When I was a teenager in the 70’s money was tight at home and I had very few clothes apart from my school uniform, which I liked to take small risks with by, for example, shortening the skirt to unladylike degrees and teaming it with sheer, red tights. Then, when I started having a bit of pocket money thanks to part-time jobs and a small clothing allowance, I would buy an item of clothing at the one “boutique” in my suburban part of London, or at the first big store, Littlewoods, which opened in nearby Romford. It advertised mix and match separates clothing which was very innovative!
I became fairly good at needlework and started making my own clothes too. I remember fondly my strawberry pink cords, with fur fabric triangular inserts at the bottom, and patchwork skirts sewn by hand. In those days cheap clothing and hand-made was a choice made through lack of money rather than any other reason.
When I was 17 we moved up to a different part of Essex and I discovered my first charity shop, opened to support a local Hospice. My first purchase was a rabbit fur coat (no worries about wearing fur then!) which I wore with a long blue velvet pinafore dress, made from a faded curtain, and my brother’s out-grown ox-blood Dr Marten boots. I thought I looked the perfect hippy, but I think I scared the Essex villagers where we lived, although one of the village ladies dressed me in a Victorian wedding dress and stood me on the stage at the local village fete for some reason.
I must have also been the despair of the teachers at my rather conservative all-girls grammar school. Fortunately, there are no photos of me in this phase of my life especially as my “look” included uncombed, permed hair! This was a second-hand clothing lifestyle made by choice – I was rather shy and wanted to express myself through my weird and wonderful dress sense!
I went through life in the normal trajectory: university, husband, two children, jobs, and never really found I had enough spare cash to spend money on clothes, so continued buying clothes in charity shops, and making clothing when I had the time. I preferred to buy the necessities of life cheaply and spend any spare money on holidays. After decades of buying clothes either in sales or in charity shops it finally became impossible for me to buy an item of full-priced new clothing as my thriftiness had led me to finding the price of clothes in high street shops outrageous.
Then came Primark. At first, we were all sucked into the thrill of the £20 cashmere jumper as written about by fashion journalists in respectable magazines and weekend supplements. The shops were crowded with clothes flung higgledy-piggledy on the floor in the enthusiasm of the shoppers to bag a bargain – these clothes were cheaper than charity shops after all! Other high street shops brought prices down to compete but we the consumer didn’t give a thought to how these prices were possible – the students in one university town even campaigned for a Primark to open in a large shop vacated by BHS.
About 10 years ago, the western world began to open its eyes to how we were able to enjoy our lifestyle of wear-it-once-throw-it-away fashion. Stacey Dooley came to fame with an eye-opening documentary reality show called Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts about the origins of our cotton garments. She later presented a documentary about cotton farms in Asia where rivers which people rely on for washing and drinking are being poisoned by the chemicals used in the cotton factories. The clothing industry, by the way, is one of the biggest polluters on the planet.
News items about fires in garment factories have taught us about the deaths of many poverty-line production workers, and recently I have watched a documentary about the way our woollen garments are produced is leading to brutal factory sheep-shearing methods. Of course, there are ways of shopping ethically and responsibly within the clothing industry, but these options are never cheap unfortunately. If we want cheap clothing, we need to open our eyes to the true cost.
So, after a lifetime of charity shop purchases and a varied career path I am now in my early 60’s and proud to be managing a charity shop which raises money for the YMCA – the oldest charity supporting young people in the world. I have always loved finding clothes for a fraction of their original cost, and loved the thought of giving new life to something which is far too good to be thrown away.
However, the whole issue is even more important to me, now I know more about the fashion industry. So I have a new reason for buying second-hand clothes: helping to save the planet! I get to save money and look reasonably good for my age, I get to feel good that I’m giving money to any number of good causes through their charity shops and also that I’m not directly taking part in destroying the planet so it’s definitely a win, win, win situation. I know that I could and should do a lot more though …
By Joanna Turkas