Musings on Charity Shops

Ms Peelpants' rants

[A.k.a thrift shops for my American readers.]

I think a lot of people assume I spend vast amounts of time hunting around charity shops for my own clothes and stock. In fact I know a lot of people assume this when I first tell them what I do for a living. “Oh, do you get a lot of it from charity shops?”. It’s a loaded question, because they really want to be judgemental about my prices.

Indeed the days of finding any decent vintage, for oneself or for others, are well and truly over. What I reply, with a suitable tone of disgust, is “Chance’d be a fine thing!”.

Perhaps some people find the idea of talking about rummaging around in a charity shop to be a distasteful concept. But a Bill Gibb, for example, is still a fantastic Bill Gibb whether you’ve got it direct from its fabulous original owner, from a vintage website or whether you’ve found it in amongst a rail of Marks and Spencer old lady dresses. Its fabulousness defies charity shop ‘taint’, as some people might see it.

[Indeed, I speak from experience. My sole Gibb collection piece was a charity shop find. Can you just imagine? Seeing that huge draping sleeve hanging out from a rail of tat, seeing that gigantic beautiful label when you’ve lunged for the aforementioned sleeve. You just know it’s going to be fab.]

As a ‘dealer’ (oh that’s a horridly tainted name for a profession isn’t it? I always imagine Ian McShane when I hear that word, in vile Lovejoy form rather than in his 60s youth when he was quite a hottie!), I would much rather purchase from a charity shop where I know the money will be helping children/people with cancer/ill-treated animals etc etc. The price is irrelevant, I’m happy to pay as big for it in a charity shop as I am on someone’s vintage site. So long as the shop workers are educated properly in labels and eras, I don’t mind the price.

Ian McShane: Hottie


However, in recent years British charity shops have rather shot themselves in the foot. They’ve sanitised themselves. They try to look like a swishy boutique. A step above vintage shops in fact. More like one of those dreadful provincial ’boutiques’ which haven’t updated their stock since 1983 (but they do have the awesome tangerine-skinned mannequins which I slightly covet!).

From conversations with the manager of a former favourite haunt (in my pre-emmapeelpants days) where I found my first Varons and many other beloved pieces I still can’t bear to sell or donate no matter how tatty they get, I know that the people running them had a dreadful habit of chucking out the vintage stuff in favour of tatty, bobbly Topshop jerseys from two seasons ago. Simply because Topshop was ‘modern’ and that’s what they thought people wanted. Au contraire.

Now with the explosion of vintage on eBay and the WWW, they realise their dreadful mistakes of 5-10 years ago. But with fewer pieces even being donated in the first place (even the most elderly of ladies will realise she can get a few pounds if her daughter puts them on eBay), and the best stuff being siphoned off to Oxfam online and their ilk, they have little vintage of any value or importance. But because it’s ‘old’, it’s now valuable. So no-name polyester maxi nightmares are priced at £25 with ‘VINTAGE’ scribbled on the hang tag in a written ‘up yours’ to anyone who might like to question the pricing with the manager.

Oxfam: Possibly the most boring, homogenised charity shops in the world.


Strip lighting, modern shop fittings. It’s all so nasty and commercial, but without the goods to back it up. And who is paying for the refits? It’s either the charity or the shopper with those inflated prices. To be honest, I so rarely visit charity shops anymore because so few have remained as they once were. In fact, there are more vintage shops I know which have retained that shabby, aladdin’s cave glamour of charity shops past….. I don’t want to be assaulted with nasty lighting and colour-organised rails, I want to rummage in dark corners and come out triumphantly clutching something I love.

I would never have been able to keep afloat as a vintage business even if all charity shops had remained like this, my other sources have always been more important. But I got a personal thrill from the charity shops. As a vintage girl, as someone who likes to wear something old, something different. That buzz, that flutter in the stomach when you feel a sliver of moss crepe as you rifle the rails. Most of my charity shop gear ended up in my own wardrobe anyway, there’s something about having discovered something yourself which means you become far more emotionally attached anyway! I still fondly remember a black velvet jacket I bought for £2 when I was 14 and wore until it literally fell apart. I couldn’t throw it away, but my mum did it for me (a regular argument we used to have was about her tendency to throw away the tatty things I thought I might rescue one day!)

The reason I’m ranting about this now is that today I wandered up the road from my flat, a direction I rarely need to go in, because I was dropping off some dry-cleaning and I sauntered into a charity shop I’ve been past countless times on the bus and never entered. This time I entered and I felt like I’d gone back in time. This was a proper charity shop. No fancy fittings, just the beautiful shabby interiors of whatever shop it used to be. Rails and rails. No organisation. No sizing. No colour coordination. Trunks full of ‘stuff’. You get the feeling they pretty much put out anything which gets donated. It had that dusty, musty atmosphere. The lighting was low. They’d cobbled together a gorgeous little changing room at the end with draped scarves and one of those fancy net drapes for your bed. They had old film posters on the wall beside the stairs up to their backroom. One of them was for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I’m very tempted to go back and ask if it’s actually for sale.

It wasn’t exactly vintage heaven. I found two dresses. One was a Pierre Cardin which I put back because it was terrible, but I bought the other one. And that was another revelation. The pricing for the non-vintage, non-designer stuff is standard. They can’t be bothered to price everything individually, takes too much time and therefore they’re able to put out much more stuff than other charity shops. I tentatively asked about the vintage rail which she said was ‘slightly more’, cue that sinking feeling of dread in my stomach. It was going to be £25 for anything vaguely vintage wasn’t it? Oh no, they have a bit of a look over the frock and give you a very reasonable price.

It’s a lovely yellow plunging Jean Allen. And yes, it’s going in my own wardrobe 🙂

4 thoughts on “Musings on Charity Shops

  1. I entirely concur with your sentiment in this post. I’m sick to the back teeth of charity shops that think they’re boutiques, especially when they predominantly offer up rails upon rails of Primark & Topshop tat. The biggest offenders of this kind of behaviour must surely be ALL the charity shops up Camden High Street. I’ve always felt that charity shops should not only raise money for the chosen cause but also present a fair alternative to the high street for the less well-heeled peeps of our country.I do go on a weekly trek around my local charity shops but I have to admit that they very rarely come up trumps in the vintage stakes, I generally have much more luck at car boot sales & markets et al.In addition the other benefit with markets is that you can negotiate about the price.

  2. Hi there-fantastic post my dear. Although I have lots of charity shops around me, I too was only just thinking that I rarely catch a vintage bargain in them any more. My best charity shop buy was a maxi Ossie Clark about 4 years ago in my local Sue Ryder-immaculate for £7. I resold on ebay to pay up some debts (even though it fitted me, but hubby didn’t like it). big regret, wish I’d kept it. Still, I love the thrill and anticipation of tracking something rare and vintage, my preference is to go in the charity shops that are so unkempt and unmanaged, Oxfam is so up itself with ‘vintage’, I’ve noticed it too.Your dress sounds a lovely bargain!

  3. I haven’t been hunting in charity shops since I left Liverpool. It was always the Sunday event for the mod crowd and we’d always bump into people from the night before as we did the rounds.I’ve helped out in a few up north (Yorkshire and Liddy) and they tend to have a “fancy dress” stash somewhere behind the scenes. Which is where they put the “weird” (ie vintage and fabulous) clothing. …next time we’re together and have some time, let’s go round the charity shops and say we’re going to a fancy dress party!!!! 😀

  4. it’s SO hard to find good vintage in the shops here in AZ these days. They know what they have now and they charge A LOT more than they used to.I saw a fur coat at the thrift for $60!!!! grrr

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