Sunday, February 17, 2013

Betcha Wish That You Could Op Shop Like Me - Part 1

Sometimes it feels like I've been op-shopping as long as I've been wearing clothes. A brief note of clarification for any American viewers I happen to have picked up - when I say "op shop", I mean what you would call "thrift store." So just substitute it in your head while you read. When people ask where I got whatever I'm wearing, the answer is "second hand" at least seven times out of ten. But when I tell people where I got things, they always look at me amazed, as if I have some great gift to be able to find decent things where they apparently have never been able to. I am going to admit something to y'all - it's not a gift. It's just practice. 

Image courtesy of windyfm

I've been op-shopping for a long time. My family wasn't particularly well off when I was growing up, and finding enough resources for four kids was a bit of a stretch sometimes. But my Mum had a couple of tricks she used to make sure we didn't feel like we were wanting for anything, while still working within what I would now consider to be a preposterously small budget. We had a weekly ritual, for many years. On a Saturday, Mum would round all the kids up and we would hit the library, the second hand store, and the supermarket. At the library we could borrow as many books as the library would let us - I quickly worked out if I was nice to the librarian, they would let me borrow as many as I damn well wanted, which was FANTASTIC. It wasn't until much later that I realised how incredibly expensive books could be, because I had spent a childhood with access to as many as I could carry. The stop at the second hand shop was something I got more enthusiastic about as I got older. When I was smaller I didn't like that it smelled musty, and there were so many weird things, and everything was scratchy. The perpetual rack of glassy eyed fox furs also used to freak me the hell out. I have no idea who was donating them all, but once they got to the shop they never budged. Once I blossomed into a coolness hungry teenager, suddenly the op shop was a treasure trove. Once I started giving a shit what I wore, I would happily dive into bins of unsorted pants just to pull out the perfect pinstripes. There was no way I was getting any of what the cool kids were wearing new - there just wasn't the money. But when we went to the second hand store I could talk Mum into buying just about anything I wanted, and that was glorious. Over time, the musty smell of second hand shops became associated with family and home in my mind. Rummaging through those shops was something I did with Mum, while the younger kids ran around hiding from each other in the racks. Like watching The Bill with a cup of tea, that smell of clothes that have been stored too long and steam cleaned cheaply comforts me in a way I find very difficult to describe.

Image courtesy of windyfm
Naturally, once I left home and moved to the Big City I continued my second hand shopping. I was poor as dirt, but also a country kid in the Big City, desperate to figure out who I wanted to be and how I wanted to be seen. I did a lot of this exploration through clothes, and these clothes were inevitably sourced from second hand stores, because I would never have been able to buy all the clothes I wanted new. I also discovered there is a certain freedom that comes with getting your clothes really cheaply - I brought home a lot of things I probably wouldn't even try now, because I figured, "Why not?" I was young, it was cheap, there was no-one to tell me that men's corduroy probably wasn't the most flattering  look on a girl with as big an ass as me, and I loved it. 

Everything both me and my friend are wearing in this picture was bought second hand,
including those glorious brown Victorian boots. I miss them.

The only thing I'm wearing in this picture that isn't second hand is
the t-shirt underneath the collared shirt. In case you're wondering, the bracelet
is a snake. That thing was so sweet.
Fast forward to now, where I have a reasonably well paid job, and am relatively well off financially. I COULD buy clothes full price now. Not nearly as many of them, but I could get some nice pants without breaking the bank. But I very rarely do. The bargain hunting instinct is too deeply ingrained - a childhood spent watching my mother gleefully pulling unworn designer clothes from dusty racks and taking them home for five bucks means I would feel like a total sucker if I paid full price for mass produced clothes. The markup on major label clothing is just appalling - even taking into consideration the cost of the production chain to get it from the factory to me, $250 for a collared shirt is OUTRAGEOUS. To be clear, I'm not talking about small business owners who run their own labels and pay their sewers a fair wage - they can have all my money. The most expensive item of clothing in my entire wardrobe is a relatively simple 50's style cotton skirt - but I paid full price because it was a local maker, selling from a stall, who had created a design I really loved. Contrast that to companies like GAP that use wildly underpaid third world labour, and then want to charge me $15 for a singlet top so thin you can see my flesh coloured bra through it. GAP, and all companies like them can kiss my ass. 

Image courtesy of Fear and Clothing
The other reason I buy from second hand stores is that I like the charity aspect of most of the stores I shop at. There are an increasing number of independent, totally for profit second hand stores springing up around Sydney, but personally I like to frequent the ones run by The Smith Family, The Salvation Army, The Cat Protection Society, and the myriad array of tiny little ones associated with local churches. The Cat Protection Society is one I feel wholeheartedly good about supporting - they're a local no-kill shelter, and they do a great job taking care of kitties that no-one else wants until they find a new home. If it wasn't for them, my crazy fur baby would have died in an overpopulated apartment because she belonged to someone who wasn't able to take care of her and her brothers and sisters, so I like to help them when I can to try and make sure other cats get the same chance mine did. 

I have so many pictures of  my cat. It's pretty sad.

The religious charities...well, my support of them is a little more complicated. The Salvation Army hit the news a little while ago for some appallingly anti homosexual comments by one of their members, and their doctrine is quite specifically against homosexuality - well practicing it anyway. It's okay to be gay so long as you're celibate, apparently. However, members of the Salvation Army do some great work with people on the ground, day to day, and I don't feel like I should tar the whole organisation with the same brush. The same applies to the Smith Family - the religious principles underpinning the work they do isn't great, but the fact is that no-one  else is doing the work they do. The people they help need help, and if the government isn't willing to put enough into welfare programs to ensure people get everything they need, then religious organisations will always fill the gaps. Maybe I'm just biased because I was actually in a dire enough situation to take a food box from the Salvation Army a couple of times - I don't remember anyone asking me if I was queer before they gave it to me, and I really, REALLY needed it. I like to use a tiny bit of my shopping dollars to contribute to the chances that someone else could get the same help that I did. 

The fact that the clothes I get from these shops are so cheap also encourages me to put them back into the great second hand clothes pool once I'm bored with them. Instead of buying something overpriced and hanging on to it for years because I MIGHT get around to wearing it, if I buy a pair of jeans for five bucks, I will happily cycle them out as soon as I have some I like better. I give my unwanted clothes back to op shops - thus allowing them to rejoin their discarded brethren, and hopefully find a home with someone else. I never get sick of my wardrobe, the op shops have a constant supply of clothes coming back to them - everyone gets what they want. There is actually a charity I've come across quite recently that will be getting my next lot of discarded work wear, and I would strongly encourage you to do the same if you're local. Dress for Success are (as far as I can tell) a non-religious charity that loans work wear to women who can't afford it. Whether they need it for a job interview, a funeral, if they need to present well in court or whatever, the Dress for Success people not only loan them clothes, but give them styling and general presentation advice as well. This is something I can wholeheartedly get behind, and because all my clothes were bought for such a minimal investment, I have no problem passing them on. 

And lastly, there is a totally self-interested reason I like shopping second hand. I’ve talked  previously about how clothes shopping when you’re fat is shit. But I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the way women deal with unwanted clothes – pants that are too small they will hold on to like they’re the Holy Grail, but if pants are even the slightest bit too big, they toss them away in delight. Which is where I come in, and gleefully gather up their discarded pants!

So that's WHY I like op shopping. Next time, I'm going to start passing on to you, my dear readers, the nuggets of wisdom I have gleaned as to HOW to op shop. 

*This series started as a little contribution to The Closet Feminist, but as usual, I found I had too much to say on the subject so I wanted to do it properly somewhere I can take up as much space as I like.


  1. takes me back to when i used to op shop in well off areas to get the clothes i could never have afforded.... BUT and there is a but to this, the op shops in the uk became very commercialized and put up their prices to become just as expensive as the cheaper shops plus all the really good stuff got separated out to a big warehouse in london where the well off could afford their prices for "vintage" pieces.

    1. Uuuuugh, sometimes I really wish vintage clothes had never become cool. Surely putting them all in a big warehouse, pre-sorted just takes all the fun out of it?


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