“I’ve been trying to make my baby daughter’s vests bigger by stretching them while wet,” Carly Smith, a 26-year-old single mother of three, explains. “I can’t afford new clothes, so she’s just been wearing a nappy in the pram.” Her 11-year-old son had to return to school in home clothes, having grown out of his uniform, and is now wearing his grandfather’s T-shirts. “I’ll be honest, it’s embarrassing,” she says.
Before Covid, Smith (not her real name) had been given credit to buy clothing when she needed it by a kind shopkeeper, but the shop closed down during the pandemic. What’s more, Smith – a domestic violence victim – was forced to move home and leave her support network (and hand-me-downs supply) when her abusive ex-partner was released early from prison.
She is not alone. Clothing poverty has been significantly worsened by Covid, says Louise Cooke, CEO and founder of the charity Sharewear, Britain’s largest provider of free clothing and bedding to the economically vulnerable. “We heard from a school where a child, whose parents both lost their jobs in the pandemic, turned up in swimming trunks because that was all he could fit into,” Cooke says. “We’ve seen babies born into financial circumstances where the parents can’t afford to dress them; sofa surfers ‘paying’ their mates for their sofa with clothes because they have no cash; and an increase in domestic violence victims fleeing their homes with only the clothes on their back.”
While there is no nationwide data on clothing poverty, Sharewear reports a 33% increase in annual demand since last April at its flagship clothes bank in Nottingham (it opened a second centre in Sheffield in January, and also has a children’s centre in Nottingham). “And the number of people we’ve supported through outreach has rocketed,” Cooke says. During the pandemic it has made bulk deliveries to London, the Rhondda Valley, Hull, Wakefield, Brigg, Lincoln, Scunthorpe and Derby.
“The problem is that if you don’t have decent clothing, you can’t access the services that will help you,” Cooke says. “Your mental health can spiral out of control.” There are subtler consequences, too, she says, such as societal judgment and the impact on self-respect: “People can’t tell whether you’ve eaten, but they can tell what you’re wearing.”
Smith found her family was caught in a vicious cycle, and would hide indoors out of shame. Even her 11-year-old felt it: “Because he felt embarrassed of his clothes and trainers, he would stay in, then he drastically put on weight and grew out of his clothes.”
There is also the possibility of a virtuous cycle: the Sharewear experience is intended to feel like clothes shopping, offering the “dignity of choice”, with rails and rails of styles. “Let’s face it,” Smith says. “Having the right clothes makes you feel like you can take on the world.”
Although the stock is mostly used, Sharewear’s supply has been bolstered by donations of high-street stock unsold in lockdown, which might otherwise go to landfill or be incinerated.
This summer, the organisation is launching a pilot in Derby, where volunteers can start their own community Sharewear. Cooke hopes to create a national network of franchises, by training community groups and supplying them with rails, hangers, storage equipment and clothing.
If Cooke’s forecast is correct, we’ll certainly need more Sharewears – and soon: “I’m convinced we’ve not seen the worst yet,” she says. “Come September, when furlough and the £20 lift in universal credit both end, I think we’ll see mass redundancies.” With no time to compete for funding to open new centres, this is where the community franchises – and the public – can step in: “We’ve timed their launch for this. We’re ready for the surge.”