My charity shop challenge: Would Maria McErlane’s bargains pass muster in glamorous Essaouria?

With a Moroccan getaway in two days and nothing to wear, comedian Maria McErlane decided to put together the perfect holiday wardrobe – with only second-hand buys. But would her bargains pass muster in glamorous Essaouira?

Maria McErlane
A jet-set wardrobe for under £60? Yes I can! but it’s got to hit the spot in swanky Essaouira.

A very long lunch with four gay friends resulted in us booking flights to Morocco at midnight for two days hence. It was barely enough time for the hangover to set in, no wonder it seemed like such a good idea. But I had a problem: suffering from ‘stuffocation’ – ie, not being able to breathe because you have so much stuff – I’d recently Marie Kondo-ed my life.

Taking to heart the words of the decluttering guru ‘if it doesn’t spark joy let it go’, I’d got rid of most of my clothes and now I had nothing to wear. For me, conventional shopping is not an enjoyable pastime. Plus, I had just read that British women have £13 billion worth of unworn clothes in our collective wardrobes. Why add to that? When I was younger I always wanted to start a company where you emailed your dress size to any given holiday destination and on arrival at the airport collected a suitcase filled with  outfits for the week ahead. You would hire ‘new to you’ togs and return the suitcase at the airport on departure, whereupon the items would be laundered for the next customer. I even had a name for my business idea: HATH (Holiday Attire To Hire) – not brilliant, I know, and had Dragons’ Den been operating back then, I feel the answer would have been a resounding ‘I’m out.’

Shutterstock /Streetflash

But with my old idea in mind, rather than buying new I resolved that my suitcase would be filled only with charity-shop clothes that I could use for a week, and if it was appropriate I could recycle them in the coastal city of Essaouira, where we would be staying. It was going to be a six-day beach break and I needed outfits suitable for swimming, dinner and fun.

A bold and foolhardy decision perhaps. Body shape, sizing, discovering what does and doesn’t suit you is part of the joy (or horror) of going shopping. The reality though is this: on holiday, no one will know that you are usually dressed head to toe in Chanel, are seen as a style leader or run your own fashion PR firm. Besides, as my grandmother used to helpfully say, ‘Who’s looking at you?’

The £3.50 ‘designer ’dress ‘The label said Pucci, the fabric said… otherwise. But £3.50!’

I gave myself one day and five shops: Oxfam, Shelter, Cats Protection, HARC (Hastings Advice & Recreation Centre) and The British Heart Foundation in the town of St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. As an inveterate vintage and charity shopper, my eye is finely tuned. Finding the perfect piece really does spark joy.

However, if you are not familiar with charity shops, I am here to tell you that they’re not for the faint-hearted. Don’t get sidetracked by gold roller skates that are just your size; 1950s sewing boxes that would look really funky once they’ve been upcycled; hats that you may or may not wear to your sister’s wedding, or anything that you could tie-dye DayGlo pink. These are all mistakes from my own catalogue of clutter, long since gifted forward or recycled.

I also had no time to launder, so I was seeking clean and ready-to-wear pieces – donated clothes can be a bit hit and miss on that front.

The £6 smock ‘A beach-to bar perfect silk dress? I’ll take that’

The first purchases were a pair of brand new black and white Guess flip-flops. A little OT with gold chains and a medallion, but at £1.50 they would be fine. In the same Oxfam shop an extra large Tommy Hilfiger stars-and-stripes scarf was perfect as a sarong over a swimsuit and still had the label showing that it had originally cost £19.99 (always pleasing), but was only £1 in the bargain bin.

Next I found what proved to be one of the duff buys: a black swimsuit with nude gossamer side inserts and straps. It turned out to be a little obscene, revealing more than I was happy with. Fine for sunbathing but not to stand up in. Though at the price of a coffee (£2.50) it was worth a gamble. Then I spotted a lovely green cotton Louche dress – carrying its original £45 price tag – for a cheery tenner. It was a tad snug, but with the addition of a matching Fat Face teal cotton cardi for £4, it was manageable.

The Cats Protection shop proved to be a winner. A £6.50 blue silk crinkle dress with a built-in cotton cardigan would not have been my usual choice but it made me feel quite regal. I also picked up a Slazenger racer-top swimsuit for £2 that I could swim in (one size too big but it didn’t seem to matter); a little green leather shoulder bag big enough for passport, cash, credit cards and lippy, for £1.50; a battered hat for £1 and a blue patterned stretchy beach dress for £3.50 – the label said Emilio Pucci but the fabric told me otherwise. I also couldn’t resist a £4 red flamenco dress with fluttery frills and decided it would be a good choice to go dancing in.

The £6.50 silk dress ‘With its matching cotton cardi, it makes me feel quite regal!’

The Shelter shop was stuffed with clothes and I had to rummage, but I found a Sissy Boy red and black silk smock. It had a missing belt and was reduced to £6, but once I’d unpicked the belt tags it looked just fine. Despite an orange sheer knee-length kaftan (perfect for going from the beach to the bar) claiming to be extra large, it wasn’t, but at a fiver I got it anyway – sizings are not to be trusted. The final purchase was a pale green sequined dress and jacket (pictured above). It was £10 and possibly the most ridiculous buy of the lot, but if you can’t wear sequins in Morocco where can you wear ’em?

My total spend was £54.50, and although many of my bargains weren’t to my usual taste they were all tailored to a specific purpose, which was heat, not scaring the horses or embarrassing my stylish companions who all work in design and retail. While we were away, they judged each outfit on a daily basis. A couple of things didn’t pass muster, namely the flamenco dress – ‘perhaps a little young, darling?’ – but I wore it anyway. The gossamer-inset swimming costume reduced us all to gales of laughter but the green Louche dress, blue crinkle silk and sequined dress and jacket got a double thumbs up.

The £10 sequined dress and jacket ‘When in Morocco, wear a little sparkly number’

I told Amma, the lady who ran the riad where we stayed, of my mission. My French and her English notwithstanding, I managed to deduce that there are street markets similar to car-boot sales in Essaouira and she offered to take the clothes after we had left. I doubt that she would have worn anything I gave her but if she made a bit of money and the clothes were recycled, then my initial plan was complete.

Better still, my now empty suitcase meant that I was able to take home heavy woollen
djellabas for friends and pretty plates for me. As Marie Kondo would say, ‘Small changes transform our lives.’

Maria’s six steps to reaping charity shop gold

  1. You need to be fearless and focused. What are you looking for? It’s always good to have specifics in mind. This doesn’t mean you can’t get sidetracked by some fabulous find – but try to stay on message.
  2. You’ll be boggled by a sea of patterns and it can seem overwhelming. Buying plain is a good rule of thumb for everyday items, although if (like me) you enjoy vintage fabrics, you will soon train your eye to spot the 60s and 70s prints. Sadly a lot of clothes from this era were produced in hideous manmade fibres that will turn you into a dripping, sweating loon in seconds.
  3. Try to search out natural fibres – cotton, linen, wool and silk. Be sure to check for deodorant stains. The more delicate the fabric, the worse they stain. If you are thinking of dyeing something, these are the ideal fabrics. Anything containing polyester means that the dye won’t take.
  4. Unless it’s a designer label, don’t buy anything that needs altering. You will never get round to it and in all probability it will cost three times as much to fix.
  5. Buttons and fastenings can often be changed and upgraded. A vintage cardigan can easily be modernised with gorgeous glass buttons. Also check for broken zips which are expensive and tiresome to replace.
  6. Never ever ask for a discount. The clue is in the word ‘charity’. Items have usually been priced to reflect the condition of the piece.