A very great deal of my clothing has belonged to someone else first.
Some people – those with a big enough wallet or too thin a skin – never see the point in buying stuff second-hand, but I love it.
I developed the Oxfam knack while I was at college, about the same time as learning to sew, and for the same reason – champagne tastes and a beer income.
I was, and remain, a clothing snob, and it didn’t take a degree in mathematics to work out that although I could afford to shop at What She Wants and the street markets in London, they were full of crap that I wouldn’t dress my cat in. My money was going to go a lot further and I’d get much better things in charity shops.
Upper Street, Islington, was a favourite port of call in those days, especially the Cancer Research shop. Here, in the 80s and 90s, you could pick up Jaeger, Yves St Laurent, Jean Muir and Zandra Rhodes, half of it unworn or hardly worn, for miniscule amounts of money. One woman apparently came in twice a year and dumped bags of unworn items, saying her husband wouldn’t let her have any new clothes until she’d got rid of some. Lucky for me, she was my size.
Past Caring, in Essex Road, was another great shop – stuffed to the gills with clothing in great condition, along with vintage jewelry and furs. Many of my favourite clothes come from here – a couture alpaca coat with nutria fur collar, a pink satin Jeanne Lanvin evening jacket (wish I’d kept the dress), a fabulous silk sari from which I made pyjamas. I routinely bought suits, knitwear and coats in hideous colours and had them redyed at Sketchley’s (until they stopped the service) and even when I was unemployed, I still dressed in Windsmoor and Country Casuals.
As well as enjoying a good rummage, there are sound social and ecological reasons for buying second-hand, as my friend Mandy recently pointed out. In buying existing clothing, you’re making use of an artefact that’s already here rather than fueling the consumer production market. And if your budget is tight, it’s better to buy quality used items from a good source than cheap goods produced in sweatshops
Sadly, though, even the charity shops in the UK caught on eventually and although there are still good deals to be had, they are not the fantastic bargains they once were. The real deals now to be found in the second-hand world are in the virtual sphere.
On Ebay, especially at New Year, shedloads of women find a very effective way to get rid of their unwanted presents. This is my ‘Oxfam’ now, my place for rummaging and picking up favourite labels for a tenth of their original value. And with consumerism run rampant in the US and UK, many women console themselves every week with something new that they tire of quickly, long before it’s worn in or worn out.
Since I can’t view the condition of the items, I’ve learned to specify ‘new with or without tags’, to be on the safe side and to stick to labels which I know I’m comfortable with (and whose sizing I’m confident of). Frankly, for someone like myself, who loves clothes but doesn’t want to spend a fortune on them, Ebay is a lifeline.
Do it yourself
However, other ways to benefit from used clothing may be right on your doorstep. Here in France, a bunch of us girls all get together about once a quarter and do what we call a ‘bourse aux vetements’ – a clothing exchange. We each bring what we don’t want or don’t need or things that don’t fit us any more, and it all goes into a great big pile on the the table. About an hour later, after much giggling and much wine consumption, most of us have new outfits.
This has worked well for a few years, but it’s also true that you need turnover and I’ve noticed the law of diminishing returns just lately. Our turnover, it appears, was principally fueled by the single ardent consumer among us, but now that she has left the district, without her regular infusion of new clothing blood, we are running out of things to exchange.
Still, it was good while it lasted, and is a great way for girls to get together. Just make sure you’ve got good light, a good mirror, and plenty of wine going.