“I wear your granddad’s clothes, damn right
I look incredible, now come on, man
I’m in this big ass coat
From that thrift shop down the road. Let’s go” – Macklemore, Thrift shop, 2013.
Macklemore sings about it, and the evolution of fashion and counterculture trends continue to keep the lyrics alive, ensuring that thrifting remains a cultural phenomenon.
The carefully-constructed materials we use to cover our bodies are not just commodities. This is evident in the fact that after months, years or decades of wears, the possibility remains to still get something out of the well-served item of clothing, and I’m not talking about more wears (or perhaps you’ll get that too if you’re lucky).
While the concept of thrift culture has existed for centuries, it has not always been given the most welcome reception in Western society. In fact, before the 20th century, the notion of wearing other people’s old clothes was frowned upon, regarded with disgust and reserved for the poorest of the poor. Thrift shops around the time of anti-Semitic ideology were also predominantly associated with Jewish-owned pawn shops, further adding dark spots to their stigma.
However, this all started to change in the 20th century, when an increased interest in philanthropy coupled with the looming economic recession lead to an increase in the exchange of second-hand clothes.
Christian organisations started incorporating the sale of second-hand goods into their outreach projects and even commissioned the unemployed to sell these used goods, creating employment opportunities and providing a place for thrift shops to thrive in the economic sector. The Christians and philanthropists of the early twentieth century also played an important role in shifting the perceptions of thrift goods as their presence created a somewhat neutral stance on thrift culture in response to the associations reinforced by anti-Semitism.
The emergence of countercultures such as the iconic 60’s hippy movement and 90’s grunge and fashion trends including vintage nostalgia and hipster culture, all made valuable contributions to eradicating stigmas surrounding second-hand clothing and creating a market wherein thrift culture continues to thrive. Even today, thrift shopping is founded not only out of necessity but feeds a large part of Western contemporary popular culture.
Mainstream music scenes such as indie-rock, hip-hop and rap also pay tribute to this culture by making reference to thrifting in songs as well as adopting a curated thrift style as a fashion aesthetic. In his 2013 hit single Thrift Shop, Rap artist Macklemore perfectly describes the thrift phenomenon and the kick out of getting good quality clothes for a quarter of the price:
“Coppin’ it, washin’ it, ’bout to go and get some compliments/ Passin’ up on those moccasins someone else’s been walkin’ in/ I’m gonna pop some tags/ Only got twenty dollars in my pocket,”
he sings, echoing the largely felt sentiments regarding thrift fashion in contemporary popular culture.
I still remember my first encounter with what I at the time, considered to be a strange phenomenon that despite its obvious drawing cards, still sat a bit uneasy with me.
This whole notion of wearing somebody else’s clothes took a while to get past. “Just make sure you wash it before you wear it,” my mother warned when, as a recently-released-from-home first year, I first revealed to her my latest antics.
Surprisingly enough, I can’t remember the exact item that finally won me over, made me bag it and bring it home and come to terms with this concept enough to phone home and tell my mother about how my monthly allowance was obviously not enough to afford new clothes so I was forced to wear other people’s old ones.
If only that were the simple truth, but alas, the case was slightly more complicated. After growing up in a household where hand-me-downs to younger relatives was the only thing that happened to old clothing, it took a total paradigm shift to eagerly and willingly not only wear old clothes but pay money for them.
A Valentino silk blouse that I bought for R70 from the local Grahamstown thrift store finally won mother onto the thrift bandwagon. When winter came, she was asking me to look out for wool coats: “I’m not paying R1000 for the acrylic or polyester ones they selling in the shops,” she complained.
That was second year. By then, I had already gained a year’s worth experience in selling half my wardrobe and restocking the empty space with authentic thrift finds that could not be traced back to the limited number of chain clothing stores Grahamstown doesn’t even bother to boast about having because, for an opulent university campus, the variety is a bit below the breadline.
By then I had also overcome any trace of uncertainty about my intentions and moral standing regarding thrift shopping. In short, I was sold on the thrift phenomenon and would proudly inform anyone who complimented or commented on my clothes that “I got it from the Nearly New shop in High Street.”
When I was broke, or I should rather say when I am broke, (because just last week I sold a couple of things on the Second-hand Grahamstown Facebook group) instead of living off noodles—or worst case scenario, water and thin air— I walk over to my wardrobe and reassess which items of clothing I suddenly could live without.
I used to be the biggest hoarder. Spring cleaning was a swear word and when my mother pointed out a dress from two summers ago that I could no longer get into, hinting that perhaps it was time to part with it, I was always ready with a reason why that could never happen. “It holds too many memories,” was my pathetic excuse, and then I would mumble my intentions of immortalizing it into a top or skirt. The pile of old denim at the bottom of my cupboard? Oh, they were awaiting surgery too: their transformation from jeans to shorts, bags, or…the list of inventions is exhaustible. Pinterest is my best friend.
I can safely say thrift shopping (and selling) has saved me from my horrible hoarding habits. My new motto now is: “You can only wear one thing at a time” and “If you haven’t worn it in the last three months, you won’t miss it, so why not make some money off it.” Thrifting has enabled me to not only keep my wardrobe bursting with freshness on a student budget, but it has also helped me find my own personal style by getting creative with my looks.
But that’s not all it’s done. It’s reminded me of the historical and cultural significance of clothes, and how over and above their functionality and ‘fashionableness’, they are a currency. A social currency, an economical currency, and a physical currency. Thrift shops survive because fashion evolves and clothing is and has always been an investment. That’s why a Valentino silk blouse selling for R70 is still a totally insane bargain twenty-something years later, and why wool coats are still worth an investment even if they’ve come off the back of a seventy-something-year-old lady.
Fashion may fade, but there are certain styles that are timeless. And for all the faded fashions that do find their flame again, and all the people and styles that don’t follow mainstream trends, that’s where thrift shops serve their purpose.
Clothes as currency is a blog series that seeks to capture the beauty, authenticity and unique function of thrifting as a cultural phenomenon. If you’re a fellow thrifter I hope you’ll enjoy it and be able to relate. And if you, like my former self, are a bit apprehensive about the whole thing and you’re still stuck on the paradox in my statement two paragraphs up— questioning the validity of how ‘updated’ and ‘fresh’ my wardrobe really is if I’m buying old clothes I hear you too. But I’m hoping this series will change your mind, or at the very least, win over some of your respect for the phenomenon that is thrift shopping.
In the meantime, I’m going to go “pop some tags,” if anyone wants to join me?