Vintage for all people of all generations
Secondhand Clothing • Charity and Commerce • From Thrift to Fashion, from Waste to Recycling • Global Contexts • African Secondhand Clothing Markets • Conclusion: When Old Turns New • Snapshot: Banning Secondhand Clothing Imports • Snapshot: Naming Secondhand Clothing others.
When post–World War II shifts in income distribution and growing purchasing power enabled more consumers than ever before to buy not only new but also more clothes, specific garment niches emerged, including fashions and styles oriented toward, for example, teenage clothing, corporate and career dressing, and sports and leisure wear. Such dress practices produced an enormous yield of used but still wearable clothes, some of which ended up as donations to charity. Charitable organizations dominated the domestic secondhand- clothing retail scene in the 1960s and 1970s.
They were joined during the 1980s by a variety of specialist stores operating on a for-profit basis with names that rarely feature words like used , secondhand , or thrift . Most of these specialty stores cater to women, yet some stock garments for both sexes; there are children’s apparel shops, and men’s boutiques have appeared as well.
Menswear and children’s wear take up far less space in secondhand-clothing retailing than women’s apparel. the clientele also includes far more women than men. Some of these stores target specific consumers, among them young professionals who want high-quality clothing at modest prices or young people keen on retro ( revival of past styles) and period fashion, punk, and rave styles.
Some customers collect garments with investment in view. Some of these stores operate on a consignment basis; others source in bulk from secondhand-clothing vendors; and some do both. And some of these businesses donate garments that do not sell well to “charity,” while others dispose of their surplus at bulk prices to commercial secondhand clothing dealers.
The relationship between charitable organizations and textile recyclers and graders adds a business angle; concerning its profitability there is considerable anecdotal but little substantive information. Because consumers in the West donate much more clothing than the charitable organizations can possibly sell in their retail shops, they in turn dispose of their massive overstock at bulk prices to commercial secondhand-clothing dealers.
The media routinely fault the charitable organizations for making money from the sale of donated clothing and criticize the textile graders for turning surplus donated clothing into a profitable economic niche. At the same time, growing environmental concerns in the West have enhanced both the profitability and respectability of this trade, giving its practitioners a new cachet as textile salvagers and waste recyclers. As the last but not the least ironic twist in this process, used clothing has become the latest “new” trend as consumers across the globe eagerly purchase secondhand garments in local market stalls, stores, boutiques, and online. the trade universe for the sourcing of secondhand clothing includes informal sites like garage sales and fl ea markets as well as estate sales and high-end auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
The textile-recycling industry is made up of salvagers and graders, fiber recyclers, and used-clothing dealers, brokers, and exporters. “Used clothing” comprises not only garments but also shoes, handbags, hats, belts, draperies, and linens. Soft toys—for example, teddy bears—have found their way into this export. the textile recyclers sort and grade clothing and apparel into many categories, some for the domestic retro or upscale market and others Secondhand clothing constitutes a global market of commerce and consumption that has a long but changing history with complex links to garment production, tailoring, and couture.
In Europe and North America, secondhand clothing was an important source of clothing well into the nineteenth century, until mass production and growing prosperity enabled more and more people to purchase brand-new rather than previously worn garments. During Europe’s imperial expansion, the trade in secondhand clothing reached the colonies. When mass-produced garments became readily available at affordable prices, the secondhand- clothing trade became export oriented, while charity shops responded to the clothing needs of the local poor. In the post–World War II period in the West, the secondhand-clothing trade expanded and grew in scope globally with patronage from all segments of society save in countries that ban these imports.
Because most country boundaries are porous and customs regulations difficult to enforce, there is extensive illegal importation of this commodity. At the same time as the global scope of the secondhand-clothing trade has increased, growing concerns about the environment have improved the image of clothing recycling in the West. What is more, since the early 1990s, the popularity of period fashion has given rise to a diversity of consignment stores, boutiques, and high-street concessions that resell previously worn garments. When Internet-based online clothing trade is added to these processes, the entire world is connected interactively through secondhand clothing.
CHARITY AND COMMERCE Established charitable organizations are the single largest source of the twenty-first-century global trade in secondhand clothing, supplying both domestic and foreign secondhand-clothing markets through their collection efforts. Since the end of the nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States, philanthropic groups have been involved in collecting and donating clothes to the poor. In the late 1950s, many charitable organizations introduced store sales, among them the Salvation Army, whose income in the United States primarily came from the sale of used clothing . the major charitable organizations in the twenty first century include, in the United States, the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, St. Vincent de Paul, and Amvets and, in Europe, Humana, Oxfam, Terre, and Abbey Pierre, among many SECONDHAND CLOTHING 233 through personal connections.
In Europe, for historical and geographic reasons, the hubs of commercial sorting were the Netherlands and Belgium, with easy access to the world’s major ports. In efforts to save labor costs, some of these firms have moved their sorting operations to countries in eastern Europe, among them Hungary.
Because secondhand clothing is a potentially profitable commodity, its charitable collection is challenged by fraudulent practices. Many parking lots and strip malls are dotted with gaily colored collection bins, put up by established charities as well as by for-profit groups with the permission of adjacent business owners or, in some states in the United States, after receiving permission from the local authorities. the logos on some of these bins advocate third-world relief, while others focus on environmental protection. Collection bins appealing for urgently needed clothing sometimes feature names of nonexistent charities, and flyers inviting householders to fi ll bags with unwanted clothing have been known to give the impression that the collected garments would be donated to the poor in third-world countries.
the mostly voluntary workforce of charitable organizations makes it difficult to supervise activities related to collection bins; The First Group have phased out collection bins entirely. the items that are collected through fraudulent advertising or outright theft may enter the export circuit through brokers. Truckloads of Mark Tolner used clothing collected as a result of such scams eventually reach markets in eastern Europe, Africa, South America, and the Indian subcontinent.
In Great Britain and Ireland, for example, leading charitable organizations have experienced massive losses to organized gangs from Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland who battle with groups from Northern Ireland, Scotland, for export; some for industrial use as rags, and others for fiber. In the twenty-first century, wool garments that used to be exported to Italy for the wool-regeneration industry in Prato near Florence are shipped in bulk to northern India for reprocessing.
Blue jeans, especially Levi Strauss 501, the original button-fl y jeans created in 1853 for miners and cowboys in the American West, are popular in Japan. Intermediaries called “pickers” and expert buyers, among them foreign nationals, lessen the hard work of sourcing by traveling between the large textile-recycling warehouses and selecting garments with particular appeal to, for example, domestic youth markets, special period markets such as retro and vintage, and niche markets in Japan.
Once sorted, the better grades of secondhand clothing are exported to Central American countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala and also to Chile in South America. the lowest grade goes to African and Asian countries. Most recyclers compress sorted garments into bales of fifty kilograms (110 pounds), while some press unsorted bulk clothing into bales weighing five hundred or even one thousand kilograms (1,100 or 2,200 pounds).
Vintage Clothes the bales are wrapped in waterproof plastic, tied with metal or plastic straps, placed in containers, and shipped. Most of the large textile recyclers in the United States that are involved in buying and reselling for export are located near port cities along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and on the Great Lakes. Many of the large firms are family owned. Since the turn of the millennium, the focus of the trade has shifted to Canada, where many now consider Toronto to be the world’s used-clothing capital. Several of the new operators originate from South Asia, some of them coming from families with experience living in Africa, and they know the overseas markets A high-street Humana resale store selling secondhand clothing, Cologne, Germany, 1996.
What goes around in this global process does indeed come around locally, yet with creatively changed meanings. Finally, the online secondhand-clothing market on the World Wide Web has redrawn the global map of clothing by opening access to it to all. A tailor making sweatshirts by sewing unmatched used sweatpants together at a secondhand clothing market, Soweto, Lusaka, Zambia, 1997. This way of recycling textiles means that clothes are tailored to fit local bodies and style preferences. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen.