To grow up in my corner of East London, neatly pinpointed between Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, was to grow up around second hand fashion. Second hand retail in all its forms is as prevalent on Brick Lane and its surrounds as curry houses and beigel shops, and nearly as important to the area’s identity.
It is an unfortunate truth that some of Brick Lane’s recent characterisation as a thrifting haven has come at a cost to local communities, especially considering the advent of glossy chain boutiques like Joy and Rokit Vintage; however, there is also a more authentic market culture (which includes the market on Brick Lane itself as well as nearby Spitalfields and Columbia Road) that predates modern gentrification by centuries – indeed, on some occasions small second hand businesses have been victims rather than byproducts of gentrification, a phenomenon exemplified by the vintage stalls inside the Truman Brewery, which is currently under threat from corporate developers and supported by the #SaveBrickLane movement. While the chain boutiques seem appealing at a first glance, it is the markets and smaller shops where I always found the best bargains, and where my love for second hand was really born.
If Brick Lane was my introduction to second hand culture, then Dalston was one of the first ventures into the realm of the charity shop. Though charity shops are surprisingly sparse within walking distance of my home, just a short bus ride into Hackney proper is the extraordinary cluster of them nestled between trendy brunch spots and Turkish restaurants on Kingsland Road. To be honest, in my early teenage years of rebellion I gravitated away from charity shops towards the impressively palatial Dalston branch of the chain Beyond Retro, which is filled with mostly American imports of questionable quality, in opposition to my mother’s obsession with Dalston’s traditional charity shops; however, I did eventually grow out of this and start rifling through the racks in Oxfam, and especially in Traid, a newer kind of charity shop which reworks fashion waste into new items sold to benefit international development projects.
Though it was once greeted with strange looks, second hand culture has become more and more widespread, due to a three-pronged combination of East London’s advance onto the ‘trendy radar’, rising awareness of the impact of fast fashion, and the popularity of ‘retro’ trends (ranging from the flares beloved by every Depop baddie to the inexplicable Y2K revival). As someone who has bought nearly every important fashion item I’ve ever owned second hand, from prom dresses and Halloween costumes to swimwear and my go-to tutorial outfits, it’s my pleasure to reminisce about my favourite purchases over the years.
The weird and the wacky
Aside from its much-discussed ethical benefits, thrifting has always trumped high street fashion for me in part because of its randomness, and the unexpected fashion decisions to which this can lead. If I saw this tightly cropped shirt with its zany cowboy-themed print in an H&M, I’d probably dismiss it as a bizarre fad that would quickly age; however, when it sat unassumingly on a market table just off the main stretch of Columbia Road (better known for its historic flower market, this East End thoroughfare’s vintage fashion offering is underrated), I was intrigued by its whimsy and ability to catch the eye, as well as the introduction it provided to 80s American designer Betsey Johnson, whose designs are lovingly called ‘over the top’ and ‘embellished’ on her Wikipedia page. That shirt remains a go-to statement piece in my wardrobe.
This original purchase has inspired my present love of boldly patterned shirts, which I previously thought were the preserve of sleazy 1970s music execs. These shirts have ranged from the sublime (the mesmerising green-dappled-with-gold of my favourite tute blouse by Sigrid Olsen) to the…more questionable (the countryside-themed silk shirt complete with pheasants, horses and hounds, acquired at the buy-by-weight Kilo Store in Soho). This foray into a whole new style is a phenomenon that I think can only be realised in the hit-or-miss world of second hand fashion.
There is a widespread association between thrifting and a less traditionally elegant aesthetic, and a perception that shopping ethically on a budget means compromising on style. However, you never quite know what you’re going to leave the charity shop or market with, and sometimes the thrifting gods can surprise you. One of my favourite second hand store anecdotes is the time I found my dream 1960s Yves Saint Laurent dress, with long sleeves, a high neck and a subtle slit down the torso, in St Vincent’s in Dalston, the unassuming cousin of the bigger Oxfam up the road – the punchline is that it was originally marked for £5, but was reduced to £3 by a clerk who clearly failed to realise that anything special was in front of him.
There are a number of strikingly affordable designer items I’ve acquired at markets and charity shops over the years ranging from the coral Calvin Klein shirt dress that signals the approach of summer every year, to the perfect green shade of my Alice & Olivia blouse that makes me feel like Blair Waldorf whenever I wear it with a plaid skirt. Such a great variety of eras, designers and aesthetics exists in the second hand market, that no one should worry about losing their personal style and elegance while shopping sustainably.
Thrifting goes abroad
I’ll always defend East London as the thrifting capital of the world, but I also admit that going to second hand shops is one of my favourite things to do abroad. What people in other countries donate to second hand shops can be a window into national preoccupations; in Antwerp, a deeply underrated fashion destination, I found not only this wonderful safari print skirt, but also a baffling array of boldly coloured cycling jerseys, a homage to a Belgian obsession. One of my most cherished souvenirs from Tokyo is my silk haori, a garment resembling a short kimono but worn as a jacket, which provided me with a slice of Japanese authenticity at a time when faux ‘kimono-inspired’ sleeves and prints were edging back into Western fashion.
Moreover, the things we buy abroad encapsulate the mood we were in on those trips, and this is especially true in second hand shops, given how esoteric the items on sale can be. My summer in New York just before university felt like a quasi-gap year for me, and I had a probably obnoxious obsession with finding freedom in an unfamiliar city after a bad breakup and the stress of A-levels. The Housing Works, a venerable NYC chain of thrift shops founded amidst the AIDS crisis to support the non-profit of the same name, was a haunt of mine; no purchase signifies the carefree attitude I had back then quite like the turquoise platform wedges I bought at the Housing Works in Gramercy. The outrageous heel, impractical style and loud colour means there are few events or outfits compatible with these shoes, but that wasn’t the point. For me, those shoes represented the ability to be myself in a brand new place, to live out Sex and the City fantasies of going to fancy dinners alone in mismatched dress and heels combos, and to buy items that I enjoyed, without worrying about such constricting questions as “well, when would you wear it?”. There’s nowhere like a thrift shop for finding the items to capture such highly specific moments in time.
The perils of online thrifting
The elephant in the room here is that until last week, none of us had gone to a physical second hand shop in several months. The pandemic has ushered in the era of online second hand, and this has exacerbated nearly all of the industry’s pre-Covid ethical issues. The resale of cheap charity shop items for jumped-up prices, repurposing of rare plus-size items as ‘oversized’ for non-plus sized people, failure to alert the buyer of defects and necessary alterations – all these troubling tactics are far more prevalent online.
Thankfully, I’ve never fallen for any serious thrifting scam, but my experience shopping second hand online over lockdown has included its fair share of purchases which were suspiciously highly priced judging by their undeclared stains and moth holes; most amusing perhaps was a garden party dress on eBay whose pictures indicated it would be made from a standard polyester, when in reality its fabric could be most aptly described as resembling a wetsuit. Nevertheless, all these pitfalls serve to encourage vigilance in the online shopper and a willingness to ask the seller the hard questions – it all paid off when on Depop I found the corduroy trousers I’d been yearning for for several months. Sure, they were missing a button, but at least that was advertised in the description.
As non-essential retail opens up again, and more of us than ever have made the switch to buying all or most of our wardrobes second hand, the question remains as to where our thrifting journeys will take us next. In my case, I’d like to make sure I take advantage of all the second hand stores in Oxford before the end of my degree. I’ve never had much luck at the British Heart Foundation near Westgate, and my college is about as far from Cowley as you can get, but a short bike trip may be in order this term. After all, all my best thrifting purchases have been completely unexpected, so I can’t wait to find out what surprises the racks have to offer me next.