The 5 chicest wardrobe staples to shop second-hand

·9-min read
Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christian Vierig - Getty Images

Right now it's #SecondHandSeptember, aka that time of year when Oxfam challenges us to stop buying new clothes for a month. According to Oxfam, a staggering 13 million items of clothing go to UK landfills every single week, so this is something we can't shout about enough.

With more time to reflect during COVID lockdowns, many people have begun re-evaluating their shopping habits. Resale app Depop, for example, noticed a dramatic 100% year-on-year sales spike in 2020, driven largely by Gen Z's interest in sustainability.

So...what if you're new to the idea of pre-loved or vintage clothing, but just don't know where to start? It's easy to think of vintage shops as musty, fusty old basements brimming with frightful 80s patterns. (Okay, there's some of that.) But what could possibly be there for someone wanting a more modern, classic look? If you know what to look for, you can find some killer quality wardrobe staples at a fraction of the price, all while being kinder to our planet.

I've been poking around vintage stalls and charity shops for 15 years, and so I've narrowed down the five easiest items to shop second hand. Now, it's worth acknowledging that the term 'ease' is relative. This might differ based on your willingness to shop online, how many charity and vintage shops are in your area, and having access to clothing in your size. But generally, the items I've chosen are abundantly available at thrift and vintage shops around the world. (PS, while you're here, check out our Contributing Curve Editor's guide to shopping plus size clothing second-hand.)

Ready? Let's go...

1. Denim

If I could only buy one category of used clothing for the rest of my life, it would be denim. There is something so delicious about soft, sun-faded, worn-in denim. Within the category, you can consider denim jackets, shirts, shorts, vests, and of course: jeans. The perfect pair can magically give you a peachy bum, give simple outfits a sexy-cool upgrade, and look majorly expensive - even if you only spent a tenner on them. And after the years I've spent browsing, I'd say there's enough used denim already existing in the world to clothe us all. Pre-loved shops are bursting with rack after rack of denim, making this, in my opinion, the best and easiest item to buy second-hand.

Don't be discouraged by the seemingly random sizing - it varies across decades, country of origin, and brands, so you'll need to hunt at first. You might have seen the viral hack demonstrating how to check if jeans fit without trying them on. You wrap the waistband around your neck, and if both edges of the waistband meet, they'll fit. This is a good loose guide, but not an exact science. My advice? Find an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon, gather the biggest pile of jeans you can manage, and start trying them on. Pretty soon, you'll be able to eyeball them and know whether the waistband looks right, or whether there's enough thigh room, at a glance.

Photo credit: Daniel Zuchnik - Getty Images
Photo credit: Daniel Zuchnik - Getty Images

Speaking of, err, thighs - if you consistently find yourself wanting a roomier fit in the bum and hips, consider shopping the men's section. Seriously. Years ago I watched a celebrity's face light up on a photoshoot, when she pulled on a pair of men's vintage jeans, and they fit her flawlessly. She happened to be a UK size 18-20, and said she could never find jeans that fit her hips, despite wanting to wear them. Those men's jeans made it onto the cover of the magazine, and she even took them home to keep.

Don't forget that you can get things tailored for that perfect fit, too. If your used jeans were a steal, the additional cost of hemming them shorter, or taking them in at the waist or thighs, shouldn't break the bank. Levi's offers their Tailor Shop at selected stores, where they will hem, embroider, repair, or decorate your denim items for you. Or, if you're going to be in London, make an appointment at Levi’s® Haus, for even more upcycling options, like turning your old Levi's into hats and bags.

2. Handbags

When I was a kid, I used to look forward to Easter egg hunts in the back garden - but now, it's the thrill of the designer bag find. Buying one new can set you back anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand quid (gulp), so pre-loved is a great way to get a label for less. Vestiaire Collective has drool-worthy stock by Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Gucci, get the picture. You can filter by price, item location, and even style name to find your dream bag - like their glittering selection of Fendi Baguette bags. And don't worry - every item on their site goes through a top-notch authentication process, so you know you're getting the real deal.

Don't rule out eBay, either. I recently found an early 2000s style Coach shoulder bag, reminiscent of the styles that were popular when I was a teenager. Something Lindsay Lohan would have carried during peak Mean Girls era. I had to have it. It was listed in the United States, but even with the international shipping fees, it still came to less than £50.

Photo credit: Streetstyleshooters - Getty Images
Photo credit: Streetstyleshooters - Getty Images

Outside of designer bags, I've found plenty of interesting, unbranded bags at second-hand shops. Look for: woven straw totes, beaded purses, leather backpacks, sports bags, and interesting shapes. Most items can be given a good glow-up; either in your washing machine, or with fabric dye, or a good leather cream. (Just make sure to read all the instructions first to avoid damaging your new prized possession.)

3. Leather

Let's face it: buying leather new is expensive, plus some people are consciously decreasing the amount of animal products they buy. The number one pre-loved leather item I look for is jackets. Whether that's a sporty, colourblock motorcycle jacket (a proper biker one), a sleek 90s leather trench coat, or even a blazer - it will cost a *fraction* of the price of a new one.

Consider also: leather boots. Okay, I know some people might be freaked out by the thought of a shoe that someone else's foot has been in, but smooth leather can be wiped down and sanitised easily enough. I'm always hunting for the perfect worn-in leather cowboy boot: not too turned up at the toe, sleek shape, walkable heel height. I also like looking for Victoriana-inspired lace up boots and 2000s-era platform shoes. Now that it's September, I'm on my annual Vestiaire nightly scroll, looking for that elusive pair of perfect designer knee-highs in my budget...

Photo credit: Edward Berthelot - Getty Images
Photo credit: Edward Berthelot - Getty Images

4. Knitwear

You could spend £25 on a new, acrylic jumper, one that will inevitably lose its shape and go all bobbly after the first wash, or you could spend the same (or less!) on a top-quality used one. When taken care of, natural fabrics like wool and cashmere will last for decades - and there's plenty of them in second-hand shops. (Heads up: proper care means washing on a cool or cold gentle cycle, ideally with a delicates detergent, and laying flat to dry - never hanging or wringing out).

Check the garments in the shop for any major stains or rips that you're not into, but don't worry about extra fluff or fabric pilling. That can be easily removed with a fabric shaver, one like our Fashion Editor road tested here. It's an affordable item that will work wonders for your winter wardrobe over the years.

I love to look out for smart cashmere v-necks (off the men's rack, for a relaxed fit to tuck into jeans). But also: oversized fair isle jumpers, pullovers with sporty logos (like in the Instagram below), and knitted grandad vests.

Almost every brand I know brought out knitted vests this year, but you don't *actually* have to buy one new, if you're looking to shop more sustainably. There are stacks and stacks already hanging about. I found one for a fiver in my hometown years ago, and still get asked about it every time I wear it. I love layering them over long dresses, adding a giant collar, or letting a rollneck peek out of the top. We all have our vices, mine just happen to include late night eBay trawls for "Isabel Marant jumper..."

5. T-shirts

If you like the varsity look (you know, that American uni-inspired sports logo font), consider shopping for authentic secondhand pieces. Yes, you can buy a knockoff one from a high street chain, but IMO, the used ones will look cooler, feel softer, and won't have a weird cringe-y slogan on them. Used t-shirts are probably the most prolific second-hand item in existence - you'll see what I mean as soon as you walk into...any charity shop. Half the time there's bags of them in the back room, waiting to be restocked.

IMO, t-shirts are a crucial wardrobe staple, because I like to dress casually most of the time. Whenever I don't fancy wearing something body-hugging, I go for jeans, boots, a baggy t-shirt, and a quilted jacket. I have sports logo ones, ones with beer logos, old band tour tees from my teenage years, you name it. My former Fashion Director even got me a white ringer tee with an 80s radio station advertisement on it, complete with dancing garden gnomes, as a present. I'm building a collection over here, okay?

You also never have to buy a tie dye t-shirt new either, if you don't want to. It feels like every kid and adult camp counsellor who has ever done an arts and crafts class over the last 30 years has sent off their creation to your local Rokit or Beyond Retro. They're there, trust me. Or you can just make your own.

So there you have it: five of the most readily-available used basics you can pad out your capsule wardrobe with, sustainably. Fashion waste may be a looming issue for our generation, but according to Lorna Fallon, Oxfam's Trading Director, "the good news is we can all fight it. By taking part in Oxfam’s Second Hand September campaign and buying pre-loved rather than new fashion, you give clothes a longer life. What’s more, donating clothes you no longer want to Oxfam means saving them from landfill and giving something to [us] that we sell to raise money to help the world’s poorest people. What’s not to love?"

Follow Maddy on Instagram.

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