It is now a well-circulated fact that the fashion industry is the world’s second biggest polluter after oil. Unsurprisingly, this has shocked many consumers into the pursuit of a more sustainable way of dressing. As a result, the second-hand clothing trade has embraced – for better or for worse – a surge in popularity.
Second-hand shopping in charity and vintage shops, and on eBay and apps like Depop, has become not only a sustainable way to dress but also a way to express individuality against the mainstream current of mass-produced fast fashion. Second-hand clothing is often conceptualised as something both antique and unique. It is easy to imagine, then, that second-hand clothing shops are a modern invention, a response to modern anxieties about sustainability and individuality.
The second-hand clothing trade, however, has existed quietly for centuries.
In 1700, second-hand clothing stalls were scattered across London, in both the East and West End. They existed mainly to clothe the poor but also benefitted the emerging middle classes.
Second-hand clothing dealers in this period were usually skilled tailors, and the business was considered both respectable and profitable. Merchandise was often sourced from servants who transported their wealthy employers’ discarded clothing to the markets to sell. For them, there was more merit in making a profit from a gifted item of clothing than wearing what would be considered socially inappropriate. These upper-class fashions would be repurchased and worn by the urban merchant class, much to the dismay of contemporary commentators.
While the second-hand trade flourished throughout the eighteenth century, industrialisation in the nineteenth century made new clothes more affordable and thus caused a relative decline in the second-hand clothing trade. However, second-hand trade remained a central way for the poor to buy clothing, and it was at this point that it became associated solely with poverty.
The stigma surrounding the second-hand has been memorialised in the writings of Charles Dickens. In 1836, he reflected with horror on the second-hand clothing market in Monmouth Street:
… To walk among these extensive groves of the illustrious dead, and to indulge in the speculations to which they give rise; now fitting a deceased coat, then a dead pair of trousers, and anon the mortal remains of a gaudy waistcoat …
The second-hand clothing trade became a ‘burial place of fashions.’
The rich history of the second-hand clothing trade has largely been forgotten by scholars and curators. Indeed, as Madeleine Ginsburg pointed out: ‘the staples of the nineteenth-century second-hand clothing trade are most of the items missing from most museum collections.’ By the time the ‘history from below’ approach to museum curation became popular in the 1970s, the second-hand clothes for the poor sold on market stalls had long disintegrated.
Dickens’ contemplation of the deathliness that surrounds second-hand clothing remains something Western society still negotiates with today. Second-hand clothes are perceived as dirty, and in them is the lingering sense of another unknown body – indeed, we must give our purchases from charity shops a good wash before we wear them.
Some second-hand business owners still choose to accentuate the fact they are ‘pre-owned’ (many businesses prefer to use this term to second-hand). In an interview with i-D Magazine, Hokkiee, the owner of the cult vintage shop Zen Source Clothing in Tokyo, expressed his effort to make the interior ‘really feel like somebody’s personal closet’.
Similarly, The Grotesque Archive, a Berlin-based vintage shop on Depop, collects grotesque and uncanny second-hand designer pieces, capitalising on a strange, deathly aura only second-hand clothing can capture.
Much like its eighteenth century counterpart, second-hand clothing today is a profitable business. Twenty-first century vintage shops are fashionable and innovative, and often marketed towards a trendy, environmentally conscious, and affluent consumer. It goes without saying that those who are able and can afford to shop sustainably should. However, as increasing popularity in second-hand clothes drives up the prices in charity shops, perhaps we should keep in mind the second-hand stalls of past-centuries: primarily an affordable (and sustainable) way of clothes-shopping for those who could not afford the alternative.
By Kathryn Reed
Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe, Second-Hand Cultures (London, 2003).
Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2013).
Madeleine Ginsburg, ‘Rags to Riches: The Second-Hand Clothes Trade 1700–1978’, Costume 14 1 (1980), pp. 121-135.
Eilidh Duffy, ‘The Grotesque Archive Is the Vintage Shop Harnessing the Power of Depop’, Another Magazine, https://www.anothermag.com/fashion-beauty/12953/the-grotesque-archive-is-the-vintage-shop-harnessing-the-power-of-depop
Eilidh Duffy, ‘Inside the best cult vintage stores: Zen Source Clothing’, i-D, https://id.vice.com/en_uk/article/jgxvvk/inside-artifact-new-york-fashions-most-exclusive-designer-archive