Violet Graham leaves the High Street and explores the lure of the second-hand.Shopping in charity shops is a divisive issue. Whilst volunteering for an hour or two on Saturday during our schools years was one thing, Duke of Edinburgh service points contributing to a glittering CV, (or so we thought), moving pensively between the rails on a Tuesday – perhaps with Grandma and Grandma’s friend from the church – is another. Indeed, the thought of pre-used clothes in their original habitat, on unknown and unnamed bodies, is a little alarming. Our fears of germs and bacteria become suddenly acute in this environment, and arguably not always undeservedly either, since my volunteer friend once unloaded a dead cat along with the nightgowns and old curtains of a bag of donations. Contempt has also formed over the belief that clothes are worn-out and out-of-date, whilst ‘frequently hideous’ demonstrates well the popular view of the ornaments taking pride of place along the back wall.
But charity shops should not be snubbed, and indeed recognition of their value is on the rise. No longer are these shops perceived as exclusively for the aged but rather as treasure troves for the popular youth as well. Society has returned once again to our long-established, sometimes suppressed, passion for bargains and to standing out from the crowd: and charity shops, now movements desiring ‘one-off vintage pieces’ have okayed their existence once again, are the haven for just these kinds of find.
Disputably, a large part of our contemporary interest in charity shops stems from current fashion trends rather than ethical or moral concerns. Since Moss and Miller first aired their vintage finds – fashionable young starlets grabbing at this opportunity to be different – a vast section of the population has taken to adorning themselves in the unseen and the old – the lacy with the ‘80s clutch, the matronly skirt worn as a dress with a sunhat, and so on. Oxfam has become the focal point of a fashion pilgrimage that others might make to Jack Wills, the super-skinny section of Topman or across the uniformity of JJB Sports: where items are to be had to formulate specific cut-out-and-keep identities.
So some believe in shopping in charity shops as if this, in itself, is a statement. But whilst fashion, ever developing but also ever-cyclic, is pulling up the same items over decades – think leggings, high-waists and check shirts, which have all come round again, and again – charity shops can actually throw up statement clothes. This kind of item should not, I think, be about being different but about contributing to and enlivening your wardrobe. The best combinations come from a blending of the old and the new. Quality items are to be found across Help the Aged, Cancer Research, Save The Children and beyond; and these things, like jackets and belts and trouser suits can not only contribute to our outfits but strike a statement of ‘100% cashmere’ or ‘finest quality yarn’ across our Primark infested lives, calling remarkably on the same prices or lower. City charity shops in particular deserve mention, offering extensive variety and quality: a multitude of identities on the rails.
And trendy clothes are obviously not the only exciting finds to be had. Paintings, records and jewellery are also to be sifted from the drudge in your regular charity store. Books too, organised alphabetically and by genre – a section of footballers’ biographies alongside Jamie’s eat the world a better place, the classics, war literature and steamy romances – are usually on hand to be considered. Sometimes the keen sifter alights on something old –something antique – something interesting. And just the thing you needed may also be there too: waiting to complete collections or inspire interest – the final ‘Now’ album for your collection perhaps, or a selection of Keats’ poetry to provoke the soul.
There is in fact a lot to say in the defence of charity stores as the ideal shopping experience. In the last few years these good purpose shops have in many cases been whitewashed and hoovered. At home, where we have a charity shop collective of over ten stores, a hierarchy has been established amongst them, and Cancer Research – with shining, happy staff, colour coordinated rails and two floors – is in fact up with the best of them: boasting designer clothing and exotic window displays all year round. Shopping in a charity shop has become more of a fast paced experience and bargains are often to be achieved through early starts and queuing. More and more charities are also selling their own, new, items: helping those they support by providing craft-based jobs and buyers overseas in their UK stores; who buy the coffee, ceramic pots and beaded purses along with their second-hand finds.
Today, I think, charity shops are more successfully responding to our commercial instincts. At the conception of the first stores – the first Oxfam was on Broad Street in 1947 –  was the notion that people needed to buy things cheaply, post WWII, and that these shops could achieve this whilst also raising money for charity – sometimes the causes were reflected in their buyers. However, in an age of greater consumerism, it is as if stores have only recently really tuned in to promoting their commercial status: that is to promoting the appeal and pull of their stores, rather than hoping and depending on good will as well as need. In buying at a charity shop, the ‘good’ part is enormous. Happy in the knowledge that we will look fabulous at the ball – a beautiful concoction of fabrics, classic cuts and sparkles folded neatly into the carrier bag- we are also giving our twelve pounds to helping the development and issue of medicine and food in conditions of famine. If society is interested, or able, to donate money directly to charity, then this is great. But if we can dress ourselves or inspire our interests, in part, in these stores – and not in money-grabbing high street chains entirely – then this is also a really good thing. By also donating items and clothing – things no longer wanted – we can keep the system going: inadvertently completing others’ perfect outfits in to the bargain, through giving an unwanted scarf, the jeans that no longer fit, the heels that were just too high.
So the charity shop is definitely something to be involved with. Whether using them as a source for great fashion triumphs, outrageous 80’ glamour outfits or in the noble pursuit of Jordan’s Crystal at half the price, there is a lot to be gained. There is also a lot to give, and if you still can’t stomach shopping, then maybe the thought of others wearing your clothes or reading your books isn’t so bad – donate and feel involved: charity will always be in.