A person searching through a vintage clothing rack –  perhaps in search of formal clothes!

A Definitive Guide to Second Hand Formal Clothes

Image Description: A person searching through a vintage clothing rack –  perhaps in search of formal clothes!

Ball season – on top of weekly formals, launch events and 21st’s –  is once again upon us in earnest, and for some, this is the first time we’ve ever experienced the glamour (and the price tag) of an Oxford ball.

Oxford balls seem to foster a certain Brideshead Revisted-esque longing in its attendees. The allure, the drama and the seduction of Waugh’s presentation of the dreaming spires seems to coalesce on these nights – or at least in the expectations of those in possession of a ticket. Maybe it’s wishful thinking of £240 well spent, or maybe there really is something of Waugh’s vision of Oxford in the air.

Whatever it may be, balls (and other formal occasions) are expensive hobbies despite the frequent promise of an open bar (double shot cocktails who?). Importantly, they are not only expensive for your personal Monzo account, but also for the environment, especially the outfit.

From a broader perspective, improving accessibility of second hand shopping is also essential for transitioning to a circular economy, in which items such as formal dresses (and the garment workers who produce them) can no longer be treated as disposable. As avid scrollers on Depop, Ebay and Vinted, as well as a former charity shop volunteer (Charlotte), we present you with our hot takes on second hand formal wear as a way to reduce your climate impact, and look great doing it (formal or no formal).

We are by no means experts, merely devoted enthusiasts, and so before diving into the suggestions, we offer a disclaimer: being able to shop second-hand is a privilege that not everyone has access to. Consider the time commitment, financial constraints and lack of plus size clothing options that shopping second hand often entails. On top of this, attending events such as balls, garden parties and formals often requires significant financial commitments, a price not everyone is willing, or able, to pay. Although shopping second hand often provides a cheaper alternative to sourcing clothes on the High Street, this is not universally true and so we encourage you to refrain from lecturing (and judging) others on their consumption habits.

With that being said, onto the suggestions!

  • Oxford Ball Gown Swap and Shop

A staple for shopping (and renting) second-hand in Oxford. Sellers post their available items here multiple times a day, with photos, sizes, and prices. Renting an outfit typically costs between £15-20 a night. We would recommend dropping sellers a message on Facebook a few weeks before an event, or creating a saved folder of future dress options on Facebook to avoid disappointment. There are some great dresses here, and you don’t want to miss out!

  • Let’s Share our Clothes

If you’re looking to borrow a ball dress for free, Let’s Share our Clothes may be your best bet. Typically, people post the items they require (providing photos for inspiration) and hope that someone has what they’re looking for.

Pro tip: We’ve found the more active you are in the group (i.e. offering others to borrow your dresses), the more success you will have!

This group can be hit or miss with item availability, so again, it’s best to post ahead of time.

  • Depop, Vinted and Ebay

The holy trinity of second-hand websites.

Personally, we are Depop girls, but the gentrifying influx of drop shippers and sellers flipping charity shop items for double their price means that we are slowly moving towards Vinted. If you haven’t heard of Vinted, think of it as Depop’s understated younger sister; i.e., less ‘Depop Girlies’ and more ‘shopaholic who is clearing out their closet’. Vinted is also generally much cheaper, doesn’t have a selling fee, and allows clothing swaps! It may seem less user-friendly at first, but persevere, as there are some real gems to be found!

For a first time user, navigating these sites and finding second-hand clothes that you actually like and which fit you can feel daunting, so here are some specific tips to get you started:

  1. If you’re in doubt over the style/fit/colour clothing you want, start with online (or in store) brands that you are familiar with. Find items that you like on the brand website, and for which you know the rough sizing, then search for them second-hand afterwards.
  2. When searching on Depop/Vinted/Ebay, filter for specific sizes, price ranges, and item condition before you start browsing. Use key words such as brand name, specific item name, or type of pattern (for instance: ‘off the shoulder Zara maxi dress’ or ‘black midi dress with slit’). If you can’t find it on one site, try the others!
  3. Have a quick look at seller ratings to determine whether it’s worth buying from them. Anything below 4.5 stars is generally a red flag for scams, although reading the reviews may give you an insight into how trustworthy the seller is.
  4. Look out for drop shipping. Items which are ‘brand new with tags’, take 2-3 weeks to arrive, or seem to have hundreds of reviews despite being called ‘unique’ are almost certainly drop shipped. These are items which have been bought in bulk by the seller from websites such as AliExpress and resold at a significant markup. These will often be poor quality, arrive late, and are incredibly unsustainable.
  5. Message the seller. Ask for estimated postage time, whether they do returns, or if an item is true to size. Formal outfits can often be a significant investment, so don’t be ashamed to pester a seller to understand if it will work for you (you could even try and haggle the price down a bit!).
  • Vintage shops in Oxford 

Although few and far between, vintage shopping in Oxford is a somewhat of a mecca for retro gems and one-off pieces. It can also be an experience to say the least, so prepare yourself for a bit of walking, a lot of rummaging, and the occasional opportunity for some bargaining.

  1. Reign Vintage on Cowley road is a London based vintage icon which has branched out to Oxford. It’s a spacious and inviting shop, making it great for beginners, although it can be on the pricier side for certain items. Nonetheless, a noteworthy option and a great springboard into the world of vintage shopping in Oxford.
    A photograph of Reign, a vintage shop in Oxford.
    Image Credit: Photograph taken by Katie Hulett.
  2. Situated on St Clements, Ballroom Emporium is the go to destination for some serious vintage. This establishment has been around since 1984 and specialises in ball gowns and formal wear as well as having an impressive costume department. The Ballroom Emporium is not to be missed when on the hunt for a show stopping ball outfit!
    Emporium, a vintage shop in Oxford.
    Image Credit: Photograph taken by Katie Hulett.
  3. The Unicorn is a treasure trove nestled away on Ship Street and is as piled high with clothes as it looks from the outside. The Unicorn is run by a particularly eccentric lady, so expect erratic opening times, prices based on how much she deems you personally should pay, and much left to be desired in the way of a changing room. All this being said, you will find some of your new absolute favourite clothes in this warren that are more often than not, at a very reasonable price. Like I said, this is an experience that is perhaps not for the faint hearted.

While we hope these recommendations are more than sufficient to get you started on your vintage shopping journey, our Style Team has written a great guide purely dedicated to vintage shopping spots in Oxford and we really recommend you checking it out if this has whetted your appetite for all things retro.

Further Advice: Alterations

Whilst not necessarily a top tip for purchasing second hand clothes, it’s important to consider the possibility that the item you have purchased (using our ultimate guide), might not fit. If this is the case, alterations can be a lifesaver. They generally cost between £10-£20 depending on the changes required, the style of the dress and the materials used. Our top recommendations for formal dress alterations in Oxford are: Bespoke Alterations (Jericho) and Stitch Tailoring (Covered Market) and Wash and Sew (St. Clements).

With the clothes resale market growing at a rate 11 times faster than that of traditional retail, there’s no doubt that sustainable fashion is here to stay. The future of sustainable formal wear in Oxford looks promising. Alongside the rise of resale websites and marketplaces, College run clothes swaps and secondhand sales are becoming evermore commonplace (and provide an excellent way for ball committees to reduce their wider environmental impact!).

Hopefully this guide has inspired you to find your next ball outfit from a sustainable source. After all, nothing looks as good as saving the planet feels.

Image Credit: Joseph Brent via flickr.com.