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How to dress for formal on a budget

You can never have too many 99p dresses…

| UPDATED #Fashion Budget Cambridge cambridge formal cheap Formal what to wear

Formals are an amazing part of the Cambridge experience. This is as close to Hogwarts as it gets, with delicious food and socialising galore.

The dress code may be unavoidable (and potentially expensive to meet), but armed with some simple tips and tricks and a sensible budget, there's no reason why it can't be the perfect opportunity to test your fashion sense and master the season.

Tip 1: Set yourself a sensible budget, and don't be tempted

When it comes to clothes shopping, being realistic about cost is essential – decide how much you are willing to spend, and then tailor your search to the kinds of retailers, outlets and websites that cater to your budget.

There's nothing worse than falling in love with a dress, only to discover it costs more than your entire wardrobe – unless you get lucky and find it on eBay later! If you simply can't resist window-shopping and love the physical experience of finding the perfect piece, use it as a chance to try things on and find your size in lots of different brands so you have a good idea of the fit when you look at online retailers or shop second-hand.

eBay, Depop and vintage sellers are your best bets: know your size, know your favourite brands and styles, and don't be afraid to take a gamble on a few extra pounds for a top or dress that looks exciting.

Tip 2: Master the basics

There are some absolute essentials for this season that you can mix and match to your heart's content. Starting off with the timeless and effortless chic of a simple black dress – show off your style by combining it with bright colourful accessories, or keep it classic with silver jewellery and accent heels. Invest in a quality occasion scarf in a decent material and a muted colour scheme, for when the cold kicks in this winter and you can't wear a jacket under your gown.

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A black dress or pencil skirt are both solid bases for a range of outfits : New Look, Black Textured Pencil Skirt (£12.99), New look Black Ribbed Bodycon Mini dress (£9.99)

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T K Maxx Belucci heels (£16.99), Monki bag on Asos (£15)

The alternative is to commit to slightly thicker materials and bolder patterns; incorporating a whole look into a single piece under your gown.

Be unabashed about colour and style – body-shaming is out and bodycon is in, so keep an eye out on eBay for the key looks from previous seasons.

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Funky Dresses at affordable prices: Asos Design Mini Skater Dress with long sleeves and collar in floral print (£35), New Look Black Floral Border Print High Neck Dress (24.99), Next Boohoo Pencil Midi Dress (£9)

Another option that makes mixing and matching work like a charm is a classic pencil skirt: eBay has a wealth of blouses, shirts and tops for less than £1 and a simple black skirt goes with everything. Having a couple of pairs of cheap, snazzy heels or boots and a quality handbag or two will keep these outfits up to date.

Tip 3: Re-use and re-style

There is absolutely no shame in re-wearing the same outfits. To keep it interesting, switch heels for flats or boots and shop Primark, New Look or Claire's for some affordable new accessories. Stick to the rules of colour co-ordination and keep it simple: let an under-stated look sell itself with a quiet elegance.

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A good accessory can transform your outfit: Pieces earrings (sold on Asos, £9), Claire's (£3.60), Asos DESIGN (£8), Primark (£4), Asos DESIGN (£6)

Tip 4: Enjoy yourself!

Find what works for you, don't be afraid to experiment and embrace bargain-hunting – 'worn once' or 'nearly new' are the keys to a successful wardrobe!

If cost becomes an issue, why not try swapping clothes with your friends? Lend and borrow so you get to try out different styles for free for different nights of the week, or find a charity (Cambridge has several) that organise formal clothes swaps. Check out CUSU Marketplace ( if you've got stuff to sell and want to keep it local, or try your hand at haberdashery and customise something yourself.

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Armed with your new looks, go forward and take on formal without having spent all of your wine money on your outfit!