At the height of winter, most of us are just trying to stay warm, fashion be damned. (Do you feel like you’re walking around in a giant sleeping bag most days? You’re not alone.) But polish and practicality don’t have to be at odds, even in subzero temps. With a little forethought and creativity, there are plenty of ways to refresh your wardrobe in even the harshest winter. And, fortunately, most of them don’t involve a spending spree.
Plus, improving your freezing image is a powerful means to being your best self — you’ll feel better even if you can’t feel your toes. Here are five affordable ways to weather winter fashion woes and stay warm in style.
Expertly Layer to Beat Bulk
It’s easy to feel frumpy and weighed down once the temperature drops. But thanks to textile technology, sleek underlayer options abound. From tanks to long-sleeve tees to hidden leggings, you’re anything but limited when it comes to secret warmth.
Fabrication and fit are key. You want something with a clean fit — body-skimming but not too tight. Anything baggy will add lumps under your clothes. Merino wool wicks moisture and comes in micro-thin models, but if your skin is on the sensitive side, stick with a silkier base, either from actual silk or a soft, high-tech synthetic.
Strategic layering also has financial advantages: Adding thin, heat-trapping layers saves money by letting you wear your lighter-weight pieces year round, thereby doubling the size of your winter wardrobe.
Commit to Regular Maintenance
Winter clothes cost more, due in part to the expensive materials and multiple layers it takes to make them. Committing to regular maintenance, even before disaster or necessity strikes (like the sole of your shoe detaching mid-puddle), is the best recipe for stretching your cold-weather clothing budget.
Start with your boots, which are likely to get the most wear. For about $5 (or for free, if you can justify the time), you can add literal polish to your look. From removing salt stains to smoothing scuffs, shoe shines makes everything you wear look refreshed and renewed. Boots can and should be re-soled regularly to stretch their lifespan. Take them to the cobbler, ideally before you begin wearing them, but it’s really never too late, and ask for rubber soles. It’s a small investment that will extend their wear for years. I have boots I’ve been re-soling for more than a decade and they’re still going strong!
The other most visible sign of wear plagues your knits. From sweaters to scarves, pilling happens to even high-end wools and cashmeres. Invest in an inexpensive electric sweater shaver, or if you have the patience, use a manual sweater comb — but use it gently to avoid snags or pulls.
Finally, keep your colors fresh by washing right. Black is a popular winter weather color, but it can fade. Refresh your all-black pieces by washing them with some black dye instead of replacing perfectly good clothes. Be sure to wash all colors inside out and in cold water to keep them as vibrant as possible.
Let There Be Shape
When winter strikes, avoid looking like you’re wearing a Snuggie and cinch your waist whenever possible. Belts flatter nearly every body type, and you can wear them with open everything from sweater coats to crew- and V-neck sweaters that hit below your waistband. Bulkier knits may require a wider belt, while thinner knits can accommodate both wide, fitted styles and low-slung skinny varieties. Belts are also a great way to break up a dress or a sweater-skirt combo, and don’t be afraid to add one over your winter jacket — it may be the only thing many people see, so wear your style accent on the outside.
Leather belts may cost a little more, but a good, classic one should last you a lifetime and look better with age, while cheaper synthetic varieties will crack and show wear quickly. It’s better to splurge once than to replace each year.
Keep Your Leg Wear On Point
You may feel yourself slipping into a black-pants rut in the dead of winter, but your legs can come out to play — thanks to hosiery. I love hosiery: It defines your legs and operates like an accessory, all while keeping you warm. When it’s freezing, step into wool or fleece-lined tights: These may cost a bit more, but they should last several years.
On milder days, have some fun and make your legs a cheerful oasis in an otherwise dreary style scene. Small patterns, colors, and even tiny perforations can all perk up your winter wardrobe on the cheap and remain professional. Layer with high woolly socks inside knee-high boots for added insulation.
If you’re not into wearing skirts and dresses, hosiery can still come in handy. Tall, thin socks will fit inside your flats, saving you money by allowing you to continue to wear those comfortable shoes all year.
Wrap Up in Style
Scarves are the great savior of our winter wardrobes. A scarf is one of the easiest, most affordable, and most effective ways to stay warm and look pulled together in an instant. They add polish and panache to even the frumpiest of sleeping-bag coats, and indoors they quickly tie together simple winter basics (doubling as a shoulder wrap as needed).
What’s more, there’s a stylish option for every budget, though natural fibers will breathe better and keep you cozier. Opt for an infinity scarf if you want low-fuss, or practice your tying tricks for longer varieties. Look to silk blends for upscale elegance and chunkier knits for texture and warmth.
Scarves also diminish the need for excessive additional accessorizing, so stick with thin drops or button earrings and balance with some sleek stacked bracelets to finish the look. When it comes to other winter accessories, like hats and gloves, don’t worry about matching colors and materials perfectly. These are great areas to have a little fun. Tan leather gloves (I like a wool or cashmere lining for extra warmth) and a neutral-hued wool or cashmere hat will go with every color and style of coat. If most of your winter outerwear is black, opt for a pop of color with your hats and gloves to give your look a little spark.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent approach to image and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.