Rosemary Mac Cabe

Hemlines, heels and haute couture – your daily dose

Shopping for vintage – published in The Irish Times, way back

The phrase “second-hand fashion” may seem like an oxymoron, and some have qualms about wearing others’ cast-offs – but quite often, it’s in second-hand shops that you find that elusive diamond in the rough. Second-hand clothing is often as good …

Thu, Mar 25, 2010, 09:12


The phrase “second-hand fashion” may seem like an oxymoron, and some have qualms about wearing others’ cast-offs – but quite often, it’s in second-hand shops that you find that elusive diamond in the rough. Second-hand clothing is often as good as new, and most charity shops are quite selective about what they take in.

And, despite more stores on Ireland’s streets than ever before, with a huge selection of styles to choose from, it can often be difficult to look individual. High-street clothing is all well and good, but when items are produced in batches of 100, your chances of wearing yours without running into at least one person wearing the same thing are slim. Where, exactly, does this leave space for individual expression?

That’s where second-hand clothing comes in. Careful mixing of second-hand and high-street items – along with a few “select” designer pieces, if your budget stretches that far – can make all the difference between identikit style and true style that comes from an ability to mix and match, placing items together in a way exclusive to you and your personality.

Second-hand clothing is not only more exclusive and original than off-the-rack clobber, it’s often around the same price as Penneys items, without the ethical questions thrown up by a €2 belt. With second-hand, you only notice severe hikes in prices when it comes to quality items – leather, designer and tailoring.

Even then, nearly new men’s suits are to be found in many second-hand stores; Age Action in Dun Laoghaire is just one, where a navy pinstripe men’s suit is selling for only €12.

“We rely completely on donations,” says Helen Keogh, store manager. “We have started appealing to retailers for clothes that they can’t sell, but if Penneys or Dunnes give us things, we can really only sell them for €1 or €2 – people know they didn’t cost much more than that to begin with.

And leathers don’t have to be expensive, either; a Milanese charity market once yielded an authentic Gucci handbag in navy leather for just €10, and the mother is the proud owner of a leather satchel, bought for €10 in the St John of God charity shop in Celbridge, Co Kildare.

Truly magnificent pieces are rare enough anywhere – but vintage ranges in charity shops are bringing the glamour back to bargain-hunting. Oxfam on George’s Street has recently launched a range of Oxfam Vintage clothing that includes dresses, skirts and tops from the 1930s onwards, often hand-made and impeccable quality.

“Most of our clothing is donated by members of the public,” says Paul Dunphy, Oxfam Ireland’s media and communications executive. “And it depends on the time of year – say, spring can be a good time because people decide to spring clean, or if people move houses we get some good donations.”

Beyond the possibility of unearthing rare gems, there is a certain joy to charity shopping that true devotees know all about. And never more than now has it been important for fashion fans to feel that their choices are ethically-made; rummaging through baskets of soft, musty-smelling (it’s true, but nothing a touch of Bold won’t fix) scarves, rifling through racks of hand-sewn dresses and skirts, you don’t get the same feeling of guilt as you do when doing the same in a high-street store. Buying second-hand, in a charity shop, means giving to the needy, consuming less, and recycling clothing; very of-the-minute.

But there are a few things to think about when rifling through charity shop rails; like TK Maxx, they can, on different days, yield a lot or a little – but it’s about how you go about it, and what you look out for.

Think about current trends

The great thing about charity shops is that they showcase the trends of yore: bellbottoms, anyone? And fashion is all about cycles – things are pushed to the back of the fashion stage for a few years, then pulled forward again at the whim of the designers. Take this season’s floral trend: started by Prada and imitated by all and sundry, floral is something that charity shops have in abundance. Sequins are still big this season, and, often, a slight bit of alteration is all an item needs to bring it smack bang on-trend.

Pay attention to detail

Certain things cannot be cured by the seamstress’s needle, and when shopping for bargains, you need to be wary of possible pitfalls. Sweat or deodorant marks on vintage dresses or jumpers, for example, won’t come out in the wash. Likewise, snagged knitwear is probably past the point of no return – and shoes that don’t fit, won’t fit. Whatever about stretching out a pair of Louboutins, second-hand shoes have done all the stretching they’re going to.


Sometimes, a shabby-looking top can be jazzed up with jewellery, a jacket or a good pair of jeans – with second-hand chic, the key can be in the combinations. So, if you’re going on a spree, be prepared: bring or wear a pair of skinny jeans, have a jacket on hand and think about jewellery options. It might also help to bring shoe options, because the difference between legs in heels and legs in flats can be vaster than we’d care to admit.

Don’t go overboard

Like all good things in fashion, with second-hand, less is definitely more, and, although it can be tempting to leave the house dressed head to toe in Mrs Greene’s finest, full-on vintage is best left to the Kate Nashes of this world. For the rest of us, it’s about adding a splash: a leather handbag from the 1960s, a scarf from the 1970s or a body-con dress from the 1980s that some unfortunate, bereft individual failed to appreciate. But head-to-toe can be more bag lady than fab lady, so it’s best to be conservative with the amount you put on. Bits and pieces are great, but it’s about incorporating them into your life in a fashionable way, not attempting to create a new – and unlikely – trend.

Think practically

A €2 skirt may be a bargain in theory – but it’s only a bargain if you’ll wear it, and that’s unlikely if it’s two sizes too small. It’s pretty easy to get carried away in a second-hand shop, throwing caution to the wind and buying things that either don’t fit or that you would never usually wear. Buying second-hand, after all, isn’t that far away from shopping the high street; think about what you want, what you need, and what just makes you go ‘wow’. Because chances are, it’ll make others do the same.

To find a charity shop in your area, see the Irish Charity Shops Assocation at or e-mail

Top 5 Dublin Charity shops
Irish Cancer Society, 70 Lower George’s Street, Dun Laoghaire, Co
Dublin. Tel: 01-284 3589. A huge selection of denims, random tops and bottoms, jewellery and accessories – and, when we went to visit, a bone fide Vera Wang dress in the window, retailing at only €30.
Oxfam, Unit 2, Wicklow House, George’s Street,
Dublin 2. Tel: 01-478 0777. A newly refurbished store, two spacious fitting rooms, a separate room with books, records and CDs and a large selection of Oxfam Vintage clothing, ranging in price from around €20 to €100 for quality vintage apparel.
Mrs Greene’s,
Templeogue Village, Dublin 6W. Tel: 01-492 4867. A small, but decent, selection of good-quality clothing and handbags – but, more interestingly, a great range of second-hand, old-fashioned, beautifully-made furniture. Parking may be a problem, but don’t let it put you off – what you find may be worth the effort.
Age Action, 48 Upper Georges Street, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin. Tel: 01-280 8160. A small enough store, but gems to be found in denims, belts and under-the-counter accessories, ranging from hairclips to long, beaded necklaces to old-fashioned polka dot men’s ties – plus, a large and impressive range of men’s suits.
Barnardos, 206 Lower Rathmines Road, Rathmines, Dublin 6. Tel: 01-497 4717. An Irish children’s charity, Barnardos campaigns for children’s rights and provides for children who might not be growing up in the best environment – and, with clothes thrown in to the bargain, what’s not to like?