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17 June 2023

As a charity shop obsessive, I fear fast fashion’s impact on our relationship with our clothes

Clothes will just be clothes, stripped of context and sentiment.

By Marie Le Conte

I realised London and I were a match made in heaven when I discovered its charity shops. I hadn’t even really known about them when I’d decided to move there; I’d haunted the overpriced vintage stalls of Camden and Brick Lane but not ventured to regular high streets yet.

My first flat was in Swiss Cottage and in that neighbourhood, there were five charity shops. I went to visit them all in the same order, like they were a bus route, every other week. I now do the same, 13 years on, in Brixton and Clapham, where I eventually ended up. It is still a joy.

Nantes, where I grew up in western France, only had two charity shops. It was awful: I was a kid whose love for fashion was limitless but whose family finances really weren’t. What was I supposed to do?

At least I was reasonably lucky: both my mother and grandmother had ample wardrobes and we all shared a dress and shoe size. I got to spend my teenage years wearing Italian thigh-high boots, vintage skirt suits and ridiculous silk and lace slips.

Moving away meant having to build my own collection, and I did so greedily. Over the years, I have accumulated countless 1960s dresses, 1970s coats, 1980s shirts and 1990s jackets. I have shoes and clothes from every era and every style; if I get invited to a themed party, I can usually get dressed up without having to buy anything new.

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[See also: The fall of fast fashion]

It’s a passion and a never-ending project – a competitive sport in which the goal is to never spend more than about £20 in one go. It’s also one that’s got harder over time, as the quality of clothes found in charity shops has decreased.

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I went for my fortnightly expedition last week and, as is often the case these days, most of what was on offer was fast fashion. Boohoo and Shein items were everywhere, and most of them looked like they’d barely been worn. If I were to guess, I would assume that they were bought by young women for a special occasion then instantly discarded.

These are annoying clothes to encounter because there is little point in buying them. Cheap and flimsy statement pieces are, by definition, not meant to last. By the time they make it to a charity shop, they usually only have a handful of wears left in them. Why spend even a fiver?

This should be the point at which I start railing about fast fashion’s impact on the environment, but it would be a waste to make an argument everyone knows about already. Instead, I’d like to turn to another aspect of the future. We know the planet is burning, but what about the gowns?

When the children of people my age begin growing up and dressing as adults, will they be able to use and reuse the clothes we wore when we were their age? The early 2000s are, puzzlingly, the years that are now back in fashion. Trousers have slipped down from waists to hips, sunglasses are thin as razors, and handbags are only big enough to carry a stick of shiny lip gloss. It is both amusing and ominous.

What will happen when the cycle turns to the trends of 2023? Will a single Boohoo dress have survived the 20-year wait?

It may not be as pressing a concern as rising sea temperatures, but that doesn’t mean we needn’t think about it. The clothes we wear are who we are – they’re the way we present ourselves to the world and connect to those around us.

[See also: From the NS Archive: Fashion changes are changing]

Trends exist because brands need to flog their products but also because there is nothing more human than seeing someone looking great and wanting to look like them. Fashion is both a bonding exercise and a deeply personal act. What kind of person do you want to be? What image do you want to project? Whose attention are you trying to get? These aren’t trivial questions, and many of them get answered each time you get dressed in the morning.

I love wearing second-hand clothing because it adds yet another layer to these considerations. Who owned the shoes currently on my feet? What did they wear them with? Would they object to the outfit the shoes are now a part of? We cherry-pick things we took from the ones that came before us, mix them all up and make something new. It’s all of human history, in a bright floral dress and some battered old mary janes.

I moved away from home when I was very young but every time I visit, I take some souvenirs back to London with me. There’s a black trench coat with a thin waist that still smells like my grandmother; snakeskin sandals I know my mother bought before she even had me. Owning and wearing them makes me feel like I’m more than myself, a patchwork of women that stretches through time.

It is hard to see how that link doesn’t get severed when clothes are no longer built to last even an election cycle. Girls will buy new frocks costing as much as charity shop ones and they’ll throw them in the bin once the stitches have come undone. They will have children and those children will do the same. Generations will come and go, untethered, all sartorially divorced from one another. Clothes will just be clothes, stripped of context and sentiment. What a loss it will be.

[See also: From the NS archive: Didi and the glass of fashion]

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