bargain fashionista

French Connection

Wearing cheap clothes well

Some people have an eye for a bargain. Kathryn is one of those people; she can see the one item in Primark that will go with a bunch of stuff she already owns, and the whole outfit ends up being way more than the sum of its parts. Whereas I am the sort of person who picks through the dregs of the Next sale wondering why nobody else loves this burnt orange polyester shirt that I have taken a shine to (true story).

However, even I have managed to pick up a few tips and tricks for choosing items that look more quality- and therefore expensive- than they actually are. And I will share these in just one moment but first, a disclaimer. I realise that some people feel very uncomfortable about ‘fast fashion’, that hurry to get catwalk-inspired pieces into shops that can lead to the very real concern over the pay and working conditions of people manufacturing them. Buying clothes from the high street is the only option for a lot of people and this is a complicated issue for another post. But the tips and tricks I mention below can just as easily be used if you’re buying from a charity shop, having a wardrobe organisation, or swapping clothes with your friends.

Take out the vest that comes with your blouse!

I realise that this is a very specific tip to start on but it does have wider application. I’ve bought a number of blouses that come with a vest-type layer underneath (for decency’s sake), but so often I’ve found that the shirt or blouse is great, but if you’re buying from a cheaper shop, the layer underneath is either without any stretch and so is really restrictive, or is a funny length, or makes you sweat. So throw it away and invest in vests! Primark vests at £2 each are a good buy but I also go for Uniqlo Heat-Tech camisoles (£9.90) when it’s a bit chillier, or even a Spanx vest for a smoother silhouette. Or appropriate the layer from another piece of clothing. The point with this is that a vest with the right length and fit will sit properly under your shirt and often looks much smarter than the crappy cami it came with.

You don't have to pay Spanx prices, but a smoothing vest can provide a great under-layer for blouses
You don’t have to pay Spanx prices, but a smoothing vest can provide a great under-layer for blouses

Abandon ballet flats!

It’s really difficult to buy reasonably-priced shoes that look quality, but the first mistake so many women make is to reach for the ballet flats. But these devil-shoes give little support, tend to look knackered quickly, and undermine the smartness and style of everything else you’re wearing. If you’re happy to buy it and can afford it, leather always looks better and your shoes will last longer. But this isn’t always an option so my advice is to steer clear of ballet flats at all; try brogues instead, or loafers. The heft of them looks better and they are still available at all the places you’d probably buy your ballerinas from. However, if you can’t go cold turkey….

…Go patent

If all else is lost, faux patent leather is much more convincing than faux leather. This goes for handbags as well as shoes. And there’s a smartness to patent that lifts the rest of your outfit. Patent finish, t-bar, a pointed toe: all good ways to go smarter with flats.

Leather isn't always accessible, but one pair of more expensive boots is worth more than three pairs of cheap ones...
Leather isn’t always accessible, but one pair of more expensive boots is worth more than three pairs of cheap ones…

Tight looks cheap, and so does short

Blatantly not all tight looks cheap, just ask Roland Mouret. But in general, considering your hemline and the fact that cheaper shops (or vintage clothes) can sometimes come up a bit smaller will take you a long way. Going up a size can look luxe and sexy, allowing the clothes to skim your body. And while a very short dress in a 60s style can look ace, that length may look like the manufacturer has skimped on fabric in a different style. Consider wearing (good quality) leggings with dresses that come up short, or avoid items that come up too short altogether. Honestly, even if you love it, sometimes it just isn’t worth buying if you end up having to tug at it all the time, lest you flash your frillies.

On the size thing, this is simple: if in doubt, go up a size. Cheap clothes usually don’t look better tight as the material is less forgiving, so just ignore the label and trade up.

This dress cost about a tenner from Primark but it's got a thickness and drape that looks edgier and pricier
This dress cost about a tenner from Primark but it’s got a thickness and drape that looks edgier and pricier

Think fabric, through thick and thin

When you’re sifting through rails of stuff, the quality of the fabric is something well worth bearing in mind. So much is a matter of taste, and opinion. But if you take one rule with you when shopping, think ‘thick or thin’. Fine knits and jersey can look way more expensive than they are, flowing over the body and looking v classy indeed. Equally, I have a shift dress from a very budget high street retailer that lives and dies on the fact that the material is thick enough to avoid showing bulges and underwear lines. So think about thicker-than-usual, and thinner-than-usual fabrics to fool the casual observer.


As a tall woman (about 5’11” to be far from exact) I struggle with trouser lengths, among other things. Our office is very casual, but when I go to conferences, I often choose a dress, which I’m afraid for the most part I can’t get super-cheap. But one cheap item that makes all the difference is the quality of your tights! I hate these damned leg prisons but they finish off a smart outfit and opaque tights hide a multitude of sins, so a necessary evil they remain. I like M&S when I’m near one and can afford their tights, but otherwise I will usually go for Primark. My absolute, 100% top tip is to go for control top tights- they don’t really control anything, but they tend to come up higher on the body, creating a smoother silhouette and making your clothes fit and sit better.

And a serious point on leggings: they are not trousers and they won’t give you the coverage you need, so cover the majority of your bottom, and your mimsy, please!

And finally, be a canny sale-shopper

I ask you to cast your mind back to the beginning of this article- I know that seems a long time ago but bear with me- to my reference to an orange polyester shirt I once bought in the Next sale. As a terrible magpie up until fairly recently, I used to love lairy, loud clothing that I thought reflected my personality. These pieces can be fun but if you’re getting them in a sale then often they’ll be coming to the end of their fashion life and probably don’t have longevity on their side. Instead look for classic bits that you’ll be able to wear later, even if you put them away for now. This is a blog post in itself but here are a few ideas to whet your appetite: faux fur jacket; camel coat; brogues or loafers; Breton tops; a denim shirt; plain jumpers; any kind of neutral basic. Sales are a great time to get slightly better quality items for less, but you still have to be clever about it. Lots of shops act like they have the right to charge more, but the quality isn’t really there. A grey fine knit J Crew vest for £18 though? Why thank you very much!

Cashmere on a budget, why yes please! (stolen from Kathryn)
Cashmere on a budget, why yes please! (stolen from Kathryn)

Have you got any tips for snazzy dressing on a budget? I WANNA HEAR THEM!


Category: Style