Do a wardrobe audit
In the UK, the average person owns 115 items of clothing, 30 of which have never been worn. So, before you buy any more, go through your whole wardrobe. Pull everything out; reacquaint yourself with that once-loved dress and consider whether repairs or alterations would breathe new life into what you already have.
Also, consider selling, giving away or donating items you don’t wear. This will help make space for you to see, and appreciate, what’s left. Analyse the items you wear the most – think about colour, cut, silhouette, fabric and print – to home in on your personal style.
Doing this will really help avoid future failed purchases. Look at the way similar items are styled on fashion retailers’ websites to get ideas on how to combine them into fresh outfits.
View image in fullscreenThe average person in the UK owns 115 items of clothing, 30 of which have never been worn. Photograph: Annie Japaud/Getty Images
Secondhand or ‘preloved’
With £140m worth of clothing ending up in landfill each year, many environmental campaigners advocate buying secondhand first.
Even if you don’t have a brilliant charity shop nearby, the market is booming online: there’s eBay, Vinted and Depop for high street clothes and Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for designer.
Many charity shops have online portals, too, says Wendy Graham of the sustainable-living platform Moral Fibres.
Oxfam, the British Red Cross, Cancer Research and Barnado’s on Asos Marketplace are among her favourites. Thrift+ is also worth exploring.
Filter by category, size, brand, colour, condition and budget, and you can set up eBay alerts to find specific pieces.
Shopping out of season can reduce competition and therefore price (now is the time to seek out that Toast Fair Isle jumper).
View image in fullscreenSort out items to sell, then use the proceeds to buy new-to-you secondhand items. Photograph: minemero/Getty Images
If you have items to sell, do this first and use the proceeds to buy new-to-you secondhand items.
Swishes – events in which you swap your old clothes for other people’s – are popping up all over the country.
Search Eventbrite for those in your area – Verte in London; A Stitch to Wear in Sutton, Surrey; Beg Steal & Borrow in Manchester; We Wear the Trousers in Norwich and Shrub Coop in Edinburgh are just a few examples.
Try Big Sister Swap or Don’t Shop, Swap, or set up your own group with friends or family.
Sending out an outfit SOS to similarly sized friends on WhatsApp before a holiday or event could also save you a packet.
With judicious searching, the rental market can be great value for one-off events. For example, a £210 Reformation dress would be ideal for a wedding guest, and costs £25 for four days through Rotaro; a £1,980 red mesh Alexander McQueen number would be a memorable big birthday outfit for approximately £100 for four days via Hurr Collective.
There are lots of sites to try – from My Wardrobe for luxury to the cheaper Hirestreet – as well as maternity wear at For the Creators; (from about £15 for six days) and basics via the ethical brand Baukjen, which starts at £13 for a simple dress for a genuinely useful two-week timeframe.
Read the small print – check whether repairs, cleaning and delivery are included and what the refund policy is if an item does not fit. Many sites offer 10-20% off the first rental.
Use the ‘100 times rule’
Buying clothing is one of the most personal purchases there is, an expression of identity and taste tempered by budget constraints, size options and body image angst.
No wonder we frequently mess it up. Things just aren’t as fraught when you’re buying a vacuum cleaner. What we should all be aiming for when buying clothes, according to the journalist Lucy Siegle, is longevity. She suggests only buying garments you can see yourself wearing 100 times, because of the environmental toll.
The 100-times rule probably discounts inordinately cheap items at the value end of the market, most of which fare badly on ethical production metrics.
Of them all, only H&M scored as “it’s a start” on the ethical fashion Good On You app, while Primark is ranked “not good enough” and Shein “we avoid”.
However, mid-priced high street brands are not always more ethical, and it’s worth checking out your favourite store’s rating on Good On You. You might well be disappointed.
Ethical brands tend not to be the cheapest, for obvious reasons, though some may surprise you: Yes Friends sells T-shirts for £7.99 and hoodies for £29.99; People Tree has dresses from £29.50 in its summer sale, though most are closer to the £60 mark; Mayamiko’s sale starts at about £29, though options are necessarily limited compared with the high street.
Avril Mair, the Elle UK fashion director, recommends looking towards brands “which aren’t constantly changing their aesthetic”. For Mair that might be The Row, which she buys at a reduced price at the Outnet, or secondhand at Vestiaire or The RealReal, but the concept could work at Toast, Cos or The White Company.
Consider fabrics when you buy with longevity – and the environment – in mind. You’re likely to keep a dress for longer if it’s not made of sweaty, clingy polyester.
Natural fibres, such as organic cotton, are always a better choice than fossil-fuel based virgin polyester, says Graham, who adds that some of the new wood-based fabrics, such as Tencel and EcoVero, are much more sustainable than conventional rayon, viscose and modal fabrics.
Sales outlets and deals
Most experts approach sales with caution. “Because fashion revolves around trends,” says Alexandra Stedman, the editor of The Frugality, “these are usually things brands need to shift, and almost never a longevity buy.” The exceptions, she says, are classic buys, such as a Whistles coat, that she found for £100 a few years ago and wears constantly.
Outlet shops are proliferating online, with Mango, Adidas, Kurt Geiger and Office now offering them. Some are hosted on eBay but it is often all too easy to see why items didn’t sell the first time.
Many fashion types recommend TK Maxx’s Gold Label section, which stocks Gucci glasses and Stella McCartney children’s wear.
Visit Bicester Village, the Oxfordshire outlet where Prada and Loewe sell last season’s stock for a discounted price, but to avoid overspending it is probably best to go looking for only one special thing, such as a handbag or winter coat, and with a clear idea of your budget.
View image in fullscreenA shopper carries bags at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
It’s often a good idea to first find something you love at full price, then try to find it at a discount. Price comparison sites such as SuperSales.co.uk and PriceRunner.com will tell you if it is being sold cheaper elsewhere.
Ethical brands tend not to be the cheapest, for obvious reasons, although some may surprise you
Look out for discounts for first-time customers, or sign up for newsletters and wait to be invited to loyalty events such as flash sales.
Oli Townsend, a deals expert at MoneySavingExpert, recommends using free internet browser extension tools such as Honey or Pouch, which automatically apply voucher codes to your online basket.
Another trick, he says is to sign into your account on a site, put items in your basket but abandon the sale. Sometimes retailers will email you a discount code, over the next few days, to try to reel you back in. It doesn’t always work, but even if it doesn’t, it will give you time to think about whether you really want it.