Student Life: Style 101

Feature by Lindsay West | 09 Sep 2008

Greetings, assembled student masses. Since this Student Handbook as a whole is built to ease your transition into campus life, here in fashion corner, we’d like to help you out with the challenges faced by the style-hungry but strapped-for-cash amongst you. So take your seats and sharpen your pencils: welcome to Student Style 101.

It’s probably not all about the Benjamins…

If you’re into fashion and have any level of glossy magazine dependency, you’re surely aware by now you’re being fed on a steady drip of sticky consumerism. All those lovely articles and pretty pictures are painstakingly hardwired to urge the message “Buy, buy, buy!” like a hypertensive city trader (albeit a softly spoken one, swathed in Chanel). But, as Victoria Beckham is just barely living proof of, total financial freedom to accumulate stuff doesn’t automatically equal stylish living. Money can’t buy chic, which is handy when you don’t actually have any cash. It’s truly not about cash, it’s about how you choose to splash it, so read on for your new mantra. It should be emblazoned as standard on the front of every credit card like a cigarette packet caution: Buy Smart, or Don’t Buy at All.

But cheap tricks also cost you…

Let’s get one thing clear: on campus, everyone is broke, so everyone’s shopping at Primark. In addition to the slumful of ethical concerns a severe Primark habit should rightfully bring on, there’s also the small issue of inescapable campus-wide uniformity. Having sat in my fair share of packed-to-the-rafters 1st year lectures, I can testify that financial needs must, and everyone will be wearing identikit fast-fashion like it’s standard issue. So, if you have any vested interest in not looking like everyone else, you’re going to have to diversify, kiddo.

And beggars must be choosy rakers…

Let’s get another thing crystal: you’re being guided by someone who dry-heaves at the thought of paying full price for anything. Descended from a long line of Glaswegian peasantry, I am proud to count skinflintery and bargain-stalking as two of my very best superpowers. It’s a stone cold fact that you don’t need to buy expensive things to look great, but by the same token, you don’t have to pay high-end prices for high-end items. Ebay and TK Maxx are your friends, as is sales season: all of which require a degree of patience, and commitment to the old-fashioned rake. Charity shops used to be the savvy shopper's local, pre-Primark, so get back to basics and find one with a decent flow of stylish donations. Then make friends with the sales assistants. (In fact, make that ALL sales assistants – they know when the sales start.)

Similarly, the high street is fantastic, but when shopping at the big P and other cult chain stores, stay away from the fashion mag picks if you don’t want to run into yourself in duplicate coming up the Social Sciences corridor. Items featured in the glossies sell the widest and are always, unfortunately, going to be the sartorial equivalent of tattooing “Topshop, £19.99” on your forehead. Therefore, always go exploring, and don’t stay within the confines of your own department either. Girls – check the boys’ section for ‘borrowed’ chic you can cinch in, and boys – the ‘old man’ floor can be a treasure trove of could-be-vintage, tweedy goodness. You may be cash poor, but you made it to university because you’re smart, dummy – so show a little ingenuity.

Sew think inside your dressing up box…

Additionally, the high street clone-factor can always be bypassed by how you work it, baby. Just like overcoming the tyranny of store department divisions, sometimes it pays to forget about sizing, shape, and the naming of garments. Who says it’s a top, when it looks better as a skirt? And if you cut out the label, who says the front is the front? The bottom line is, you never have nothing to wear, you’re just bored – so empty out your wardrobe and think laterally. And the biggest tip? Spending a sliver of loan cheque on a sewing machine and basic dressmaking/alteration course will be the best money you’ll ever spend if you’re truly committed to shrewd self-styling. Haberdasheries will become your sweet shops, and that dress you can’t get into will become your new favourite top. And never throw out accessories. Styles always come back, and they’re they easiest, peasiest way to change up an old outfit.

Or make like Madonna, and reinvent, reinvent, reinvent.

Finally, the biggest tip I am compelled to pass on is both style- and non style-related. Ever noticed the metamorphosis narrative recurrent in high school movies, from Grease to Clueless, and at the leanest, dumbest edge, She’s All That? You know the drill: geeky, fat, goody-goody, or friendless ‘loser’ undergoes makeover montage and becomes entirely different (read: better) person through the discovery of eyebrow plucking and high heels? Well, though I’ve admittedly spent time composing open letters to movie studios lamenting the depraved nature of this cult of enforced conformity, there’s actually something worth salvaging in there. We reluctantly buy into these movies because there’s something compelling about altering the way we present ourselves – about wearing someone else’s shoes.

Which brings me to you.

With at least three, and probably four years of hard graft in front of you, you’ve got at least three, probably four opportunities to do the Sandra Dee to Sandy, or back again, should you so desire. University isn’t like school, where who you are and how you look is harnessed to a long history of people who knew you when you were flat-chested or squeaky-voiced. Electives and tutorial groups change along with semesters, handing you bunches of brand new faces, and infinite new people you could choose to be. Think you might want to be a goth? Go for it. Because if black doesn’t suit you, next year you can always have a go at being a WAG or a Nu-Raver.
Make no mistake, you’re being handed a gift – three or four shots at reinvention, before you’re plunged into adulthood and given fewer and fewer opportunities to act out and try out. But know too, that if you decide to stay Ugly Betty, that’s just as cool. Because she was never ugly in the first place.

So in summation: don’t panic, have fun, and don’t be afraid to wear something stupid once in a while. And above all: stay in school, kids – if only because it staves off having to get a proper job.

Much love & luck, Skinny Jeans x

Skinny Jeans appears as a regular monthly column in The Skinny.