How to make cheap clothes look like designer clothes*

How to make cheap clothes look like designer clothes (*Well, almost like designer clothes…)

In an ideal world, The Fashion Police would walk around clad head-to-toe in designer clothing. Everything we wore would be lovingly made from the highest-quality fabric, by the most skilled seamstresses the fashion world has to offer.

(Actually, can we be totally honest here? Even if we miraculously became filthy rich overnight, we don’t think we’d be able to resist a quick look around our favourite high-street haunts every now and then. Low price doesn’t ALWAYS mean low quality, of course, and once a bargain hunter, always a bargain hunter…)

But this isn’t an ideal world. Like many people, if we want to indulge our love of fashion, we often have to shop from the budget end of the market, whether than means thrift stores, eBay, or cheap n’ cheerful retailers like H&M, Primark and Forever 21.

Just because we buy cheap clothes, though, it doesn’t mean we want them to LOOK like cheap clothes. And luckily, we don’t always have to. Here are our tips on how to make cheap clothes look (more) like designer clothes…

How to make cheap clothes look like designer clothes*

1. Not all cheap clothes are created equal

We’re starting off with the most obvious tip, which is that you need to choose your battles: and by “your battles”, we mean “your clothes”. If you’re a regular budget shopper, you probably know that while there are plenty of cheap items of clothing which look every bit as cheap as they are, every so often you’ll turn up an absolute gem. Have you ever asked someone where they got that dress/sweater/whatever, and been amazed when they answer “Primark!”? We have. This is because not all cheap clothes are created equal. Some are just better: better fabric, better workmanship, better cut. You might have to hunt for them, but they are there, we promise…

2. Pay close attention to fabric

Have you ever watched your mum walk into a clothing store and immediately pick something up and start rubbing the fabric between her fingertips? It’s a good habit to get into. Some fabrics just have an extra potential to look cheap. Chiffon, for instance. Shiny polyester. Anything, lamé or sequined. And, in the case of shoes, faux suede or leather. We’re not saying these fabrics will always look cheap, just that they’re more likely to, and can be harder to un-cheapen if they do. Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to tell which fabrics will have this effect, but in general, steer clear of anything too see-through, anything too shiny, and anything that looks like it’ll crease easily, and look instead for thicker, more hard-wearing fabrics which don’t look like they’ll go up in flames if you stand too close to a fire.

cheap clothes UK

3. Fit is everything

OK, it’s not absolutely everything. But when it comes to clothing, it’s almost everything. Ill-fitting garments will cheapen your whole look, even if they themselves were expensive. Try everything on, don’t be afraid to go up a size if you need to, and if all else fails, find yourself a decent seamstress (or learn how to do it yourself) and have the item altered. When it fits like it was made for you, it will look instantly more expensive.

4. Replace buttons, belts and other embelishments

Ever noticed how many high street dresses come with a “free” belt these days? And how often that belt is a flimsy, plastic affair, often in some lurid, neon colour, which looks like it belongs on a doll rather than on a grown woman? Get rid of that belt. And while you’re at it, get rid of the cheap buttons (plastic pretending to be metal? Bin it.), tacky brooches and anything else that’s been attached to your garment and makes it look cheaper. Replace the plastic belt with a leather one and the buttons with better quality  ones and you’re item won’t only look more expensive, it’ll also look a little more unique.

How to make cheap clothes look like designer clothes*

5. Look after your clothes…

…and your clothes will look after you. Or something like that, anyway. What we mean by this is that it doesn’t matter how much money you spend on a garment, if you toss it in the back of the wardrobe and don’t look after it properly, it’ll look like you dug it out of the bargain bin. Iron your clothes. Polish your shoes. Use a lint roller to get rid of those annoying bits of white fluff that like to attach themselves to dark trousers. Don’t wear clothes that are grubby or stained. Repair holes, snip off loose threads, replace missing buttons. All basic stuff, all more than worth the few minutes it’ll take to actually do it.

6. Mix it up

High-low is not just the name of a particular type of skirt. It’s also a way of dressing in which you mix cheaper items with better quality pieces, thus creating the illusion that everything you’re wearing is expensive. You don’t have to head straight to Hermes for those “better quality” pieces, either: but a real leather bag (whatever the brand) or belt will add the illusion of “expense” to a cheap dress; a silk scarf (which you can often find in thrift stores for much less than they’d cost new) or a good quality coat will go a long way to making sure that while your clothes might be cheap, no one will ever have to know but you.

[Note: This article was partly inspired by a post at Forever Amber: apologies to anyone who’s seeing some of the same things twice!]


  • October 11, 2012


    This is all really good advice! You’re certainly right that not all cheap clothes are created equally. I have some really lovely clothes from the cheaper end of the high street and today I’m wearing a Tesco dress and it’s beautiful! The best thing to do is look closely at the finish – I mean at seams and hems. If these have been finished with care your garment has a better chance of going the distance, as the construction will be better. Same with zips – especially with invisble zips! Buttonholes are another area – these are the bits of the garment that take strain and will go shapeless or get damaged. Another good tip about fabric is look at how well it seems to be bearing up in the shop – if the jumper is bobbling in the shop, how much will it bobble in the wearing?! Ditto cotton – if it’s creased on the hanger it will definitely crease up like mad in the wearing!

    View Comment
  • October 11, 2012


    GREAT ADVICE! I love watching shows like What Not to Wear, as well as Tim Gunn on his various shows, but a lot of times those shows offer an expensive makeover to the clients so money isn’t as much of an object, or else they recommend to “invest in good quality clothing” which is all well and good but sometimes it’s nice to know what to look for if you’re planning to spend a little less. Maybe I’ll invest in a few great pieces and spend more money on them but the majority of my wardrobe is definitely bought on the cheap, so I’ll be keeping your tips in mind. Thanks!!

    View Comment
  • May 15, 2013


    Sometimes it pays to invest a little work before wearing the garment: To rehem a clumsily sewn hem, reattach buttons when little threads are hanging out, or to reattach them with little flat buttons on the backside if they have been sewn through a single layer of fabric. Once I even blind-stitched a satin ribbon to the inside of a neckline which I knew would become loose. This pays if the fabric is good, but the construction is sloppy, and is admittedly only for avid home-sewers like me.

    With the freebie belts, if the buckle is nice or fits uniquely with the garment, I attach it to another belt. I find nice leather belts at the cobbler’s shop, in real leather, but with cheap, metallic buckles. I then proceed to make a jackalope of the two belts. My husband grudgingly drills tiny 1 mm holes into the leather with his noble model making drill which was never meant for such lowbrow work *gg* so I can sew the leather. These belts last forever and would normally cost very much.

    View Comment