Every day I get dressed. Perpetually I pull on clothing that not only protects me from the elements – rain, heat, snow and the piercing gaze of the headphoned hipster sitting across from me on public transport – but establishes my sartorial vibe for the day.
Vibe establishment is a selfish act; a way of physically and creatively reminding myself who I am.
For years, fashion magazines provided me with all the vibe inspiration I needed. The glossy, saucy pages revved up my imagination and set me off in search of high-street finds that I effortlessly styled my way.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown increasingly uninspired by the fashion press. Month-in and month-out newsagent shelves feature the seemingly same 20-something, thin, white cover models.
While inside the pretty pulp, I find only too many photos of Karl Lagerfeld’s cat and pathetic apologies for the anti-Semitic rants of John Galliano – from the feline to the ridiculous.
Sadly the FFI (Flippin’ Fashion Industry) isn’t interested in inspiring me. Me, a size 14 in her 50s. And while I’ve never stopped loving clothing, as I’ve aged I’ve been forced to look outside the mainstream for a meaningful style spur.
Gradually I’ve become a committed secondhand shopper. Today the components of my wardrobe come from charity shops, vintage markets, car boots, my mother’s wardrobe and occasionally Etsy. Charity shops in particular charge up my style sense.
Racks of the old and unwanted appear as singular sensations and one-of-a-kind wonders to me. The sea of mismatched prints and competing colours allow me to see possibilities.
Now I embrace what others call chaos; I invite inspiration born of disorganisation. The cacophony of fashion noise that emanates from secondhand clothing harmonises into a tune I can wear.
Do you find yourself in need of a clothing catalyst? Has the fashion mainstream left you parched? Quench your thirst for personal style by drinking up cool, well-seasoned charity-shop chic.
Just getting started? Try this.
DO – examine your wardrobe regularly and make a mental, if not an actual list, of what needs replacing. That way when you’re shopping, you have a target in mind.
DON’T – keep stuff you don’t wear. Purge and purge some more. If you’re not sure you’re ready to let go, bag up the stuff in question and set it aside, out of sight. In a month’s time if you haven’t given it a second thought, show that bag the door – of the nearest charity shop.
DO – define your style. Put it into words. Imagine, consider, visualise yourself. For example, I see myself in a slightly preppy look, masculine clothing made feminine, with a penchant for luxury touches that I integrate into a relaxed, casual style. Defining your ideal will allow you to spot the secondhand pieces that complete the look you seek.
DON’T – get hung up on specifics. Instead identify the general silhouettes that suit you. You’re never going to find that blush pink dress you saw on the cover of this month’s fash mag. But if, for example, you understand that knee-length full-skirted frocks complement your body type, you will certainly find that silhouette in your local charity shop. A keen understanding of the overall outline you seek is far more important than a specific piece of clothing.
Ready to attack the shops? Okay, let’s go.
DO – browse charity shops in short concentrated bursts. If you become overwhelmed, stop. Pop into local charity shops often, as the stock is constantly changing but depart the moment it feels stressful.
DON’T – ignore disorganised, jumbled shops. Take a minute to pick through boxes and baskets. Treasure lurks in unexpected places.
DO – start a collection. I collect bangles, and they’re everywhere. Finding them allows me to dub my charity shop visit a success and often focuses my style eye, keeping me on track. Black tee shirts, straw bags, denim, leather belts, wedge shoes, silk scarves – all collectible, wearable, stylish and plentiful in charity shops.
DON’T – feel like you have to buy every time. Remind yourself some secondhand shopping outings are simply fact-finding expeditions. You’re training your eye for future buying.
DO – take a risk. Charity shops are perfect for out-of-the-ordinary pieces. For example, I continually find fantastically printed blouses that I pair with black trousers. Set your wild-buy boundaries, but allow for something a little off the rails.
DON’T – pass up charity shop after-eight gear. One day you’ll undoubtedly need a red-carpet look, so buy it when you see it, cheap. Further, challenge yourself to blend black-tie touches into your daytime style. I bought a secondhand man’s tailcoat to wear over my fringed flapper dress but it also jazzes up my jeans. My advice? Pop that sequin top over cropped trousers while the sun shines.
DO – browse the men’s offerings in charity shops. My tailcoat has served me very well indeed. You’ll also find quality leather belts, oversized cotton shirts and interesting hats that can add a stylish masculine string to your sartorial bow.
DO – find a good tailor. Secondhand clothing can often be made perfect with just a few cuts and tucks. If you’ve a friend who is a clever seamstress, barter with her; you weed her garden while she hems your latest charity shop trousers.
Seasoned shopper but still need a style boost?
DO – read and collect secondhand style books. They’re often priced up in charity shops at less than the cost of a fashion magazine. Become a student of style rather than just a glossy page turner. Your local library is also a good source of fashion reads.
DON’T – miss fashion and design exhibits. Whether a blockbuster show or a local university’s small historical costume collection, clothes-on-show will provide you with a new spark.
DO – people watch with enforced positivity. It’s all too easy to judge the style sense of a stranger, but rather than dress her down, actively look for what works. Consider and understand her choices, mentally embracing her vibe.
DO – keep a style file. Collect images, colour and fabric samples that you find compelling. My folder contains fashionable postcards, images from free catalogues, swatches of fabric and photos that typify my style ideal. I dip into it whenever I’m feeling uninspired.
DO – allow memories of family fashion moments to colour your style. I, for example, recall with ease the overstuffed Coach handbag my mother carried when I was a kid. It was worn, butter soft, even stained but it always enabled her to look pulled together. Today whenever I carry one of my several secondhand Coach bags, I feel confidently, stylishly nostalgic.