Challenge Amber: wardrobe essentials on a budget
I have a slightly different type of post for you today. You see, last week I was contacted by the people at VoucherCodes.co.uk, who wanted to know if I was up for a challenge:
Find at least three wardrobe essentials, available to buy on the high street… on a budget of £80.
This challenge is part of their Most Wanted Student Survival Guide and, as the name suggests, it’s aimed at students. Now, it’s been a few years since I was a student (and when I was, I didn’t really dress particularly “studenty”, I have to admit. “Spice Girly”, yes: “studenty”, not so much), but I do know a thing or two about finding bargains on the high street, so, in accepting this challenge, I decided to focus on wardrobe essentials for everyone, rather than for students specifically. (I should probably also point out here that this challenge involved simply finding the items, not building outfits around them, so I’ve styled them here the way I would wear them, rather than the way I think students might wear them: I’m not trying to suggest you should run around campus in stilettos. Although I certainly did…)
So, with £80 to spend on at least three items, here’s what I got:
1. Black dress, George at Asda, £16
2. Mint blouse, H&M, £14.99
3. Skinny jeans, Primark, £9
4. Camel coat, Primark, £35
Now, before we go any further, I should probably point out that I had a tight deadline for this challenge, which meant I had to rely solely on the stock available at the local mall, as there wasn’t time to order online or venture further afield. With a little more time, I would…actually, I’d probably still be out there shopping, completely overwhelmed by choice, because let me tell you, folks, you can do a whole lot with £80 to spend. As regular readers will know, I’m a huge fan of the UK high street, and think we’re really lucky to have such a huge amount of reasonably-priced stores to shop from: because of them, I managed to squeeze in an extra item, and still came in under budget. Here are my wardrobe essentials on a budget:
#1: The Camel Coat
[Coat, £35, Primark, worn with Topshop 'Barley2' boots (old)]
When I started thinking about winter wardrobe essentials, a coat was the first thing that came to mind. I tend to think of coats as “investment” purchases, though, so I was surprised by just how many of them I found within my budget. I chose this one because I think a camel coat is one of those all-time classics: they’re a timeless, efforlessly stylish staple, and while it’s tempting to go for a bright colour for a winter coat, when you’re on a tight budget I think it’s better to go for something that will work with absolutely everything in your closet. (Take this from someone who bought a green coat last year, thinking that she couldn’t go wrong with her favourite colour, only to quickly realise that she couldn’t wear it with her favourite red shoes without looking like one of Santa’s special little elves…) I’ve owned a few camel coats over the years, but this year I had my heart set on a classic, trench-coat style, so when I found this one in Primark for a fraction of what I’d been considering spending, it was a bit of a no-brainer.
I sometimes find that cheaper coats can be quite thin, and can also crease easily: and trust me, the last thing you want to have to do is iron your coat every morning! I was really impressed with this one, though: as you would expect at this kind of price point, it’s not wool, but it’s lovely and thick, and I can tell it’ll be super-warm once the colder weather sets in. I also liked the wide lapels, which are just begging to have some kind of brooch attached…
#2: The Versatile Blouse
[Mint blouse, £14.99, H&M, worn with H&M pants, vintage clutch bag, Dune 'Olsen' pumps]
Blouses have been going through a bit of a “trendy” phase over the past couple of years, but for me they’re another of those closet staples that will never go out of style. I picked this one because, as well as being one of my very favourite shades of green (and one which is also still very fashionable at the moment, if that matters to you…), it’s a really versatile piece: wear it untucked and with sleeves rolled for a casual look, or buttoned up and tucked in for more formal occasions. If you’re a student starting to think about job interviews or internships, this would also work with a smart skirt or trousers for a more professional look.
(P.S. My floor isn’t on a steep slope, by the way. It looks like my photographer’s head might be, though…)
#3. The skinny jeans
[Skinny jeans, £9, Primark, worn with H&M blazer, Madewell top (c/o Shopbop), Primark shoes]
Thanks to this post, you all know much more than you could possibly ever want to about my ongoing pursuit of the perfect jeans. I’ll just be upfront: these aren’t them. They gape at the back, are too long in the leg, and are a little more distressed than I like ‘em. I wanted to include a pair of jeans in this list, however, because although good ones are hard to find, I still consider them a wardrobe staple: even more so when I was a student, and used to live in jeans all day, before transforming into the sixth Spice Girl at night. Fun times, people, fun times.
I actually tried on quite a few pairs of jeans when I was shopping for this challenge, and was prepared to spend a lot more on the right pair, even if it meant sacrificing something else. Believe it or not, though, these £9 Primark skinnies actually came closest to meeting my exacting denim requirements, which just goes to show that a higher price doesn’t always guarantee a better product.
#4. The little black dress
[Pencil dress, £16, George at Asda, worn with Buffalo 'Beyza' shoes (c/o Sarenza, vintage clutch bag and mystery obi belt]
OK, so I went a little off-project with this one. I’m not sure students would necessarily wear this (I would have. I actually did run around campus in stilettos, though, so…), but while I don’t think every woman should have a little black dress, I do think a dress that can be either formal or casual depending on how you wear it is a good idea. I liked this one because it’s a contemporary design, but not so trendy that it’ll date quickly, and also because although I’ve styled it for evening wear here, I think it would also work with boots and a cardigan for a more casual look, if you wanted it to.
And there you have it: four items, all under £80. Oh, and as for that extra £5 I didn’t spend? Go crazy with it, people. I actually miscalculated while I was shopping, but if I’d realised I had money to spare, I saw some nice scarves in New Look for around that price, but the stores were crammed with plenty of other accessories you could easily blow £5 on…
As part of this challenge, I was also asked to share some tips on how to stay stylish on a budget: I’ve put them under a jump, though, because, well, I do like to ramble on a bit, don’t I?
How to stay stylish on a budget:
Invest more money on the items you’ll wear most often
Although it was comparatively cheap at £35, my coat still took up almost half of my £80 budget. Some items are worth paying a little more for, though, and coats definitely fall into this category, as do boots, bags, and anything else you’re going to use day after day.
Keep it classic
If you only have a small amount of money to spend, I think it’s a good idea to go for classic pieces that won’t date easily (and which can be easily updated with accessories or the occasional splurge item when you have some spare cash), as opposed to very trendy items that will end up being one-season wonders. Look for pieces you’ll still want to wear this time next year rather than jumping on the trend-bandwagon and being unable to get off it again because you blew your budget on a pair of animal-print harem pants which you’ll now have to wear for the rest of your university career.
This particular challenge involved finding items on the high street, but if you’re on a serious budget, thrift stores are one of the best places to shop because they give you the opportunity to buy higher-quality goods at vastly reduced prices. Ditto eBay: I rarely buy anything from the high street without having a quick look on eBay first to see if I can find it cheaper, and by selling your old clothes/books/anything else you want to get rid of, you can also make a bit of extra cash, too.
Shop the sales
This one’s a bit Captain Obvious, but as with thrift stores/eBay, sale time is a great opportunity to buy brands you wouldn’t normally be able to afford. If you’re a UK student, you’ll also find that many stores offer a student discount on production of your NUS card: use it, and if you’re shopping online, have a quick look for discount codes before you pull the trigger on your purchase.
Replace buttons, belts and brooches
Many cheaper items of clothing come with cheap belts, brooches or other little attachments, which are presumably intended to make the item seem more attractive (and to save you the effort of accessorising by yourself!), but which only serve to make the item look even cheaper than it is. Luckily, this is an easy fix: replace plastic belts with leather ones (or better quality plastic ones at the very least: if you don’t already have some good quality belts, thrift stores are fantastic for this kind of thing, and it doesn’t have to be real leather, just not that icky fake stuff that smells like the inside of a chemical factory), snip off the buttons and replace them with nicer, more unusual ones (again, hit the thrift store and pay attention to garments with great buttons: even if you don’t like the item they’re attached it, if it’s cheap enough, it can be worth buying for the buttons alone) and get rid of anything else that’s attached to your garment and doesn’t need to be. Your item will look instantly more expensive, and it’ll only have cost you a few extra pounds.
Learn to sew, or find a good seamstress
Sometimes what passes for “good quality” is really just good fit. Fit is essential when it comes to style, and even the best quality piece of clothing in the world can look cheap if it fits badly. The obvious answer to this is to make sure your clothes fit properly in the first place: always try them on before buying, take a couple of different sizes into the changing room, and ignore the size on the label: between vanity sizing and the wild variations between brands (and sometimes within brands), size labels are pretty meaningless these days, so wear the size that fits, not the size you think SHOULD fit. Obviously, though, it’s not always possible to buy perfectly-fitting items off the rack – in fact, I’d argue that it’s not OFTEN possible. So learn to sew. Or if you can’t (I can’t either, you’re not alone.), find someone who can and pay them to do it for you. Yes, it’s an extra expense (although simple alterations should be relatively inexpensive), but it’s one of those “spend money to save money” deals: you’ll get much more use out of your item, and look/feel much better in it if it fits you perfectly.
Pay attention to fabric and cut
A cheap item of clothing can look like an expensive one if it’s cut well. Similarly, an expensive item of clothing can look like a cheap one if it’s made from a fabric that creases or pulls easily, or which is just lower quality. (And yes, expensive brands sometimes use poor quality fabric: you don’t ALWAYS get what you pay for…) While brands like Primark, H&M and New Look get a bad rap for their quality control, it’s not always deserved: sure, you’ll find items in those stores that look every bit as cheap as they are (There’s a reason I refer to Primark as The Polyester Palace…) but every so often you’ll turn up a real gem, too. I have items from all of those brands which have lasted for years (and are still going strong), and which would easily pass for more expensive brands, if I were to remove the label: presumably they’ve at some point managed to get a good deal on a bolt of great quality fabric, or the item has been produced by a particularly skilled seamstress. It does happen, but if you don’t look, you’ll never know, will you?
Invest in an iron
I know an iron is probably the LAST thing you want to spend your student loan on (or to lug to another city), but trust me, your clothes will thank you for it. As with the point about fabric above, even high-end designer clothing will look like it’s fresh from the bargain bin at Primark if it’s creased beyond recognition. Buy an iron. Use it. Look instantly more stylish than you would have if your clothes were covered in creases.
I could go on (and on, and on…) but I’m going to stop here, before I use up all the words in all the land, and there are no word left for anyone else. Over to you, folks: what are your wardrobe essentials? What are your top tips for looking stylish on a budget?
[Disclosure: This post was written in conjunction with VoucherCodes.co.uk : I was provided with a shopping budget to purchase the items featured, however all items were chosen and styled by me, and all opinions are my own.]