I got quite excited when I picked up The Times on Saturday: Charity Shop Chic it said. Ooh I thought. I love charity shop shopping: without it I would have precious little to wear, so I was hoping for an article that might add to my store of knowledge.
Lisa Armstrong, The Times' fashion editor, has by her own admission not bought anything in a charity shop since 1985, so her advice was not, actually, a great deal of help. It amounted to a lengthy puff for Mary Portas' new tv programme on helping re-vamp charity shops, and remarkably little in the way of advice for those new to charity shop shopping.
I am not new to charity shop shopping: my annual clothing budget is miniscule. With the house-that-eats-money (and yes, I'll admit it, a serious book habit as well), there is not a lot left over. So for those of you who are newly credit-crunched, clobbered by ever-increasing bills or who have houses, horses or children who eat gold, here is my guide to charity shop shopping by someone who does actually do it, and who is assuming that you have very little money with which to shop.
So, to one of Lisa Armstrong's few bits of solid advice: buy something that doesn't quite fit because you can get it altered. Not necessarily, you can't. Not if you're on a very strict budget, because if you're going to pay tailor's fees you might just as well go to Primark to start off with and get something that fits and is a darn sight cheaper than alterations.
There is a bit of leeway with buying things that don't quite fit - you can do a bit with belts, shove too long sleeves up your arms or otherwise fiddle a bit, but in my experience buying something that doesn't fit is a total waste of time unless you are absolutely, solid gold certain that you are capable of altering something, and I'm not. I can do basic mending but that is it. However much I might like to be capable of running up a little something, or in best girl's story tradition transforming something into a stylish little number by a few artistic flourishes, it's not going to happen. Better to wait for something that does fit. If you are one of those who can whip up little somethings with a flying needle, I bow to you.
If you are a sucker for a posh label (and I am, I admit it), beware. It may have a label to die for, be made of cashmere and silk, be your size, and the bargain of the year, but if it's lime green and covered with flounces it's not going to suit you and it never will. Go for what suits rather than the brief smugness of wearing an expensive label that does nothing for you as once you catch sight of yourself in its unflattering glory reflected in the window of the Co-Op you will never wear it again.
Cultivate a strong stomach and patience. Many Charity Shops do not smell good - I am thankful that I don't have much of a sense of smell. Some are better than others. The ones that steam their clothes tend to be less pongy. Some do wash everything (one remark I have learned to treat with deep cynicism as a Cancer Research volunteer is the statement "Everything's washed," as a bag of clothes is handed over) but most don't, which leads me to:
Invest in a decent bottle of handwash lotion. If you are really skint, buying anything that needs dry-cleaning is a waste of time unless it's something like a coat or jacket. An awful lot of things will wash (though a lot won't - beware of anything that has a lining as that might shrink though the outer doesn't and vice-versa.)
Be prepared to spend time, and be flexible. You may set out wanting a pair of trousers, but if there isn't a pair out there in your size and colour, there isn't, but there might be something else. I find my shopping tends to go along the lines of long term and short term: in the long term I know I need to buy x tops to replace the ones that have finally decayed, but in the short term I might find a scarf/skirt/bag that suits. Then again, I might not, but it's the thrill of the unexpected and the utter, utter bliss of getting a colossal bargain that keeps me going.
Some charity shops with a lot of space will reduce clothes if they don't sell. Not all do, and of course if you wait you might miss something but it's worth knowing which ones do if you are down to your last few pounds.
Unless you are very lucky indeed, a dinky little tartan top, or whatever is the current craze, is not going to swim your way in the current season, but if following trends is your thing, then you might be able to find some other way of adding tartan to your wardrobe. Then again, you might not, but you will not die if you don't.
My best buys - a Marilyn Moore cardigan, and a Swaine Adeney Brigg (ritzy maker of equine and country clothes) jacket which I was so pleased with I kept it hanging up on the outside of the wardrobe for a week, as I couldn't bear to consign its beauty out of sight. I sighed to myself with pleasure every time I passed it. I did eventually put it inside, and I love it still.
Ironically, I now find that the clothes mistakes I make are on the rare occasions that I shop in a proper shop. I am so bamboozled by the choice that my self-discipline vanishes. The things I have in my wardrobe that I regret are the ones I bought full price.
The moral issue.... if a charity shop is selling off a Chanel original for a fiver and you know perfectly well it's worth more, do you tell them? That is a tricky one.....