Up to a point, I can plot my life in clothes shops. M&S and Asda as a kid; New Look and Tammy Girl as a pre-teen, then Topshop, surf shops and our local 60s den for massive corduroy flares – the full complement from my rural hometown’s offering. When I moved for university, I revelled in the terribly exotic (to me) Gap and Zara; during my 20s, London offered the untold riches of Cos, Monki and & Other Stories.
After turning 30, that sense of surefire fits slipped away. I was probably too old for Topshop’s cropped-everything, plus I found its owner a bit gross. I felt jaded by Cos’s austere dental hygienist smocks. And the emerging age-appropriate uniform of mid-length floral skirt, nice jumper and heeled boots felt like a millennial update of M&S’s old Classic collection, AKA premature fashion death. Where next?
In case the aforementioned array of pedestrian high-street shops didn’t make it obvious, I haven’t been much of a fashion adventurer since I was a teenager, back when chaos was my style MO. (Mismatched Converse, mismatched knee-length striped socks, skirt that looked like a bin bag.) These days I find clothes shopping demoralising (Zara, with your so-called XL that’s no bigger than a size 12 – I’m looking at you.)
I’d attempted vintage shopping but never had the eye for it, nor the patience. My wardrobe was haunted by my sole thrifted purchase: a grey silk 80s jumpsuit with padded shoulders, bought in Berlin on the encouragement of a friend who can actually carry off that sort of thing. What felt exciting in the changing room made me feel like a blousy mechanic back home. On the coathanger it stayed.
Conscious of the climate crisis and the ills of fast fashion, I wanted to try secondhand marketplaces such as Depop. But when I first poked around, I only seemed to find an avalanche of fleeces – the kind I would wear after a swimming lesson in 1998 – albeit customised and cropped. I don’t have the appetite to rehash that look, nor the abs for its reinvention. Another dead end.
Then earlier this year, I was researching an interview with the 21-year-old British pop star Holly Humberstone. Like many of her generation, she loves thrifting, for the creativity and environmental positives. At her shows, she runs a clothing swap initiative where fans might even snare one of her old outfits. Inspired (not to mention sensing an opportunity to procrastinate) I redownloaded Depop.
I don’t know whether the site’s range had expanded or my mindset had just shifted: the potential and fun to be had was suddenly obvious. I saw a colleague wearing cool white trousers and wondered if I could find something similar: still with their tags, in my size, half the price of new? Sold, to the woman certain she’ll get jam on them in weeks.
My pre-pandemic jeans were skinnies I never want to see again; I researched fits for generous bottoms and learned that a fancy Swedish brand I would never ordinarily splash out on was apparently the answer. And here they were, in my size, perfect condition: £15. (Turns out they were right about the bum thing.) There’s a degree of slot machine-style pleasure in finding exactly what you’re after. Beloved M&S polo neck, rubbed threadbare, in a new colour? Jackpot.
This flush of sartorial success encouraged me to commit to not buying new if I can help it (I’m making an exception for pants, pyjamas and gym clothes). As well as making a tiny contribution to the planet, to my delight, it’s also unlocked a desire for self-expression that’s lain dormant since those odd striped-sock days. Walking into a shop and being confronted by outfits you’d never dream of wearing deters me, at least, from burrowing for hidden gems. (The & Other Stories near work currently has a display that I would describe as “cyberpunk Sloane Ranger”, and more power to you if you can pull that off.) Plus taking risks on new wildcard items is prohibitively expensive and potentially wasteful. But on Depop or eBay, dabbling in a new personality comes with less pressure. Cherry-pink velvet hot pants for £8? I could be that person – and if I’m not, I can sell them to someone who might be.
I started selling my own neglected items, thrilling quietly at the idea that they were apparently desirable: maybe I had some covetable style after all. I even sold that German jumpsuit. Its new owner – a vintage fiend – told me they love how it hangs and the uniqueness of the detailing; that they would wear it anywhere, “dressed up or down”. It makes me strangely happy that this item I could never love turned out to be just what someone else was looking for.
Laura Snapes is the Guardian’s deputy music editor