Cheap Chic?

Looking for inexpensive yet interesting clothes? John’s student Tadhgh Barwell O’Connor guides us through the charity shops of Cambridge.

cambridge shops charity

So let’s get this right from the off. I don’t like charity shops. They smell. The people who run them are either so manically friendly you want to fend them off with something very long and preferably sharp, or so self-pious and snooty, following you around in case you leave a finger mark on their already second hand and therefore used things, you think they might jump on you for suspected theft any moment. Perhaps that’s just because I’m a student and therefore simultaneously fit the categories of friendly young person yet also crazed hoody wearing thief. Vented anger aside I took on the challenge of drudging around the famous Burleigh Street 7, right next to the Grafton centre. With just £20.00 in hand I went with little hope, but two friends bolstered me on the cold Sunday morning and after beans, on eggs, on bagels we set off. Our targets were:

Two hours later, after a lot of laughs, many decidedly unsexy poses and a rather embarrassing incident with skin tight diarrhoea brown leather trousers that had a very suspicious ripped crotch, we peddled back across town tired but successful.

My tips are to go with girls, they know better, it’s just true, at least for me anyway, and will make you try stuff on that looks like roadkill on the hanger but fits and might possibly even look good. Go with an open mind. Some of the scariest stuff does seem to work best so try everything on, if you make it into a simultaneous search for fancy dress you will find the best combination of items. Both fencing gear and scuba diving suits were on offer and very painfully left behind this time. Look at everything, very few things will fit you, unless you weigh 30 stone and have a 68” waist, but I found my favourite item at the very back of a particularly dispiriting aisle.

These aren’t the shops for the latest up to date trends, obviously, and their stock will vary throughout the year, meaning it’ll be great sometimes and dire others, but it’s a potential treasure trove for vintage or retro clothing. Some styles you might find reproduced in Topshop/man or H&M, but they’ll never be the real deal. If you look hard enough you can and will find a little bit of the last millennium to brighten up any wardrobe.
The best among them were the RSPCA’s Emporium 61 which felt like a proper shop. It was the best laid out and had the best stock, as well as Cancer Research UK and Oxfam, which were just bigger and so had better ranges. All the others had the odd good bits and bobs but because they are so cramped are far less likely to have multiple finds in them. Anyway, here’s what we found.


Cancer Research UK. Possibly the ghastliest gilet ever made but with a nice touch of regency about it. For £2.50 it was worth a gamble and there’ll inevitably be an Ent it’ll work for.

Cancer Research UK. A well fitting, perfect condition smoking jacket. This was the most expensive buy at £20.00 but when they normally retails for £100.00 or more it seemed like a good investment for old age/society drinks.

RSPCA's Emporium 61. Brilliant blue but not the nicest synthetic material trousers. £3.50. When you have normal sized legs and skinny jeans won’t go past your knees retro coloured trousers are the only way to escape the bounds of jean and chinos.

Cancer Research UK. Coloured shorts were everywhere last summer and these I also got in green. Though it’s not the most flattering photo ever they’re genuinely very nice and a steal at £2.50 each.

Scope. Though I didn’t get it my motorbike driving friend did. £60.00 is not cheap by most student’s standards but for a reinforced, Marlboro motorcycle jacket we thought it was a frickin' steal.


Unwelcoming a model as I am here’s what some of them look like on:




Overall it was a good little drip, and let’s face it. I’d only have slept in on a Sunday morning anyway. This way not only did I spend some of that pesky student loan money, but I even accomplished something before lunch.
If you think the Grafton Centre is too far and don’t have an accommodating friend at Homerton who will keep you warm the night before so it’s not quite so far to stumble to Burleigh Street, you can always check out the Jemporium Vintage stall in the Market. Looked into the other day on a passing whim two well received buys were had.

Jemporium Vintage. (Yes it’s another smoking jacket, and I’m aware I have two, which for most is two too many but it was raining, I had a supervision essay to be writing and spending money on superfluous things is a wonderful distraction.) £15.00, so as long as I halve my VK intake for a week it’ll all balance out (uh-hum…likely.)

Jemporium Vintage. US Collegiate sweater. Since discovered to have been made out of the itchiest material known to man, but if worn with long sleeves, or a shirt, it’s great. £12.00 so not breaking the bank either. If you want to check them out go to The girl who runs it is lovely and will help you find whatever you're looking for.

So go forth, buy but thriftily inexpensive yet interesting clothes and look worth more than you paid for it.


All photos by Aurora Horwood