Since Oxfam first opened its doors in 1947, the charity shop has become a uniquely British institution — one which has had a profound impact on the clothes we wear.
‘As it is impossible to think of England as having no past, this is
dealt with by treating history as a vast boutique full of military
uniforms, grannie shoes and spectacles, 30’s suits and George
Formby records. By wrenching these objects out of their historical
context they are rendered harmless.’
Thus opens George Melly’s seminal ‘Revolt into Style; The Pop Arts in Britain’ (A cautionary footnote adds, ‘Written in December 1966. By the time this book is completed and published these particular objects will certainly be back on the scrap-heap.’)
Nowadays, wrenching objects out of their historical context no longer retains the faintest whiff of rebellion. We’ve now got specialist stores, markets, online retailers, vintage rails in high street clothing chains (as well as endless contemporary reproductions, encouraging us to buy into the past); Melly’s famous scrap-heap has been ransacked and sold.
His quote signals a key turning point, however — a moment when the past became both fashionable and purchasable. But that turning point isn’t one that can be solely chalked up to the retro boutiques of the Sixties and Seventies (although they undoubtedly played their part). Much of the thanks must go to a British high street staple, now so familiar that its origins are often overlooked. Over their relatively young life (the first Oxfam shop celebrates its 70th anniversary this year) charity shops have transformed how we consume, discard, and relate to our own past.
The charity shop as we know it today — a retail unit selling donated goods to raise money — didn’t appear until the Second World War. Pioneered by charities which are still household names today, fundraising then was very different. The Red Cross, for example, ran appeals for Old Masters, porcelain, furs, jewels, lace and silver to be auctioned off, to such success that they opened their first shops on London’s Old Bond Street simply to deal with the donations.
The first store under the banner of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, meanwhile, was born out of an appeal to alleviate suffering among the people of postwar Greece. Needing somewhere to receive, sort and package donations, they moved into premises at 17 Broad Street, Oxford in 1947. Soon, however, overwhelmed by the generous response, they began selling some of the donations (and putting the profits towards aid). In its early days, the premises’ style was closer to the furs, lace and Old Masters of the Red Cross model — a far cry from the Oxfam shop still occupying the site today.
Other places already existed for the sale of secondhand goods, like the stores run by The Salvation Army for poorer members of society. As valued commodities, most items of clothing were subject to improvements and repairs, and could have many lives — perhaps sold after their owner’s death, presented as gifts, or used to pay debts. ‘Here, is the dress of the president’s dead wife which the ‘madam’ will buy, the poor working girl adorns herself with the bonnet of the marchioness’s chambermaid,’ one 18th-century visitor to Les Halles in Paris commented. But, as the concept of modern fashion emerged, it changed our patterns of consumption. Aristocrats would buy — and, more significantly, sell — clothing items, to keep up with each season’s trends.
As clothing became more accessible and affordable, secondhand clothing came to be regarded with suspicion. It was a potential source of contagion, as described by a Dr. Brunel, surveying the market at London’s Temple in 1898: ‘Old rags, laundry, clothes and carpets festering in ragpickers’ bags and old tattered frocks which are often sold after their wearers died of illness, are neither disinfected nor cleansed of soil and tuberculous spittle, where the most morbid of bacteria proliferate.’ But while the market for secondhand clothing decreased, the idea of donating garments as a charitable activity grew in popularity. In 1877, Good Housekeeping advised the affluent woman, when looking at her husband’s old clothes, to ‘cast her mind around to see on whom she can bestow them, where they will be sure to be utilized, and the small boys of some hard working, deserving mother will have their hearts gladdened and their bodies made warm and neat at slight expense and trouble.’
Twenty years later, in New York, the Salvation Army began using unemployed men — its ‘salvage brigade’ — to collect paper, clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac, to be taken to ‘industrial homes’ for sorting, repair and resale. Benjamin R. Andrew’s college textbook, Economics of the Household, first published in 1923, encouraged the donation of clothes to charities such as these. But these weren’t places that anyone, except the poorest of society, would shop. Even then, antiques and more valuable goods were sorted out for dealers and collectors.
(This original article continues in our Issue Ten)