Hannah's £2 charity shop hatHannah Purnell with permission for Varsity

We all know we should be trying to shop more sustainably, and that (unless you can afford to buy new from so-called ethical brands) charity shops are probably the best option. But there are so many reasons it can be daunting to even step through the door: the size ranges are notoriously rubbish, and there’s the fear that you’ll see nothing that’s actually fashionable since – by definition – you’re buying old clothes. There’s also the fact that diving into the world of second-hand takes more time than simply caving into the aptly named fast fashion industry. Below are some of the tips I’ve curated from some of the best-dressed charity shop fiends I know, in case you, like me, are trying to be more sustainable but don’t quite know where to start.

Knitted jumpers and scarvesCharlotte Morris with permission for Varsity

I’ll be the first to admit that I avoided charity shops for a long time, probably as a hangover from being the self-consciously nerdy and unfashionable girl in secondary school. But looking glamorous and buying second-hand aren’t mutually exclusive. The most glamorous woman I’ve ever met, Hannah, (I’m not exaggerating – people stop to photograph her outfits in the street) claims the best charity shop stock she’s ever seen is in “an Oxfam on a little side street in Chelsea”. She recommends putting ‘charity shop’ into Google Maps the next time you visit an area where the prices on the estate agent windows make you gasp. The logic is that “anyone living in that kind of radius will definitely have some rather glamorous items in their sorting out piles”. The further from the main high street, and therefore the lower the footfall, the better the bargain. Since charity shopping can be hit and miss, she says to keep an eye out wherever you are, even if you’re in the middle of a long car journey. “I once got the most incredible leather trench jacket for £7,” she tells me excitedly, “in an off-road charity shop in the middle of Dorset!”

“The further from the main high street, and therefore the lower the footfall, the better the bargain”

£7 leather jacket from DorsetHannah Purnell with permission for Varsity

Even if the charity shops near you don’t stock y2k or castaway Ralph Lauren, you can still use quirkier items to make an otherwise boring look stand out. “You’re going to find stuff that you wouldn’t be able to find at a shop,” self-proclaimed ‘country bumpkin’ Jess tells me: “I always go to the clearance section and find the really weird shit because that’s what makes the best outfits.” You don’t necessarily have to let the absurdly narrow and unpredictable size ranges in charity shops stop you either. A knitting enthusiast, Mia, points out that you can often find very cheap wool in charity shops if you have the time and inclination to make your own clothes when the right thing isn’t there.

“Found in a £1 bin in a charity shop in Balham… my arms hurt after rifling through the masses to find this”Hannah Purnell with permission for Varsity

I also spoke to Charlotte, who has an entire wardrobe of sustainable clothes. “The last time I bought something new”, she assures me, “was… Year 8 or Year 9". Like Mia, she knits her own arm warmers and scarves, and she’s currently working on a pair of leg warmers. “If they can be made from one long rectangle,” she tells me, “I can do it”. “I knitted the scarf that I’m wearing right now”, she points out.

'You can still use quirkier items to make an otherwise boring look stand out'Charlotte Morris with permission for Varsity

If you’ve exhausted the charity shop scene at the Grafton during your time at Cambridge, or simply don’t want to make the trek, she recommends “the one right next to Aldi”, especially if you’re at a hill college. I ask her how she manages to navigate events like fancy dress or themed parties which seem to demand single-use outfits. “When I’m choosing stuff in a charity shop,” she says, “even if it’s something a bit weird, it can always be useful for that”. And buying something for an occasion doesn’t mean it can’t be useful afterwards. She tells me, “I want to wear as much weird stuff as possible when I can be bothered.”


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Charlotte sees fashion not so much as an exercise in fitting in or following trends, as my fifteen-year-old self certainly did, but “an interesting thing to do”. In fact, every person I spoke to had found that, rather ironically, buying clothes other people have already worn only encourages a more personal relationship with style.