When I arrived in Britain as a student, I was all Southern sorority girl pastels, Pappagallos and pearls. But I swiftly worked out that you couldn't show up at a New Order concert (it was the '80s) dressed like that, not if you didn't want to be jeered at.
Plus, I noticed that my friends were wearing their fathers' old dinner jackets and 1940s skirts from secondhand stores. For less than the price of a pair of designer jeans, I could kit myself out in black cashmere, satin cocktail dresses and even a (slightly balding) mink coat, which I justified on the grounds that 1) it kept me really warm, and 2) the varmints had been dead longer than I'd been alive.
All these years later, I found myself with a few days to spare on a summer lecture trip to London and decided to revisit the world of thrift fashion, starting with Oxfam, an excellent source of vintage and barely worn pieces that you can still get (at many times the price) in London boutiques. This venerable anti-poverty charity has nearly three dozen locations in the city, although the Westbourne Grove Oxfam is one of my favorites. Five or six years ago, I got a gorgeous green Etro scarf there and a pair of 1960s lizard-skin stilettos, the kind that Joan Holloway would wear to slink magnificently into the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
I wasn't so lucky this time, though I was
That evening at dinner, my friend Deborah, a lawyer who lives in South London, held up what looked like a brand-new Kate Spade bag, the kind that goes for $350. "Thirty quid [$48] at the Herne Hill Oxfam," she said, triumphant.
Strangely (at least to me), some people are a little squeamish about putting "used" clothes on their bodies or stashing their lipstick in a handbag older than their granny. They want only new things. "I can't imagine that," says Colleen Purkiss, a stylish vintage-wearer and student at Cleveland College of Art and Design in the north of England. "I like living in an old house. It's got history. Same with clothes. Old clothes have seen all this life."
Colleen said that for her school prom, most of the girls wore "meringues," candy-colored Disney princess dresses, while she chose a black number from the 1930s: "Very straight, very simple."
On Saturday, I took in Portobello Road Market: It used to be a great place to find bargain pieces of good lace and old evening gloves in colored kid. The prices these days, however, are positively eye-watering.
But then, everything in Notting Hill is expensive. If you fancy a Daisy Buchanan-ish Comme des Garcons frock in flowered georgette for a fraction of the original price (three grand), it can be had on Pembridge Road for about $600. Retro Woman (Retro Man and Retro Home are nearby) is a dark, crowded cave of high-quality clothes by iconic designers of the past 40 years: Zandra Rhodes, Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Prada, Jean Muir and Ossie Clark. Tall glass cases display immaculately kept shoes by Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and others, ranging in price from $50 to $700.
I guess a $1,000 pair of shoes for $500 is a deal. But not exactly in my budget. So Colleen suggested Camden Lock Market, where the prices were bound to be better.
It had been nearly a decade since I'd visited the large, insistently alternative jumble of stalls crammed into Victorian warehouses beside the locks on Regent's Canal. The market always had a lot of clothes, old and new, but rummaging in one stall, I realized with a sinking feeling that the clothes of my 20s are now considered "vintage:" Doc Martens boots in patent leather, Princess Diana ruffled collars and, damn! I'm sure I owned that very dress, or its twin -- a Laura Ashley dropped-waist thing in midnight-blue pinwale corduroy that I imagined made me look a bit like Morticia Addams. Here it was, for about 40 bucks -- more than I'd originally paid for it.
Momentarily creeped out by this, I slunk off to the pub. After a couple of gin and tonics, I decided that it wasn't weird after all; some kid would buy that Laura Ashley and wear it as I'd worn those frou-frou '50s dresses back in the day -- perhaps ironically, but certainly in a context that changes its impact. In Paris, fashion descends de haut en bas, from the likes of Dior and Chanel to the street. In London, fashion begins in the street and works its way up to the collections of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood.
On Sunday, I headed to Spitalfields in the East End, an area that Americans might associate with Jack the Ripper. Or maybe the PBS series "Call the Midwife." Londoners know it as an ethnically rich, rapidly gentrifying haven of coolness with a long rag-trade history. In the 17th century, Huguenot silk weavers moved in, then Russian Jewish tailors and, in the 20th century, Bangladeshi textile merchants. Nearby Spitalfields Market is hipster central, with young designers right out of the London College of Fashion or Central St. Martin's making asymmetrical leather jackets and Ascot-worthy hats from recycled plastic bags.
The famous Petticoat Lane Market is tattier, tackier and less aspirational -- by which I mean that there are a lot of petroleum-product scarves and alleged "designer seconds." I decided that I'd rather have lunch (Serrano ham, ewe's-milk cheese and white asparagus washed down with a glass of oloroso) at the nearby Barcelona Tapas. Then I walked the 15 minutes or so to the East End Thrift Store.
EETS is heavy on flannel shirts and every conceivable iteration of denim, but also full of vintage gems -- cheap. Really cheap. EETS used to have this legendary annual sale called Thriftstock at which you could stuff a large bag full of clothes for 10 pounds (about $16) or a huge bag for 20 pounds. It was so successful that EETS now runs Thriftstock year-round.
My haul? A few nice pieces to give away (including a Paul Smith shirt), a few that will probably end up at my local Goodwill and a beautiful raspberry velveteen bolero jacket. When I wear it, I feel like Elizabeth Bennet or Lady Mary Crawley -- or maybe just my student self all those years ago, when I saw the world as just one big opportunity for dressing up.
Roberts teaches creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee.