Just because we're tightening our belts doesn't mean we have to economise on style. Here are six ways to staylooking great – without breaking the bank

Swap till you drop
By Susie Rushton

Here's a simple way to cut the cost of fashion in hard times: don't pay. Getting arrested for shoplifting isn't particularly chic, though, and although celebrities are lavished with free gear by designer brands, they also have to be trailed by paparazzi every time they go to Starbucks. So, instead, those in the know go to organised clothes-swaps to bag their freebies.

Long popular in the US and Australia but only taking off in Britain during the past year, clothes-swap parties appeal to ecologically minded types who want to recycle their clothing in a sociable setting – but they are also a dirt cheap way to add verve to your spring wardrobe.

But what are they? Well, banish all notions of either Noel Edmonds on Saturday morning telly or half-dressed housewives at Surrey car-key parties. Swaps are jumble sales for the young and fashionable, minus the small change. Simply locate a swap in your area, and gather together any garments that you are bored with or which no longer fit. Make sure they're clean and in good nick (it's seriously rude to turn up with creased rags and expect to walk away with a barely worn Marc Jacobs blouse). After paying a moderate entrance fee, and once inside the venue (anything from a leisure centre capable to a room in a pub), you spend several pleasant hours rummaging through the rails in search of fashion finds. Try them on, and if you like them, they're yours. Leave, without paying.

Visa Swap was a major exchange held in Knightsbridge, London, last year, organised (with no apparent irony) by the credit-card company. Another is planned for June in Covent Garden. Many smaller bodies and charities also host swaps. Some, like Swap-a-rama Razzmatazz in Shoreditch, east London, or Strut in Manchester, are held in nightclubs, but it's also easy to host a small swap in your own home. The personal shopping company Y.shop can help you to organise it. Leftovers go to the charity shop.

For those who can't get to a party – or who prefer to exchange carefully selected, higher-value pieces, the internet also offers chances to "shop" for free. On sites such as whatsmineisyours.co.uk, you list an approximate value for each garment and then wait for a reasonable exchange.

Lori Wiechec and Rachael Stewart run Hybird, a not-for-profit feminist networking company that staged its first "clothes swap" event in London last summer. Held above a pub, with DJs and pink champagne, the atmosphere was that of a slightly bohemian hen party. "We love clothes but over the past couple of years we have forgotten our morals and better judgement in favour of cheap fashion," says Wiechec, a former fashion designer. "If I feel a bit low, I go comfort shopping in Primark. I bring it home and wear it once and then it makes me feel worse. The clothes are so cheap that they have no value."

Some 900,000 tons of clothing and shoes are thrown away by Britons each year, so swapping low-value clothing is not only the best way to get clothes for free, and do a spring clear-out, but it's a salve to the conscience, too.

www.whatsmineisyours.co.uk; www.myspace.com/swaparamarazzmatazz; www.myspace.com/strut manchester; www.y-shop.co.uk; www.visaswap.com

Go for the classics
By Susannah Frankel

Every recession has its style. And it tends, for obvious reasons, not to be frilly.

The inter-war "make do and mend" years decreed that wearing full skirts – or indeed anything which required extravagant amounts of fabric – was tantamount to treason, hence the pencil-thin, strong-shouldered silhouette that dominated throughout that period.

At the end of the Eighties, meanwhile, the power-fuelled dominatrix that characterised that decade gave way to a more modest creature who favoured the avant-garde aesthetic of Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and the Belgian deconstructivist Martin Margiela, all of whom favoured clothing that, for the first time, appeared deliberately aged – and thereby far from ostentatious – and determinedly anti-establishment to boot.

The fashions of the current credit crunch are no exception, as the forthcoming autumn/winter 2008 collections are soon to prove. Most importantly, fast fashion has had its day. Although it might, on the face of it, seem sensible to buy cheap and cheerful in times of economic downturn, cheap – as seen on the high street – is now widely considered unethical, and as for cheerful... Well, given the socio-political climate, cheerful is simply in poor taste.

Instead, in troubled times reach for time-honoured classics and luxury (there's no way that particular buzzword is going to fall off its perch any time soon, however limited our budgets might be), but luxury so discreet only the privileged few are ever likely to see it that way. The demise of the hardware-laden status handbag is nothing if not testimony to the fact that flashing cash is taboo, for the time being at least.

Look at the fashion superpowers' sources of inspiration and all will be revealed. For Miuccia Prada and Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière – among the world's most influential designers – the femme fatale is once more centre stage. She wears rigorously cut clothing in suitably sombre hues and is about as far from arm candy as it is possible to imagine. Think of Simone Signoret in the 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot-directed Les Diaboliques – statuesque, sober and timelessly beautiful – rather than any over-exposed actress/WAG/wannabe one might care to mention, whose look is both over-exposed and disposable.

Or why not emulate the style of Jackie Kennedy? Carla Sarkozy recently did just that. Far from being boring, her grey, studiously understated appearance was a sign of things to come – and an impeccably chic one to boot. So...

1 Buy trenchcoats, roomy masculine overcoats, princess coats and other iconic outerwear that never dates. Buy good cashmere, preferably from Scotland. It's more expensive but it ages brilliantly.

2 Buy monochrome or neutral-coloured tailoring that is more covered up and suggestive than obviously curvaceous and avoid anything overly girlish. Serious times call for serious clothes to match so steer clear, too, of fashion's current love affair with over-elaborate, vertiginous shoes which already seem too frivolous for comfort – not that comfort was ever the point where these are concerned.

3 Invest in the grand French and Italian labels but choose the less obvious pieces so that they won't look dated in six months' time. Chanel suits, little black dresses, two-tone pumps and quilted bags all fit this bill perfectly. Also a Chanel stalwart, and now spreading like wild-fire across the French brands in particular, is costume jewellery, which brightens even the most pared down and severe of looks, but at a fraction of the cost of the real thing.

4 Buy Edition 24 by Yves Saint Laurent, which goes into the stores in June and is a fledgling line of lovely pieces that are more reasonably priced than the main line and stay on the rails for a whole year, meaning that at least one fashion front-runner – that label's creative director, Stefano Pilati – has his finger firmly on the economic pulse.

And that pulse is, understandably, more nervous than it has been, meaning, in the end, that the overall message couldn't be more clear. Buy less and with more care and consideration and be aware that there is nothing more démodé in times of crisis than wearing one's wealth on one's sleeve.

Make it yourself
By Rebecca Armstrong

Spend, spend, spend, or make do and mend? For a generation used to splashing our cash on throwaway fashion, the idea of running up a little number to wear on Saturday night might seem daunting, but DIY dressmaking is making a huge comeback and is neither dull nor difficult, even if you're a stranger to sewing.

According to Natalie Beard of Startsewing.co.uk, an online resource for home dressmakers, the best way to get started is by altering and customising old clothes. "Then move on to basic sewing patterns," she says. "Once you've mastered the basics, you can alter them to suit your style. Investing in a mannequin will help you. I tend to experiment, draping fabrics straight on the mannequin"

There are a few basic requirements that every would-be seamstress (or seamster, for that matter) needs to get started. Scissors, thread, pins, muslin cloth (for testing), enough room to manoeuvre and either a needle for hand-stitching or a sewing machine are all must-haves – plus fabric, of course. But be prudent in your purchasing; it can be all too easy to get carried away. For a frugal fashion fix, check out charity shops and jumble sales for material, whether it's a pair of curtains, sheets or a capacious garment that can be filleted to make something fitted.

Hand stitching is fine for a one-off piece but for those seeking a wardrobe's worth of wear, a sewing machine will be a lifesaver. It also means membership to the latest fashion pack – Threadbangers, the craft network that developed in the US and is spreading around the world. Argos says its sewing machine sales have increased by 50 per cent in the past two years, while Woolworths reports a 250 per cent boom over the same period. With prices starting as low as £50 (or free if you log on to Freecycle.org), the savings start as soon as the sewing does.

Equipment in place, the first thing to remember is to keep it simple. Paper patterns can be tricky to master, so there's no shame in using an existing garment as a guide, provided that, in two dimensions, it has a shape without any fancy flourishes. Avoid anything that needs complicated fastenings, such as zips, at this stage. Lay the item flat on the fabric being used, pin it down, then mark where to cut. Give yourself an extra centimetre to play with and, once cut out, pin each piece together and start sewing.

"You need a lot of patience and you should expect to make mistakes in the beginning," says Beard. "But there's nothing better than someone asking you where you got your dress from and being able to say, 'I made it myself.'"

Beginner's guide: www.startsewing.co.uk; Contemporary paper patterns: www.fitzpatterns.com; Inexpensive fabrics: www.online-fabrics.co.uk; Haberdashery and fabrics: www.macculloch-wallis.co.uk; Videos plus links to other online advice: www.threadbanger.com; Inspirational ideas, patterns and helpful videos: www.cutoutandkeep.net

Barter for a bargain
By Carola Long

It's not totally impossible to get a discount in a high-street clothing chain, it's just about as likely as spotting Victoria Beckham browsing the paperbacks in Oxfam. Having said that, seven years ago I did manage to negotiate 10 per cent off a skirt in Reiss just by saying I thought it was too expensive. Perhaps it was due to the whim of the shop assistant, or perhaps it was due to be reduced, but perhaps their credit crunch offers shoppers some room for manoeuvre.

While the vast majority of chain-store sales staff don't have the discretion to give a discount, an independent boutique where something is already marked down might be more amenable to bargaining. "Will this be reduced any further? Would you be willing to take another 10 per cent off?". The owner of the shop, or someone with the requisite authority to reduce the price, is more likely to be around. Generally, however, markets are the best places for haggling, especially towards the end of the day.

If you instinctively feel your mortgage would have to go up another few pounds before you resort to haggling, there are plenty of other places to find discounts. Obviously, clothes from sample sales, and those offered on discount websites aren't going to be this season's key pieces, but if something still looks right a season or two after it first hit the shelves, it has probably got some mileage left.

www.catwalktocloset.com is an online sample sale website featuring clothes from designers such as 3.1 Philip Lim, Paul & Joe and Marc Jacobs at heavy discounts – often more than 50 per cent. www.koodos.com is less impressive for clothes, but good for shoes and jewellery by designers such as Monaca Vinader. Online boutiques such as www.netaporter.com and www.brownsfashion.com tend to keep sale stock online for months after the original event. The Paul Smith sale shop in Avery Row, near Bond Street in central London is also a great source of old stock for men.

You can also use the internet to your advantage. Catwalk To Closet will email you when something tasty comes in, and TK Maxx also has an email alert so that you can be among the first to know when a promising delivery of reduced designer clothes arrives. Daily Candy is an online guide to the latest lifestyle products and events, and a good source of information about sample sales for men and women, as are www.designersales.co.uk, and www.secretsample sales.com.

London Fashion Weekend, which happens twice yearly, after London Fashion Week, is a genuinely rich source of drastically reduced designer clothes and accessories from designers such as Betty Jackson and shoe designer Beatrix Ong. Last year I bought some Olivia Morris black and gold heels with a stiff bow on the front there for around £90, instead of more than £200, and John Smedley knits for around half price.

Equally full of desirable labels at considerable discounts – think up to 90 per cent off some Versace pieces – is the discount outlet Bicester Village, just outside Oxford. Labels include Anya Hindmarch, Burberry and Mulberry, and although the white clapboard shops have a rather Disneyish feel, it's much less soulless than a city shopping centre.

Be bold with the old
By Carola Long

There are two reasons why vintage shopping is a smart move. Firstly, you can buy high-quality vintage clothes for similar prices to mass-produced new garments; and secondly, retro looks tend to be timeless, rather than must-have one season and about as cutting edge as a crinoline the next. To be sure of a genuinely cut-price purchase, however, it makes sense to follow a few simple guidelines:

1 Only buy something that needs altering if you absolutely love it, and are the kind of person who will actually change it yourself or find time to have it done professionally.

2 Don't buy anything stained – chances are that the previous owner will already have tried and failed to shift the offending mark

3 Never buy anything with signs of moth holes or eggs, or the greedy critters could much their way through your entire wardrobe.

4 Signs of quality include natural fabrics such as silk and wool, pattern-matching, where the print runs across seams, stylish buttons and hanger loops. If you are planning to buy a lot of vintage clothes, then read guides such as It's Vintage Darling by Christa Weil, and Shopping For Vintage by Funmi Odulate, both available from most bookshops.

Now that people are more aware of the appeal and value of vintage clothes, it's less likely that you will pick up an Ossie Clark dress for £10 at a car boot sale, but there are still bargains out there. Vintage fairs can be more affordable than boutiques; try www.vintagefashionfairs.comand www.frockmevintagefashion.com for dates and locations.

Of course, while vintage clothing withstands passing trends, it doesn't hurt to acknowledge seasonal details. Items that fit in with current styles include Seventies-inspired pieces such as high-waisted flares, leather satchels and maxi dresses, floral prints and anything nautical. Costume jewellery is also tipped to be a key trend next season, so look out for giant chunky cuffs – particularly Bakelite – and hefty paste jewels. Tailoring, too, will also be a strong theme.

A vintage wedding dress is not only a good way to ensure that you look classic in the photos, it can also be much cheaper than forking out for a designer style. Try www.the vintageweddingdresscompany.com for dresses that start at around £1,000.

If the idea of hunting down the perfect Forties waisted jacket seems about as simple as cracking the Enigma code, then the vintage personal shopping service at Alfies and Grays antiques markets in London could demystify the experience. An expert will take you round the markets, and introduce you to stallholders who can give you advice on their garments' care and provenance. They have everything from Forties dresses to men's watches and jewellery, and prices start at a wallet-friendly £5. Call 020-7725 9601 to book.

Customise your closet
By Esther Walker

Recession or not, customising your clothes has always been hip. In fact, for the many fashion designers, it is a rite of passage. Before they graduated to the catwalk, designers including Roland "Galaxy dress" Mouret and Betty Jackson began by customising their clothes in their bedrooms as teenagers. In a rather less stylish vein, let's not forget Britney Spears' penchant for DIY: she once sliced the toes off a pair of fishnet tights, put a hole in the crotch and then wore the hosiery as a top. Customising, then, is a hit-and-miss craft, but it's always creative – and very low cost.

For the uninitiated, the best place to begin is probably with old T-shirts. If you've got some heading for the bin, decorate them by splattering neon or gold and silver fabric paint across the front. John Lewis (www.johnlewis.com) has a selection of fabric paints, or buy online at www.stencilwarehouse.com, which also, as its name suggests, sells stencils. Alternatively, tie-dyeing, formerly the preserve of hippies, is very "now" – designer Henry Holland even gave a step-by-step guide to the technique in the pages of Vogue last month. Pick up dyes at www.dylon.co.uk. Depending on your taste, ribbons, braiding, buttons, sequins, patches and fringing will all liven up a drab old top, too; the best can be found on www.bedecked.co.uk and www.trimit.net. If you find a few extra quid down the back of the sofa, splash out at www.vvrouleaux.com, the fashion insider's favourite haberdashery.

The other, more drastic, approach is to reach for the scissors. "You change the neckline of an existing T-shirt just by cutting it," says Paula Kirkwood, head of Remade, at Traid, the textile recycling charity. "You can cut out shapes – bows, horses or anchors – from other jerseys and fabrics and either stitch them on to an old T-shirt or stick them on with fabric glue and a hot iron. Boring buttons on a cardigan or jacket can be changed easily to update the garment."

Jeans are particularly easy to customise as the material takes fabric paint or iron-on patches well. However, it's all too easy to go over the top. Change your jeans without going overboard by sewing small strips of flowery or stripy material along the edges of all the pockets. Very Paul Smith.

The braver might attempt a more radical transformation. With starlets such as Jessica Alba seen wearing 1970s-style bellbottoms by expensive brands such as Hudson, the tyranny of the skinny jean might well be over. No need to dump the thigh-clingers, however. Try either chopping them up into shorts or transforming them into miniskirts by unpicking the inside leg seams and sewing the legs together. This takes patience and careful sewing, but the best online tutorials can be found at http://etsylabs.blogspot.com. As for beachwear, Girls Aloud (or, more likely, their stylist) liven up their old bikinis by sewing Swarovski crystals on to last year's two-piece. You can get crystals online at www.crystalandglassbeads.com. But if all that sounds a bit glitzy for such sober times, transparent plastic sequins placed in an even, widely-spaced pattern across the material will catch the sunlight without appearing gaudy.

Last but not least, practise with fabric paint on old material first and if you're cutting, make sure you snip conservatively: cutting more material off is easy – sticking it back on is not.