How to buy fashion in charity shops

Charity shops are an ideal source for great pre-loved clothes, and can be a boon if you’re uneasy about the ethics of the current fashion industry. It doesn’t have to be new to look great, but it does help to know what you’re doing, so here are a few tips to get you started.

Know your shops

Not all charity shops have the same stock. Small, remote, rural or seaside towns can be brilliant for picking up really good vintage fashion.

More affluent city areas tend to offer more quality items including some designer clothes. They’re worth checking, but can get busy and their prices are generally higher, which can mean a garment from a cheap chain store could end up costing you more than it would new.

In less affluent urban areas you’ll usually find a broader mix of garments, which tend to be generally cheaper, with the better stuff often priced down. This is where you’ll find that one-off bargain you won’t be able to resist telling everyone about.

If you can, go during the week. The best donations may have been snapped up by the weekend, and a quieter shop makes browsing easier. Items tend to move faster on Saturdays or in pleasant weather, so a wet, windy Wednesday is ideal.

Decide what you want

The charity shop browse is sometimes irresistible, but the smart second-hand shopper keeps an objective in mind. Just as you would in the high street, go out with a clear idea of what you want, or at least the gap you need to fill in your wardrobe.

Most shops help by grouping similar colours together. You may know exactly which colours and patterns suit you, but if you’ve never thought about it, look at your favourite garments.

You can check the relevant rails of several shops quite quickly if you keep it focused.

Open your mind

If you’re female, it’s often worth checking among the menswear, particularly for belts and knitwear. And if you’re small or very slim, remember the children’s section. Teenager sizes can be quite large.

Be willing to try on anything that looks as if it might fit the bill. Fashion chains tend to design for ‘hanger appeal’, so this may involve a conscious mental shift. And never disregard something because it appears to be the wrong size.

You’ll have more options if you’re handy with a sewing machine and willing to make repairs or alterations, but be realistic about your ability. If you have the confidence to upcycle that’s even better.

Professional alterations services are definitely worth considering if it’s a really good quality, high-fashion piece, but the extra cost will often wipe out any bargain. So check prices beforehand, so you can make an informed purchase.

Be thorough

Check your favourite local shops at least once a week. If you’re sticking to your must-have list, you probably won’t find what you want on the first attempt, but stock changes daily.

Have a good dig through the relevant racks or baskets. If you find what seems like your perfect item, check carefully for tears, holes, stains or faulty fasteners.

Read labels to make sure you know what fabrics you’re buying. Older wool garments are more likely to be ethically sourced, but you may still want to avoid silk or leather and few animal lovers are willing to wear even second-hand fur!

Also look out for special care instructions. They tend to err on the side of caution, so if it says ‘Dry Clean’, you can probably handwash it. ‘Dry Clean Only’ means it can’t be washed. But if the garment is right you might decide to risk it. Many ‘Dry Clean Only’ garments will tolerate a cool handwash and careful air-drying, but avoid washing brightly coloured patterns or fine detailing like beading. If you have a greener dry cleaner, know their prices.


Charity shops are a brilliant, easy place to recycle clothes that you no longer wear, and donating clothes is a great way to support the charity. Donation bins are handy for outside opening hours, but if you pay tax it’s worth dropping your donations in personally and signing a Gift Aid form so they can also reclaim some of your tax from the Government.

Happy rummaging!

2 thoughts on “How to buy fashion in charity shops

  1. Hi Deeper Luxury – me again, long time no blog.
    I loved your latest post, although to be honest, now you’ve really blown my cover. I’ve been dressing from Charity Shops for the last fifteen years now. ‘And why not?’ did I hear you say. Over the years I’ve really got to know my shops. Some are better than others you’ll understand…just last week for example I got myself a pair of brand new wellies from the Global Warming Readiness Centre here in Jo’burg. Some well-meaning sponsors didn’t realise we’re at 5 000 feet above sea level, so a whole container load went begging. And just in time for the first summer rains too. Better still I passed a new store last week advertising Big Macs – people were queueing in cars to get one so there must be a bit of a rush ahead of the rainy season. I’m planning to get down there tomorrow; rumour has it they’re giving away free Coca Cola with the macs if you buy a big one.
    At first I was a bit shy about being seen in a Charity Shop, never mind wearing second hand clothes. But that was a long-time ago I’ll admit. Even cubed sugar was regarded as posh back in those days and eating raw fish was poverty, not sushi. People were so conservative then…if I’d asked for bacon lettuce and tomato in the same sandwich I’d have been locked away.
    But it all changed for me when I was invited to a fancy dress party those years ago. Our neighbours used to dress-up funny every Friday we knew, so we were all really pleased when one lovely summer’s day in June they invited us kids round for Halloween. ‘Fancy dress’ they said, ‘wear something scary’. So I tried one of my Mum’s old 1920’s dinner outfits…hell, that was really scary I remember, but I almost broke an ankle on her stillettos. That’s when I bought my first witches outfit. Cost me eight ‘n sixpence at the local Rag Time store just next to the old graveyard. It’s closed now I’ve heard. The neighbours even invited me back the very next weekend for a Rocky Horror evening. But I told them I didn’t really like boxing, and anyway I’d seen it twice already.
    But I still have the outfit and it’s worn really well over the years. I had it dry cleaned in 1974 and one of the sleeves fell off which gave it a kind of avant garde look. Quite classic in a way, I used to wear it as a beach wrap. And it fitted-in great with the punk rock styles a few years later. I don’t wear it as much these days, but I’ll probably try it at Christmas with my new wellies. Besides, I don’t have the heart to throw it out.


  2. I have a friend who always looks chic, even when, in my opinion, the clothes are somewhat bizarre. Her secret – second-hand clothing stores. So I accompanied her on one such trip. The second hand shop in question was jam-packed, there was nowhere to turn. Some of the offerings were nothing short of ghastly. In fact most were. But there in the middle of all this awfulness was a single gem. Something extraordinary. And it reminded me that amid the chaos and the ongoing battle for the survival of the planet, if we look hard enough, we will find the one gem that is the start of a whole movement. One gem that galvanises us into action, that makes us realise it’s going to be okay and it is all worthwhile.

    I would like to be able to tell you that my friend’s foray into the second-hand is the result of eco-consciousness, and objection to consumerism, and such like. But it isn’t. It’s all about preening and looking good. And so what if we dupe the general public into buying for the wrong reasons to achieve our eco-warrior ends. Don’t most of the big corporates do that? They make us buy things by fooling us into believing we can become those aspirational people. Only this time the means justifies the end. As for awful – its relative. Someone bought it in round one – maybe it was Karl Lagerfeld – top designer and one of the world’s worst dressed!


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