second hand shopper’s guide to: secondhand shopping!

(DISCLAIMER: The following information is all based on my personal experiences of charity shopping throughout the UK. A lot is opinion and speculation, and none is intended to offend, merely illuminate.)

Or more specifically, charity shopping. Because we really need to focus here…

So, I’ve been a secondhand fiend for over a decade now. I started trawling the charity shops with my friend Chrissie during our sixth form days – looking for an alternative to the affordable high street stores everyone in school favoured and the uniform look they therefore churned out. Instead, I opted for 70s cordurouy skirts and belted tartan coats, dresses that could be shortened to mini to wear with my Oh-So-90s platform knee boots, lace-edged slips and camis dyed bright colours to wear to the pub, and old-man trousers in seersucker or tweed worn with Converse rip-offs or faux Birkenstocks.

This was not a stage of my fashion development upon which I look back with pride or pleasure…

Still, over the years I’ve become something of a charity shop pro. I can walk into one and spot the bargains hidden amongst the trash. I can go out with a shopping list in mind and know exactly how to sniff out exactly the items I’m looking for. And I can put a fancy dress look together without having to stray into costume shop territory. It’s quite a skill to have developed, and one I’d love to help my readers to develop too!

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Secondhand shopper

What’s in a name?

It has come to my attention lately that the title of my blog doesn’t really encapsulate the content. Blogs like Secrets of a Secondhand Shopaholic, for example, show very clearly the ways in which secondhand shopping shapes their wardrobe. Since I stopped listing the origin of my clothes, it has been less obvious how much of my outfits are, in fact thrifted. Which does actually usually come in around three-quarters at the very least…

So, to clarify the reason behind my name, I thought it might be worth looking at the clothes I’ve worn lately – taking the outfits featured on the front page of my blog alone to demonstrate my point.

Too many options: May 23rd, wedding apparell

Ok, this is a bad example, being a dress for a wedding, albeit one I have altered, bought cheap and mended and worn several times already… BUT see the hat? Charity shop. See the red patent clutch? Charity shop. See the sash used to tie up the colours? Charity shop. So excluding the dress itself and the (rare) expensive shoes,  the rest is all secondhand. Which isn’t bad, really!

Sky blue: May 24th

Right, back to the land of day-to-day dressing, this is what I wore for work one day last week. Of this outfit, the dress and crochet cardigan are charity shop purchases. The slip was bought new, at the Flat Iron market in Chorley, and the shoes were a secondhand bargain from ebay (Topshop shoes – gotta love ‘em!). One new item in four isn’t that bad!

Power Down: May 25th

vintage, St Michael, ruby shoesdayDress: charity shop.

Cardi: charity shop.

Shoes: Debenhams.

Nuff sed!

Bleurgh: May 26th

Ok, technically I didn’t buy this skirt secondhand, but it was a hand-me-down from my Mum, so is in fact a secondhand item! Plus, the cardi and cami are both charity shop buys. The shoes are last year’s Dorothy Perkins, also available in pewter, which I’ve been covetting ever since I saw Shoegal rocking them. 

Things that made me smile today: May 27th

This dress has proven a real staple in my wardrobe, not least because it is so effortless to wear. It was bought secondhand from ebay, and came with a denim tie belt which was put to good use on a tote bag project. The belt is Topshop, and was bought brand new in celebration of my first proper pay check in 2004!! The shoes are another Dorothy Perkins purchase (though at £5 in the sale they may as well have been a charity shop buy!!). Both belt and shoes have been worn again and again over the years.


Oopsy!: May 28th

The ebay Topshop shoes again! They’re something of a spring/summer staple.

This is an ebay outfit, but again largely secondhand. The belt came on a mod dress that didn’t suit me, that I shortened and sold on. The dress appears to have been handmade at some point, I’d guess the 70s. I love this dress so much – the pattern is divine and the shape is perfect for me.

The cardi, unfortunatley, is Matalan’s finest!

Playtime, pleats and ply: May 29th

The Dotty P’s shoes putting in another appearance here… Otherwise, entirely charity shop purchases. Cobalt blue 80s strapless boned dress, bought in a charity shop quite recently on a shopping trip with the girls for £6. We walked into this shop and I said “I never find anything in here…” and picked this straight off the shelf! That’s where the thrifting gods make their presence known…

Black satin shrug bought many years ago, grey leather belt bought on a grey full-skirted dress this year from a charity shop near work, and worn much more regularly than the dress itself!

Strawberry Tuesdays: 1st June

See – same belt again! It’s very versatile!

This LBD is actually a lovely broderie anglaise fabric. I have the same dress in turquoise and I love the fit, so when I saw the black in my size in a charity shop I snapped it up!

Cardi and shoes are both M&S, though – so only 50% thrifted on this occasion!

Shattered: 2nd & 3rd June

First up, 2nd June and an outfit which is practically all “new” purchases! The dress was a gift from my brother, Ben, bought new from a great shop called Triple S in Newcastle. The cardigan was bought in the Sainsbury’s January sale. The boots are very much secondhand though – my lovely 80s Snow Maidens which I picked up while out shopping for some great flat brown boots! They are one of my best ever charity shop buys!

And yesterday’s outfit. Ok, the skirt is shiny and new, but the cardi and body suit are both charity shop buys. And the shoes are Per Una, bought in a charity shop with horrible leather thong laces, which I replaced with bows!

Secondhand shadows

While browsing the google results for secondhand shopper (I like to see where I’m ranking! :) ) I came across Conscious Consumerism,  a 2005 (I think) study into why some people prefer secondhand goods to new. One of the often quoted sales points about secondhand goods seems to be that they have a history to them, a story that appeals to the romantic shopper. Conscience Consumerism linked this to Walter Benjamin’s commentary on the links between an artist’s original and a painting’s aura – the reason that the original Mona Lisa is  so superior to a print, for example. It seems Benjamin felt that inanimate objects have an aura that reflects their relationship to their creator, and their authenticity.

This idea of an object’s aura actually makes sense to me. Because, in the same way that well-loved objects have an attractive warmth to them, I believe they can leave a shadow behind them. In my ex’s house, in our second year at uni, there was a spot on the landing where I walked around a piece of furniture. I wasn’t the only one – several other people had the same experience as I did in the exact same spot. Thing is, there was nothing there. I don’t know whether there’s some invisible fading to the wallpaper or undecipherable denting to the carpet that the naked eye doesn’t pick up but our brain still registers – but I studied that spot, and it was always as if it was slightly obscured, like something had left its imprint behind. I think this is an extension of the aura Benjamin introduces.

And this is exactly why I’d rather have an old sofa with slightly sagging seats that feels as if it’s hugging you than a brand new, MFI, four-years-interest-free beige minimalist sofa-bed with rock-hard arms. Or a tarnished gold brooch with slightly discoloured pearls than a brand new white gold number from H Samuel. I want the originality, the authenticity and the aura!

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Dress and top: charity shops; shoes: M&S; alice band: New Look

Charity Shop Cheek

This week the Times Online has a feature on their website about the Top 25 Charity Shops in Britain. It’s about how charity shops are opting out of the jumble-sale, rummage-style tradition and aiming for an upmarket boutique feel. It explains that it wants to expand charity shopping away from the currently elite student and “creative type” market to encompass “everyone”. It wants to make charity shopping appeal to those who work, who don’t have the time to flick through rails of clothes of questionable quality in order to find the gems, but want the sorting done for them. As a result it lists the charity shops that either already focus on vintage, gathering the cherry-picked items from the various nationwide stores together in their upmarket, usually city-based stores, or are in already affluent areas (particularly Cheshire, home of footballer’s wives and soap stars) and selling secondhand designer. All in all it makes me mad.

I have guilt when it comes to charity shopping. Half of me is of the opinion that charity shops should be there for people who cannot afford the high street. Of course, with the rise of Primark, Peacocks, George, etc, you can now pick up new basics for cheaper than charity shop prices. But still, as a working woman I’m sometimes ashamed to be stealing bargains from the unemployed and students who might need them.

The other part of me is proud to be thrifty, and usually wins out!

Either way, filtering out the best outfits for boutique-style stores takes from the appeal of charity shopping. The likelihood of finding a gem – the main reason that I find the exercise so exciting – is dramatically reduced. The likelihood of finding a bargain, more so, as prices are hiked up to cover cost of these new boutiques, the alternative being a cut in profits to the charities in question. Pretty fittings don’t come cheap!

In reducing the chances of finding that elusive hidden treasure, the likelihood is that they will also reduce the appeal of shopping there in the first place. Which means that revenue will surely plummet.

Which in turn must mean that prices will have to go up to cover those pretty fittings we discussed earlier? The beginnings of a downward spiral, culminating in a cut in profits. The whole point of charity shops is surely to make as much money as possible out of people’s good will.  The improvement of stores seems to me a pointless exercise. Instead we should be educating people on the ethical, environmental and economical benefits of utilising the resources already available to them.

Of course, charity shopping is a very personal experience, in which everyone finds their own favoured path.  I already tend to avoid the high-end charity shops: Oxfam is all but off-limits for me unless I’m buying books* or fairtrade. My favourite shops are not those in affluent areas, but those in the rougher parts of town where prices are cheap. If you can brave the smell (and there are a couple of shops in my favourite CS high street I frankly and honestly can’t) you’ll find these are the source of the best bargains. Because these hold true vintage pieces. Not necessarily designer pieces, but 60s, 70s and 80s gems from which designers take their inspiration. These are the shops into which people empty their attics, or the houses of loved ones who have sadly passed away. The fact that they are jumble-sale hotch-potches of goods allows anyone with patience and a good eye to find the bargains no-one else sees.

My other favourite charity shops are those supporting local charities which don’t have specialist flagship stores to skim off the best bits. The best in my experience are local hospice shops. These are usually well-ordered and odour-free, reasonably priced and full of bargains.

In Stafford, for example, there are three Katherine House shops:

  • One, on the corner of Mill Street deals exclusively in bric-a-brac – gorgeous antiques, china tea sets, jewellery and small furnishings, with a few books and records thrown in for good measure. On my last visit I fell in love with a full dinner service including tea set, a bamboo screen and a striped jug that would have been ideal for custard!
  • Tucked away near the back of the Guildhall shopping centre is their clothing shop, offering decent high-street pieces in excellent condition and classic styles. Not my scene, but well ordered.
  • Then, hidden away on the Tixall Road is a third shop. This one is slightly out of town, and the prices, layout and stock reflect this. It is still well-ordered, but has a more relaxed feel. The stock caters for the local student population, feauturing lots of kitchen essentials and a decent shelf of books.  Once you’ve got past the excess of novelty mugs, the clothes and bric-a-brac are far more interesting here than anywhere else. On my last visit I got a fabulous 70s pyrex mixing bowl and a set of three, as new, enamel saucepans with flowers on. I think I spent less than a fiver.

I am all for bringing thriftiness to a wider market. I encourage everyone out there to explore their local Good Will (for the record, Salvation Army stores appear to be a good source of bargains across continents, if the Australian and American blogs I read are anything to go by). But bear in mind that charity shops have two main functions in our society. One, the outcome of the second but important none-the-less, is to provide cheap clothing to those who need it. The second is to raise money for charities.

*Books are a different matter entirely – there is very rarely a paperback novel I want that I cannot get in Oxfam books a matter of weeks after release date in as new condition for a less than half the RRP. Puts three for two to shame – but doesn’t stop me shopping in Waterstones as, as a publisher and former Waterstones employee,  I like to support my industry! :D