Words by Michelle Watton, Sue Ryder Vintage (Michelle helps to manage the Sue Ryder’s vintage and retro shops across the country.)

Person photographed is Amy Coulson (Shop Manager for the Sue Ryder shop in Goose Gate, Nottingham.) Photographs by Adam Verity


About a year ago a manager of one of our shops in Bristol told me a story that has stayed with me ever since. She had a green tweed, single-breasted knee-length jacket donated to her shop in Bristol by an elderly lady. Nothing unusual there of course, apart from the jacket in question had been with the woman since 1950. The woman was a keen traveller and had taken the jacket with her on travels around the world to over 30 different countries.

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The lady told the manager how much the jacket meant to her; that she’d become bonded to it as something that reminded her of her journey both literally and as a person. Nearly a lifetime’s worth of experience all blended into the fibres of this one jacket. It must have been a very hard thing to let go.

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It’s a really sweet story, and one that always sticks in my head when I’m working with our dedicated vintage shops around the country. I’ve heard many similar stories about the sentimental value of someone’s donation, but for me this one neatly encapsulates the way in which clothes can carry people’s life stories in them. When you know their true providence they don’t just take on another financial value but an emotional one too. It can be hard to pin point authenticity absolutely, but if the item has a rich background you just can’t help but be swept away in its story.

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It’s obviously not just us who think about clothes in this way. In fact, there seems to be something of a resurgence happening at the moment among people respecting heritage in clothing against the creeping ‘disposable culture’. Journalist and New York Times writer Emily Spivack recently published a book of short personal accounts where people discuss their favourite clothes for the memories they bring back to them. In her own words: “I’m not overly sentimental. Nor am I a hoarder. I just feel a strong connection to the memories that accompany clothing.”

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Recently, some fashion students at Nottingham Trent University also followed a similar theme. Working in partnership with one of our Sue Ryder vintage shops in Nottingham (as featured in the photos!) and our ‘Saved’ brand, they produced items from recycled materials to look into themes around memory and remembering. This was a great idea and especially refreshing to see this gripping the minds of the designers of the future.

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I think that it is exactly this value that can make vintage items so special. They can act like reciprocals for people’s innermost personality traits. A few years ago we had an original 1930s HMV gramophone donated to one of our vintage shops in Reading. It was donated by the son of the woman who originally owned it, who had recently passed away at one of our hospices. He got talking to the shop manager about what it meant to him, what stories it held. He talked about how organised his mother was and joked that it probably still had the instructions inside the case. He painted a vivid picture of his mum and what she meant to him. Before he left they opened up the gramophone and there, low-and-behold, were the original instructions.

Beyond the charm of the memory of clothing, there is also another practical benefit to knowing the providence of an item of clothing in that it can be more accurately priced. Sue Ryder is primarily a care charity and so the money raised from our shops goes towards providing care in our hospices and neurological centres around the country. We are therefore keen to generate as much money as is appropriate from our shops in order to provide the best care possible. (The gramophone mentioned above sold for £250 within the hour of being donated!)

This can be a challenge, as some still perceive a charity shop as being a well-organised car-boot sale where everything should be sold at rock bottom prices, whereas the truth is that they have moved on and now operate as a competitive shop on the high street would by looking to build a loyal customer base and generate a profit, albeit with still very low prices of course! We certainly have many regulars at our vintage shops and demand for items on our eBay shop is growing too.

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I find it quite a funny that, in a way, the whole charity relates to memory in some way. Whether it’s the beautiful clothes in our vintage and retro shops, helping families deal with the grief of a loved one or working with people with dementia, all our work has an element of remembering and story-telling to it, and I think that’s a quite unique and brilliant charm which sets us apart!

Lisa Harrison
Written by Lisa Harrison
Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!