winter wardrobe essentials

Challenge Amber: wardrobe essentials on a budget

winter wardrobe essentials


I have a slightly different type of post for you today. You see, last week I was contacted by the people at, 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:

wardrobe essentials

1. Black dress, George at Asda, £16
2. Mint blouse, H&M, £14.99
3. Skinny jeans, Primark, £9
4. Camel coat, Primark, £35
TOTAL: £74.99

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

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 green blouse

mint 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

[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

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.

Get thrifty

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 : 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.]

P.S. I write a weekly diary which goes out every Friday to my subscribers. Sign up below to get on the list...

books by Amber Eve
  • Fantastic finds, with a fiver to spare – most impressive! I love that George dress and the coat looks so much more expensive than £35!

    September 28, 2012
  • Great post.

    I love the dress and the coat. Oh and I’m kind of having a huge shoe envy moment.


    September 28, 2012
  • I am a big fan of Primark recently and it get’s me annoyed when people still think it’s a place just for chavs that and give you ‘the look’ when you tell them you shop there. I got a gorgeous chesnut satchel for £7 (&7!!!!) from there 2 years ago, it’s still going strong and it’s even worn as if it were real leather. I’ve had so many people compliment me on it and ask if i payed a lot for it. x

    September 28, 2012
    • oops £7**

      September 28, 2012
  • Great suggestions! I am on a super tight budget at the moment but am in some serious need of nicer tops – getting tired of the t-shirt look. I never thought about replacing accessories like buttons, etc… but I think that is a great idea to upgrade the look of some of the things I do have. My wardrobe staple seems to be black tops, and I am kind of noticing recently, thanks to doing some outfit photos this month, that I probably have too many BLACK tops. I need more color!

    September 28, 2012
  • I can’t get over how amazing you look in this black dress, love it belted and I think it would be a great piece to have in your student wardrobe. There were times when I would have a meeting or event that required me to dress up while I was a student and I always struggled with what to wear so having a piece like this in my closet would have been helpful.

    September 28, 2012
  • Nice post. Although I’m a little confused as to what your blog has to do with students buying on a budget…
    Bemsy x

    September 28, 2012
      • I’m not confused about the topic. Everyone loves to read about how a girl shops on a budget, and its the quirkiness of your blog and the fact that I just can’t stop reading (you have an incredible way with words) that keeps me returning to your blog. I’m confused about how your blog links in with the Most Wanted Student Survival Guide. I appreciate that you’ve styled the pieces your way, which I love, but I’m just not convinced that this is the best collaboration. I suppose for me, as a student, I’d be more interested to know what staples a fellow student would buy for their wardrobe with £80. Anyway, it’s getting late and I’ll stop rambling now!
        Bemsy x

        September 28, 2012
  • Damn I always see lovely George stuff online or in magazines but never in my local stores, excellent find on the dress! 🙂

    September 28, 2012
  • Jessica


    Very impressive with a tight budget! You look amazing as always! Looking forward to your post on the insanity workout. I don’t know anyone who has actually done it.

    September 29, 2012
      • I agree with Jessica – great post and lovely dress! Looking forward to the review!!

        October 17, 2012
  • Ghalia


    Wow! This post makes me wish I was a student again just so that I could have an excuse to go out & buy that blouse & the dress! A very good job done on the challenge, I think, & looking as stunning as you always do.

    One thing I consider an absolute essential a well-cut jacket (aka blazer) in black, or some other neutral colour. Investing in a good blazer is the best thing any girl can do, I think, as it will see you through any occasion imaginable. It can be worn casually over jeans & a t-shirt, for lunch with friends, or as an attempt to look half decent for a 9am seminar after having 1.5 hours of sleep, over a dress for a night out, or semi-formal dinner, & also be used for interviews or other important, career-related events. I love how a blazer can instantly make you look put together, & since it goes so well with the (re)current trend of pointed toe shoes (Zara’s Trf currently have a really smart pair of faux patent leather, 3.35″, platform-less courts in black, nude or red for only £20!!!) , it’s a really simple way to look great no matter where you’re going.

    September 29, 2012
  • I can’t believe you spent less than £80 on these 4 items! I loved the camel coat, and the black dress. They are classic pieces, and they look so nice and elegant. I wouldn’t have guessed they cost so little.
    I want a coat like this one, and it seems so warm and comfortable. And the dress is amazing! I loved the collar, and the way you paired it with the obi belt. Genius, and super stylish! Wish we had these stores in Greece!

    September 30, 2012
  • I do not for one second believe I could have bought the same number of (nice) items for that amount of money in Australia. Unless I went to Target, maybe. You are so spoiled that way in the UK!

    October 1, 2012
  • Fab post – am still a little disappointed that you didn’t go ahead with a spice girls inspired style post though 😉

    October 4, 2012
  • Wow! You did an amazing job! I really love the belt you paired with the black dress. Where can I find it or find a similar one. I’m in the US!

    October 5, 2012
  • Aimee


    LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog!! You have such a great style and fabulous hair I must add.



    October 6, 2012
  • Heleen


    For the love of GOD, Amber!

    How in the world did you get your hair like that? They’re the perfect waves!
    You look absolutely stunning!

    October 10, 2012
  • Is that black dress online? It’s gorgeous!

    October 11, 2012