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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 secondhandclothing 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 flea 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

econdhand 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.


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 twentyfirst 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

In Great Britain and Ireland.100 or 2. Cologne. some of them coming from families with experience living in Africa. the original button-fly jeans created in 1853 for miners and cowboys in the American West. lessen the hard work of sourcing by traveling between the large textile-recycling warehouses and selecting garments with particular appeal to. Blue jeans. therefore. Truckloads of used clothing collected as a result of such scams eventually reach markets in eastern Europe. are popular in Japan. Africa. Intermediaries called “pickers” and expert buyers. The logos on some of these bins advocate third-world relief. In efforts to save labor costs. and niche markets in Japan. for example. Many of the large firms are family owned. In Europe. Once sorted. the focus of the trade has shifted to Canada. South America. Scotland. 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.SECONDHAND CLOTHING for export. for example. placed in containers. for historical and geographic reasons. Honduras. The lowest grade goes to African and Asian countries. A high-street Humana resale store selling secondhand clothing. Many parking lots and strip malls are dotted with gaily colored collection bins. The mostly voluntary workforce of charitable organizations makes it difficult to supervise activities related to collection bins. 1996. and they know the overseas markets 233 through personal connections. some of these firms have moved their sorting operations to countries in eastern Europe. and the Indian subcontinent. Collection bins appealing for urgently needed clothing sometimes feature names of nonexistent charities. where many now consider Toronto to be the world’s used-clothing capital. domestic youth markets. In the twenty-first century. Because secondhand clothing is a potentially profitable commodity.200 pounds). . some for industrial use as rags. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. its charitable collection is challenged by fraudulent practices. among them foreign nationals. while others focus on environmental protection. with easy access to the world’s major ports. 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. after receiving permission from the local authorities. and flyers inviting householders to fill 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. and Poland who battle with groups from Northern Ireland. The bales are wrapped in waterproof plastic. 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. and others for fiber. among them Hungary. the better grades of secondhand clothing are exported to Central American countries such as Costa Rica. the hubs of commercial sorting were the Netherlands and Belgium. some of them have phased out collection bins entirely. The items that are collected through fraudulent advertising or outright theft may enter the export circuit through brokers. Lithuania. Germany. special period markets such as retro and vintage. and shipped. in some states in the United States. put up by established charities as well as by for-profit groups with the permission of adjacent business owners or. especially Levi Strauss 501. leading charitable organizations have experienced massive losses to organized gangs from Latvia. tied with metal or plastic straps. Several of the new operators originate from South Asia. and Guatemala and also to Chile in South America. Since the turn of the millennium. Humana is a nongovernmental agency (NGO) with headquarters in Denmark.

234 FASHION WORLDWIDE for garments that make a fashion statement. and many others have been spotted in vintage couture at red-carpet events that draw both media and widespread public attention to dress. This retro style attributes history and authenticity to garments that wearers experience as unique and personal. growing consumer concerns with self-styled uniqueness and rising preoccupations with recycling in the West have complicated the longstanding association between secondhand clothing and thrift. At the Oscar Awards ceremony in 2001. Other customers search for period dress or costumes for decade-specific parties. Kirsten Dunst. The Bemba term salaula means “selecting from a pile by rummaging. Vintage has different meanings for everyone. Reese Witherspoon. And the clientele tends to differ. the bargain. vintage means clothes from the 1930s and 1940s. who dress in garments from the 1960s or make their own clothes constructed from old patterns. browse. Top celebrities wear vintage. The world of secondhand clothing has become a flourishing fashion scene. The range of previously used dress options has expanded as thrift has become associated with charity and period clothing with an assortment of apparel in which “real” vintage dates to before the 1970s. and upwardly mobile consumers are purchasing it as an investment as the auctions of garments owned by Princess Diana and Jacqueline Kennedy and England for control of the market in secondhand clothes stolen from charity bins. Nicole Kidman. for example. memorabilia. Style-conscious shoppers rummage. many of these stores combine vintage and modern garments with retro appliances. The quality of the merchandise varies with the selling environment and the ambience. Zambia. and the clientele varies widely in the twenty-first century. since the turn of the millennium. college students purchase items for themed events. In twenty-firstcentury Germany. Secondhand-clothing shopping offers the thrill of the chase. Teenage shoppers are attracted to vintage because it adds glamour to their everyday wardrobe and shopping at vintage stores offers an experience of playing dress-up. These developments have been accompanied by the emergence of specialized points of purchase. high-street shops are copying it. For a baby boomer. Such stores are both about the shopping experience and about finding unusual pre-owned apparel. Offering a mixture of old and new. and furniture. dance marathons. 1992. . the 1960s-style scene of movies. accessories. and material culture is popular with young people. FROM THRIFT TO FASHION. music. thanks in part to rich and famous people who have worn vintage garments at celebrity events. FROM WASTE TO RECYCLING Toward the end of the twentieth century. and garments hung on racks loosely classified by type. Julia Roberts wore a vintage Valentino dress. among them. Many thrift stores have a warehouse feel and are crowded with clothing. whereas for the twenty-first-century high-school cohort. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. and the pleasure of making a find or discovery. and look for clothes in various places with dedication and zeal. Teenage shoppers who do not actually need clothing search such racks Women choosing garments from a pile at Soweto Market in Lusaka. In fact. used clothing has drawn a bigger spotlight than ever—not as secondhand but as vintage. vintage garments are from the 1970s and 1980s. The interiors of many consignment stores and upscale resale boutiques are strategically designed with visual stimulation and dazzling displays to create a fun and eclectic ambience.” and the quality of these secondhand imports surpasses garments imported from China.

and turning used clothing into something else by means of embellishment. patchwork. for example. Infants outgrow their clothes quickly. trade in it has grown in the wake of the opening up of the economy in the mid-1980s. On eBay.SECONDHAND CLOTHING demonstrate. 20. reducing or temporarily postponing environmental degradation. receiving close to 26 percent of total world exports in 2004. while in Paris. 235 including the purchase of fair trade products. Also in Paris. customizing makes them fit. Several trends converge in contemporary preoccupations with clothing recycling. they draw connections between people and clothes that constantly change. imported about 25 percent of the total of secondhand clothing traded. the global online marketplace. When retailers. since the early 1990s. Germany. limited-edition branded items appear on auction sites. Such positions may be enmeshed with other forms of provisioning practices. such as India and Pakistan. And because most garments offered for sale at eBay end up being purchased. that. Europe. While the recycling of clothing constitutes a creative component of the work of some fashion designers. Whatever the occasion. Secondhand clothing only recently became readily available. this trade circulates through channels that are rooted in local cultural traditions and guided by notions of personalized contacts that women traders make use of in their business activities. some consumer groups have returned to thrifting but with a twist. whereas in many thirdworld countries. vendors. The United States is the world’s largest exporter in terms of both volume and value. For one. The global secondhand-clothing trade shows some striking trends. and some possess skills to effect transformations by taking apart. Such accounts domesticate the logic of the market and the meaning of this global commodity in terms of local norms of status and value. GLOBAL CONTEXTS The secondhand clothing trade has expanded hugely in both its economic power and global scope. traders and consumers refashion this imported commodity to serve their personal and community identities. a town in northern Luzon. Cambodia. for example. including eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. auction sites. 120–121). which all import and reexport this commodity. secondhand clothing makes up a specialty or niche market in much of the West. Eco-conscious parents. the Internet. The development of the World Wide Web has enhanced the secondhand-clothing market. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa are the world’s largest secondhand-clothing destination. and trim. are themselves textile and garment exporters. 120–121). Changing from pursuing bargain hunting to a “green” position. Mali-born avant-garde designer Lamine Kouyaté has taken a couture-like approach to recovered clothes in his designer label Xuly-Bët. they transform them. eBay customers have access to designer items that may not even be available where they live. which makes high-end clothing affordable. so returning such garments to consignment shops reduces their environmental impact even further. What is more. 2006. Last but not least. almost the same amount as Africa (United Nations 1996. In Ifugao. Singapore. when taken together. and specific Web-based sites have expanded the previously worn clothing business vastly. Many large importers of secondhand clothing in South Asia. Sizable exports are destined for Japan.and quota-free provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Roland Simmons incorporated what the French colloquially call fripes (from friperie. the 1970s revival and thrift-shop style” (Menkes 1993). reshaping. sellers receive a larger part of the profit from eBay transactions than they do in most consignment stores. Malaysia. India. and Pakistan (in this order) are large net importers. In the twenty-first century. some consumers concerned with sustainability focus on the recycling aspect of the trade. The blending of fashion with celebrity obsession is evident also at VIP events that raise money to support selected charities through the sale of tickets and designer clothes donated by socialites. more than doubling worldwide between 1991 and 2004. may seek out secondhand items made from conventionally grown cotton for their infants because frequent washing has removed the pesticides. Combining secondhand garments into styles that display knowledge of wider clothing practices or subvert their received meaning. among many other practices. consumers are able to buy just about anything at auction or through fixed-price arrangements. Other large importers include Tunisia in North Africa and Guatemala in Central America. and the Netherlands (United Nations 1996. 20. and repair extends the life span of used clothing whereas a variety of transformations give it new leases on life. Quality. in the process. buttons. people who are keen on style purchase used designer labels as they do all secondhand garments. alteration personalizes garments.and garmentmanufacturing firms that export to the United States under the duty. because they follow their own tastes and like to purchase something that is unique. who in his Paris studio showcased the recycling of clothes by giving them new life. and the Netherlands. especially its designer-trading aspect. In effect. established designers such as Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons in Paris and Dolce & Gabbana in Milan have featured garments that look recycled on the fashion runway. Hard-to-come-by. represent an ethical rather than merely a prorecycling consumption position. and consumers talk about secondhand clothing. . Kenya and Uganda: Both are large importers of secondhand clothing but have textile. Then there is Martin Margiela. BelgiumLuxembourg. in the wake of the liberalization of many third-world economies and following the sudden rise in demand from former Eastern Bloc countries in the early 1990s. known as “fashion’s founding father of recycling. secondhand clothing imported from the West is an important clothing source. the secondhand-clothing trade keeps garments out of landfills. deconstructing them into reconfigured one-of-a-kind garments. where Japan. which puts an interesting spin on arguments about the negative effects of used-clothing imports on domestic textile and garment industries. This is also the case for some African countries. meaning “used clothing”) among the designer labels in his boutique. illegally shipped to Philippine ports or arriving via Hong Kong. most certainly before they wear them out. Although the Philippines bans the import of secondhand clothing. In fact. followed in 2004 by the United Kingdom.and style-savvy consumers recognize the potential that may not be immediately apparent in garments. concerns about the disposal of excess clothing are limited. In fact. Close to 20 percent of world exports in 2004 went to Asia. The export does not target the third world exclusively. in 2004. 2006. Shopping from home for gently used or pre-owned quality garments.

Imported “mutilated” fabrics are sorted into color ranges. and wool fabrics for local consumption and export in the Indian shoddy industry (the reclamation of fabric fibers). Nigeria. a brisk trade moves this popular commodity across Africa’s highly penetrable borders. Some Indian consumers donate their still-wearable clothing to the poor or barter it for household goods. secondhand clothing has entered a specific niche. In several countries in West Africa. Although people from different socioeconomic groups. and Rwanda before its civil wars have been large importers and active in transshipment and reexport. while the remains of cotton cloth are shipped abroad as industrial wiping rags. then shredded. whether people are Muslim or Christian). these factors inform the cultural norms of dress practice. Other practices involve saris with intricate borders that are transformed into new garments and household items for niche markets in the West. distinct regional dress styles that are the products of long-standing textile crafts in weaving. not only the very poor. Although secondhand-clothing imports are banned in some countries. but also by gender. a trade term for wool garments shredded by machines in the West prior to export. class. In Nigeria and Senegal. for example. Some African countries have at one point or another banned the import of secondhand clothing—for instance. Kenya. In the process. Dress conventions differ throughout the continent. Domestic recycling of Indian clothing also occurs through barter. and region or ethnicity. South Africa. not only in terms of religious norms (for instance. to reappear as threads used for blankets. dyeing. donations. Senegalese and Nigerians commonly follow long-established style . and resale. Taken together. jackets. The North African imports consist largely of men’s work and everyday garments like trousers. and printing coexist in the twenty-first century with dress styles that were introduced during the Colonial period and after. 1993. purchase imported secondhand clothing and use it widely for everyday wear. knitting yarn. hand-me-downs. Some small countries like Benin. influencing what types of garments which people will wear and when. and spun. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. African secondhand- clothing markets undergo changes not only because of the legal rules that guide or prohibit secondhand-clothing imports but also because of civil strife and war. AFRICAN SECONDHAND CLOTHING MARKETS Secondhand-clothing consumption practices in Africa are shaped by the politics that regulate these imports and by distinct regional conventions concerning bodies and dress. secondhand clothing constitutes a much smaller percentage of total garment imports than in sub-Saharan Africa. There is considerable regional variation in Africa’s clothing markets. Zambia. carded. Côte d’Ivoire. which allows import of secondhand clothing only for charitable purposes and not for resale. This recycling of imported and domestic secondhand clothing creates employment at many levels of the Indian economy. and shirts and of children’s clothes. for example. an export supply chain formalizes what began as an informal trade. Togo.236 FASHION WORLDWIDE A vendor selling secondhand men’s shirts at Main Masala Market in Ndola. India prohibits the import of secondhand clothing yet permits the import of woolen fibers called mutilated hosiery. age. and Malawi. In Muslim-dominated North Africa. Some countries have restrictive policies—for example.

search for feggy jaay garments (a Wolof term meaning “shake and sell. they not only cover basic clothing needs but also fulfill desires about bodies dressed in “the latest” as locally defined. much of the printed fabrics are manufactured in China. Secondhand clothing flows from the point of donation in the West through sorting centers for export from where it is shipped by container and arrives by overland transport in Zambia.” a returned transnational migrant. This way of recycling textiles means that clothes are tailored to fit local bodies and style preferences.” the rural migrant. Photograph by Karen Tranberg Hansen. Engaging with local views of fashion trends. Lusaka. and Chinese knockoffs to represent their aspired status: as “Boy Town. the trade in secondhand clothing and textile recycling is lucrative. dress. Young male street vendors in Zambia buy oversized secondhand garments. unsold garments are disposed of in bulk to textile recyclers who sort and grade them. where in fact they may wear out their life. however. Last but not least. the West’s discarded clothing in turn assumes new life as such garments become part of the biographies of their next owners. both new and used. Soweto.” someone who is indigenous to Dakar. in this way navigating their way in the city. and identity. desire confronts emulation. some for the industrial cleaning-rag market and more for the secondhand-clothing export market. Zambia. where such textile crafts hardly existed in the pre-Colonial period and where in the twenty-first century people across the socioeconomic spectrum.” or secondhand clothing). the online secondhand-clothing market on the World Wide Web has redrawn the global map of clothing by opening access to it to all. secondhandclothing practices in Africa involve clothing-conscious consumers in efforts to reconstruct these garments culturally and materially and in the process change their lives for the better. Garments that sit on the rack unsold for too long in the consignment store are either retrieved by their owners or donated to charity—for example. conventions. Because every piece of garment has many potential future lives. Alternatively. except those at the top. shaping both themselves and the urban scene. In secondhand-clothing consumption. in Africa. 1997. Senegal. are dressing in the West’s used clothing. while secondary school students search for items that create a suitable look to signal their upwardly mobile status. Once they have arrived abroad. is a dynamic resource in young people’s identity constructions in Africa’s rapidly growing urban areas. a city rich in historical exchanges with the rest of the world. This stands in contrast to Zambia. some of it locally produced. the rich knowledge youth possess about the specifics of style enables them to read clothing and to identify the position of others. Finally. since the late 1990s. yet with creatively changed meanings. brand-name imports. or the “Venant. “Coming Town. a shelter for the homeless. CONCLUSION: WHEN OLD TURNS NEW The process of recycling clothing never rests. . dressing with pride for purposes of displaying specialty cloth in “African” styles. Youth in Dakar.SECONDHAND CLOTHING 237 A tailor making sweatshirts by sewing unmatched used sweatpants together at a secondhand clothing market. What goes around in this global process does indeed come around locally. Far from emulating the West’s fashions. distribution and consumption practices incorporate secondhand clothes as desirable apparel into a gendered dress universe that is informed by a local cultural economy of judgment and style. There. for example. appearance. Secondhand clothing provides a dress practice through which people construct gender.