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20 years of eBay and all I got was a sweetcorn-shaped tea set

Ebay is my Westfield, my diary, my time-killer, my downfall, and it’s 20 years old today. I first signed up when I was 16 years old, I had to verify using my dad’s credit card, hence every parcel I receive today still being addressed to Malcolm. I started small, with a pair of tortoiseshell cat-eye sunglasses. I still remember the way it felt when they arrived, the handwritten Jiffy bag, the pennies they cost, the sense that, if I went deep enough into this brand-new internet, somewhere around the world somebody was waiting to sell me a perfect life, only lightly soiled.

Through my eBay purchase history I can chart the story of me. The teenage searches for videos unavailable in the UK, and their subsequent disappointments, teaching me the limits of art, the thrill of the chase, and the agony of an un-budgeted-for £6 tax at the post office. The attempts to track down a very specific piece of Chanel costume jewellery, followed by my boyfriend’s presentation, on my birthday, of a delicate replica of the bracelet he had made himself, the realisation of “shit, this is serious”. And then, throughout my 20s, the vintage dresses, the weight of which, if laid end to end, would reach all the way back to 1930.

It’s here that eBay stopped working for me, and I started working for eBay. As vintage shops died around us, I began buying all my clothes from sellers in Canada and LA. But, just as often as a perfect dress would arrive, another wouldn’t stretch over my hips, or would smell like fresh death. So off I went, back to eBay, where I’d relist the 60s “wiggle dress”, or 40s “landgirl smock” (these descriptions live only in the fashion-less world of the online seller; it’s frightening how quickly you assimilate) and end up not only poorer, but more naked than before.

Ebay gave me moths. Ebay gave me style. Ebay gave me an unasked-for insight into the way women sweat. And in my purchase history, in amongst the dresses – the navy crepe Ossie Clarke I spilt an egg down, the black sweater that makes my tits look like battleships, the Moschino that inspired a Marie Kondo wardrobe purge – are the small crystals of adulthood that prove I made it to my thirties.

Here is the Peter Hvidt sofa we hauled with us when we moved to the suburbs, and the cardboard packing boxes that were a mistake to buy. Here is the teak extending table, for aspirational dinner parties in very small rooms. Here are the 1950s bookshelves, here is the Portuguese pottery that arrives ready-cracked. Here is the copy of The Paperbag Princess I bought for our goddaughter, which, when it arrived in Ramsgate turned out to be the size of a postage stamp. They didn’t tell me that. And here, in 2014 and varying shades of love and pain, are the baby Osh Kosh dungarees, the miniature cowboy costume, the black Baby Bjorn, the Ameda breast pump. A tea-set in the shape of sweetcorn I accidentally buy-it-now-ed at 4am, nursing and mad. It sits on top of the computer, a warning.

If eBay is 20, then I, I am old. But, scrolling back through my purchases, I see I’ve used my time living well. Even though they’ve been tested by previous owners, buying old things hasn’t made me grow up. But it has helped.

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