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How to be fashionable with no money

How can I be fashionable without any money?
Generation Y, in the office

One of the biggest misconceptions that exists about fashion – and there are many – is that it requires money. No question, the fault for this lies with fashion writers because we tend to write mainly about big (read: expensive) brands. There are several reasons for this, none of which, incidentally, are the ones most people assume, namely, that fashion writers are idiots and think everyone out there spends their Saturday mornings at Louis Vuitton, or, alternatively, that fashion writers are basically a load of Mean Girls, here to make everyone else feel miserable about their un-bling lifestyle.

Rather, the answer is far more prosaic, which is French for “boring”: fashion writers are quite lazy. Expensive brands have more money to send out press releases, hold shows, pay for advertising. Therefore, fashion writers are basically spoon-fed the information without having to go out and look for it. (Some fashion writers, of course, are obliged to write nice things about expensive brands because the brands advertise in their publication. Happily, that is not a problem here at the Guardian, where the only fashion I ever see regularly advertised is men’s slacks from the Guardian store. And jolly stylish they are too, I’d wager my Guardian store-bought hat on it.)

And that, Gen Y, is the rub when it comes to fashionable cheap clothes: they require effort to find. Which is not to say that all expensive things are nice (to be honest, a lot of expensive stuff looks to me like it comes from Imelda Marcos’s garage sale), but it is at least more visible. Good cheap stuff requires some nosing out on your part.

First, go to charity shops – but not just any charity shops, go to ones in posh areas. This was one of the best fashion tips I got as a teenager and it has honestly never let me down. I once found the niftiest little Dior bag in Oxfam on London’s Kensington High Street and a dream of a dress from Oxfam on Westbourne Grove near Portobello, also in London. (Incidentally, this has nothing to do with fashion but you can always find an excellent selection of books in charity shops in north London, Cambridge and Oxford because so many book reviewers live there, so there are often books in charity shops that aren’t even in book shops yet.)

Next, go shopping in your closet. There are – I promise – many things in your cupboard at home that you’ve forgotten about: that skirt you bought on holiday three years ago, that T-shirt that’s wedged between two drawers, those sandals stuck under the dresser. Spend one Sunday taking everything out, going through it all and reacquainting yourself with your wardrobe. Then take all the stuff you really don’t like to the charity shop so another Gen Y-er can help themselves to it. And even if you don’t find anything, at least you’ve cleaned out your closet, which is nice.

Find out when sales and sample sales happen. For sample sales, look in your local papers, keep an eye out for notices on lamp-posts in your area and ask in shops (the worst they can say is: “We don’t have one.”) As for sales, look on the websites of stores you like or simply ask in the stores. Then be quick on the draw on the sale day, either by queueing outside in the cold (don’t do this) or being on the internet by 9am (do this).

Learn how to sew. This is the one tip on the list that I’ve never followed, so I feel pretty hypocritical throwing it back at you, Gen Y. But my friends who can sew invariably have the loveliest wardrobes, and they spend about a 50th of what I spend on clothes. If you can sew, you can copy designs out of magazines (and tweak them to your liking). Even if you can’t make a whole dress, little jazzy touches will make the blandest of clothing a billion times better: sewing on snazzy buttons, for example, or putting on some piping, or not going around in dresses covered in moth holes and decked with trailing hems, as some of us do because we never learned to bloody sew. Also, it means you won’t have to stoop to buying cheap clothes from companies who manufacture their goods unethically, which is probably the best reason of all to get that sewing needle out.

But most of all, have a good attitude. The reason people like buying new, fashionable things is because they make them feel good about themselves. So much about fashion just comes down to attitude – look at Kate Moss, who these days looks as if she’s just stepped out of an All Saints advertorial, but nonetheless has an intractable air of fashionability because of her attitude. So walk tall, Gen Y-ers, walk tall! No, you might not be carrying the Chanel swag about your person (although you might – honestly, that Oxfam in Kensington is a goldmine), but you’re still looking good, so enjoy it. Yes, I know being twentysomething sucks (believe me – I know), and I know it feels especially tough now. But trust me, all this will pass. You’re all young and hungry and ambitious – all will work out. Now walk tall and wear that wonky dress with pride. You’re Gen-Y, and you’ll be fine.

• Post your questions to Hadley Freeman, Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email ask.hadley@theguardian.com

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