Chop ‘Til You Drop

I am a charity shopper (Chopper). I try not to get all self-righteous about it – it isn’t primarily for ethical reasons that I do it – it is just my preferred way to shop.

If I am honest, it is probably becoming something of an obsession. What started out as a way to add some interest to my lunchtime walk developed into a mental cataloging of which shops were best for certain items of clothing or which others might have a hidden gem tucked under the counter. I could pretty much walk into any of the half a dozen of Altrincham’s finest charity shops and know instantly if it was worth my while staying for a mooch.

I say that’s where it started but the idea of charity shopping has been in my head since my late teens really. We used to generally refer to the pastime as ‘Oxfam’ shopping, that being one of the earliest and, to me certainly the best known, of the high street charity shops. It was the sort of place that students would go to to pick up something, potentially stylish and unique looking, on the cheap. My first such purchase was a large (probably much too large) overcoat. It was a brown houndstooth pattern and I bought a scarf to go with it. I have no recollection what I paid for them and I only still have the scarf, the coat has long since been removed from my wardrobe. I suspect that I bought it because I had a yen to be associated with students and student life. Having never attended University I must confess that I have always been somewhat envious of people that did so consequently I enjoyed the student affectation that the ‘Oxfam coat’ bestowed on me.

Pantomimes provide the next significant encounter with the charity shop. I only recently became aware that the pantomime is not something that really exists outside of the UK. For some reason I assumed that they were performed everywhere in the world and it was only on a business trip to America where, as part of some management training exercise, I chose to explain my involvement with ‘panto’ to a clearly confused set of US colleagues. One of the most prominent features of a pantomime is the extravagant costumes worn by the performers. The lead roles in many pantomimes are a Principal Boy played by a woman and a Dame played by a man. This requires the actors to cross-dress and this is where the charity shops have been a godsend over the years. In addition, the rest of the cast would require some authentic costuming and so even now, though I have not been involved in a production for many years, I find it hard to resist the lure of an unusual item of clothing – a kilt or some plus fours – that might come in handy for a costume in the future.

Nowadays I try to clothe myself exclusively in secondhand garments. This is much easier than you might at first think. There are now more charity shops than almost any other type of shops on the high streets of most UK towns and they all seem to be choc full of pre-loved items. Much of this is cheaply produced low quality articles from the lower end of retail but there is also a burgeoning supply of designer labels. You just have to know where to look. And believe me, I know where to look. Most of the charities that run these shops are alert to this and have developed their shops accordingly to offer the discerning shopper a designer section. A few have now developed this further and have a seperate line of shops to specifically cater for more niche demands. Barnados even have a ‘vintage’ version of their shops. These can be really interesting places to spend an hour or so. Along with the classic clothing there are racks of old comics or sewing patterns. They have old cameras and photography equipment and such a lot of old nick-nacks – ornaments, vases, glasses…. tat really, but, importantly, old tat. Oxfam, on the other hand have a speciality shop in Manchester that they call ‘Oxfam Originals’ in which they specialise in unusual items of clothing that are either vintage classics or designer labelled and, occasionally, both. It’s a great place to find something stylish but a bit different. I love going to this shop and latterly I have found that they have an on-line shop so, if I am unable to indulge my passion in person, I can still satisfy my sartorial secondhand needs. (iChopper)

Why do I love buying stuff that other people no longer want or need? As I stated at the outset, it isn’t primarily for ethical reasons though this is a consideration. I do feel that I am discouraging the endless production of cheap, disposable fashion though I can appreciate the inherent contradiction here. If I didn’t go to the charity shops then they wouldn’t need the clothing that gets donated so people wouldn’t necessarily treat it as disposable as they clearly do. The counter to this is that people would actually dispose of the clothes in other less environmentally favourable ways. I tend to avoid this debate I am not primarily an ethical charity shopper (eChopper).

I get a lot of bargains and I pick up some absolute gems. Over the years I have bagged everything from Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses (£15 Scope, Altrincham – RRP £100+) through to a North Face Parka coat (£50 St Anns Hospice, Cheadle Hulme – RRP £350+). There is a downside to stumbling on quality items at such bargain prices and that is you get used to them. I have a pair of Birkenstock sandals (£10 Barnardos, Bramhall) that are really comfortable and have been my holiday footwear for the past 10 years or more. However they are now in need of replacement but what are the chances of my finding the same again or even similar in my size? Do I now stump up the full price for a replacement pair or ‘downgrade’ to inferior sandals? Would I have been better off never knowing how high-end holiday footwear feels?

Perhaps for this reason, the best purchases have been the unlabelled leather jacket (£25 Cancer Research, Altrincham) and a paisley shirt (£5 Sue Ryder, Didsbury). The beauty of these two items and one of the reasons why I am urging you to take up this retail practice is that though I didn’t know that I wanted them in the first place, they defined my look for the time that I wore them. This is, for me, one of the most important aspects of buying clothes in a charity shop. It opens up new possibilities for you. All too often we buy clothes that support the idea of who we think we are. We have a look and we shop in support of that. I have found that in the past 15 years my ‘look’ has changed many times and virtually all of those developments have come about by a chance discovery. The second reason for shopping in the way I do is that in doing so, as well as opening up new possibilities, I am allowing the world to have an influence on who I am and, more importantly, who I am to become. It is possible to go out on a mission to find an item of clothing you have long coveted and there have undoubtedly been times when this has happened to me and, when successful, it is a special feeling. However, they have been so few and far between that a far more satisfying approach has been to go to the shop and discover what it has to offer and work from there. Open up your mind, use your imagination and take a chance – who knows where you will end up?

Don’t get me wrong, this method doesn’t always work sartorially speaking, but it does always deliver two significant benefits over a more conventional approach: because you had little or no expectations, you don’t get disappointed and even if it goes truly terribly (£££££ too numerous to count from virtually every charity shop I have regularly used), you have given some money to charity and, perhaps, learned a little more about yourself.