decade ago, I was reminded of another valuable lesson as I found myself among a sea of brands that meant nothing to me – Patrice Breal, Sami, Creation. Where was I to position these brands? Were they high or low-end? Were they high or low quality? Would I be caught dead in them ‘at home’ and was that any longer relevant?

Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to the name, I had to actually, once again, learn to study garments closely before purchase – the colour, the fit, the quality of the stitching – and decide for myself whether they were worth the price tag. 

It was a wake-up call, because in the end, the things that count in your clothes are the fabric, the cut and the finish – not the label, not the shop you bought them in and certainly not how much you paid for them. Those three things are the only things that really tell in a garment, long after any fashion trend is over or label has lost its market positioning.

Clothes made from good fabric, with a good cut and a high standard of finish are the backbone of every good wardrobe, and that counts whether you’re income’s Veuve Cliquot or Budweiser. 

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