I guess a $1,000 pair of shoes for $500 is a deal. But not exactly in my budget. So Colleen suggested Camden Lock Market, where the prices were bound to be better.
It had been nearly a decade since I’d visited the large, insistently alternative jumble of stalls crammed into Victorian warehouses beside the locks on Regent’s Canal. The market always had a lot of clothes, old and new, but rummaging in one stall, I realized with a sinking feeling that the clothes of my 20s are now considered “vintage:” Doc Martens boots in patent leather, Princess Diana ruffled collars and, damn! I’m sure I owned that very dress, or its twin — a Laura Ashley dropped-waist thing in midnight-blue pinwale corduroy that I imagined made me look a bit like Morticia Addams. Here it was, for about 40 bucks — more than I’d originally paid for it.
Momentarily creeped out by this, I slunk off to the pub. After a couple of gin and tonics, I decided that it wasn’t weird after all; some kid would buy that Laura Ashley and wear it as I’d worn those frou-frou ’50s dresses back in the day — perhaps ironically, but certainly in a context that changes its impact. In Paris, fashion descends de haut en bas, from the likes of Dior and Chanel to the street. In London, fashion begins in the street and works its way up to the collections of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood.
On Sunday, I headed to Spitalfields in the East End, an area that Americans might associate with Jack the Ripper. Or maybe the PBS series “Call the Midwife.” Londoners know it as an ethnically rich, rapidly gentrifying haven of coolness with a long rag-trade history. In the 17th century, Huguenot silk weavers moved in, then Russian Jewish tailors and, in the 20th century, Bangladeshi textile merchants. Nearby Spitalfields Market is hipster central, with young designers right out of the London College of Fashion or Central St. Martin’s making asymmetrical leather jackets and Ascot-worthy hats from recycled plastic bags.
The famous Petticoat Lane Market is tattier, tackier and less aspirational — by which I mean that there are a lot of petroleum-product scarves and alleged “designer seconds.” I decided that I’d rather have lunch (Serrano ham, ewe’s-milk cheese and white asparagus washed down with a glass of oloroso) at the nearby Barcelona Tapas. Then I walked the 15 minutes or so to the East End Thrift Store.
EETS is heavy on flannel shirts and every conceivable iteration of denim, but also full of vintage gems — cheap. Really cheap. EETS used to have this legendary annual sale called Thriftstock at which you could stuff a large bag full of clothes for 10 pounds (about $16) or a huge bag for 20 pounds. It was so successful that EETS now runs Thriftstock year-round.
My haul? A few nice pieces to give away (including a Paul Smith shirt), a few that will probably end up at my local Goodwill and a beautiful raspberry velveteen bolero jacket. When I wear it, I feel like Elizabeth Bennet or Lady Mary Crawley — or maybe just my student self all those years ago, when I saw the world as just one big opportunity for dressing up.
Roberts teaches creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee.