Truthfully, I’m rarely one for New Year’s resolutions and if I ever do commit to making a change, it’ll just so happen to be something which I’m already willing to reduce or eradicate in its entirety. This year, however, I’ve decided to truly revamp my attitude – and wardrobe! – by committing to only buying second-hand clothes.
For the last few years, I have made a concerted effort to buy a maximum of three garments which could be categorised under the term ‘fast-fashion’ a year and thus the goal seems attainable; however, this would invariably creep up to five or so items having fallen for the countless marketing ploys à la Black Friday and during other heavily advertised sale periods.
During the first few months of our MA, we have studied how people are drawn to buying clothes, often not out of necessity, but rather due to numerous social factors. Individuals, quite willingly, can be seduced through the socially acceptable (and usually passive act) of following a trend and statements such as ‘because they’re in fashion’ may be offered as a legitimate explanation for adopting any one of more items of clothing. Indeed, the wearer themselves might not even claim to know why they are wearing any one garment beyond this very reason. Such attitudes can create a unique position whereby those who subscribe to blindly following trends also police others to see who is adhering to any specific trend, passing judgement based on what they see. Furthermore, it is largely accepted that clothing forms a large part of the first impression we make on others; indeed, as a cohort, we each expressed the heightened considerations regarding our outfits and additional pressure placed for the first day of our MA, offering as it did for the majority, the first time meeting one another in person.
Such considerations in fashion – at least for me – evoke the much-quoted and adored cerulean blue scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) quite literally gives Andrea (Andy) Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway) a dressing down after she shows her contempt for the fashion world, claiming to be ‘exempt’ from fashion (fig. 2). Priestly’s speech serves to suggest that Andy’s choice of jumper is the prime example of a trend being spotted at fashion shows and then trickling down to high-street retailers. In other words, people are unable to be removed from fashion and thus (sub)consciously make specific choices and associative statements with what they choose to wear. As philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky writes: ‘With fashion, human beings begin observing each other endlessly, appreciating each other’s looks, evaluating nuances of cut, colour, and pattern in dress.’ Moreover, it is this constant observation that has become all the more heightened through social media, and this is especially true of platforms that focus on the dissemination of images.
Indeed, my resolution to buy ‘nothing new’ relates to this constant observation, and perhaps unsurprisingly as a student of History of Dress, my desire to stand out and communicate specific messages in what I wear. Therefore, for me, buying vintage and second-hand is about making considered purchases, often over a period of a few months or even a year. It presents a new opportunity to literally trawl through vintage shops in the hopes of finding something incredible with expectations that may crumble upon seeing the fifth moth-ridden jumper in a row but can instantly be restored as soon as I’ve spotted the perfect jacket (fig.3 aka the dream jacket). Buying second-hand and vintage can certainly be a frustrating process, too, such as when an item you’ve been eyeing up is no longer available; or, the gut-wrenching moment when someone outbids you on an eBay listing in that *last* second, coupled with the misplaced confidence in thinking you were the only one who was going to bid on the item.
Moreover, where possible, I love reaching out to the buyer to see if they can offer any anecdotal information surrounding the garment to construct a complete mental image and history, ‘revealing the wearer’s identity, character or physiognomy,’ as analysed by Kitty Hauser. Without a doubt, one of my favourite vintage purchases included a beautiful hand-written note from its previous owner which outlined how treasured it had been, but also how it ‘will have another chapter in its fashion life’ which I think perfectly sums up the special feeling one might have when buying something second-hand.
Recently, I’ve found that compliments relating to clothes between friends and strangers alike are more increasingly being met with the following explanations: ‘It’s vintage’; ‘I’ve had it for [insert length of time]’; and, ‘I got it from a charity shop for a fiver’. Each of these explanations suggests a new way of justifying past and present purchases as individuals are becoming abundantly aware of the environmental implications of their purchases and want to alleviate guilt or the notion of being ‘part of the problem’. However, it also creates an issue that goes against the very origins of the second-hand clothes market, dating back to the 1700s, which was set up to help people purchase clothes at more affordable prices, something that Barbra Streisand’s Second Hand Rose notes as rendering it less desirable, an attitude which has greatly changed in recent years (fig. 4). Today’s appetite for vintage pieces can see prices skyrocket as specific eras and garments are (re)interpreted as trendy, once again creating the issue of affordability which has long defined – and plagued – the fashion industry.
THE NEED TO ACT
Recent conferences such as COP26 have put pressure on the need to truly change our consumer habits, particularly as statistics show that the fashion industry emits about the same quantity of greenhouse gases a year as the entire economies of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. This was reported in a recent McKinsey and Co report which found that the fashion industry alone had emitted a mind-blowing 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2018.
Moreover, people in the United Kingdom buy more clothes per person than any other country in Europe. In sum, the amount of clothes that many people in the UK own is nothing near a ‘normal’ amount as fewer people buy to last, the expectation that an item of clothing’s lifespan is limited to a mere few months, or a singular outing is a bleak state of affairs indeed. This is partly driven by the fact that 69% of new clothes are produced from synthetic fibres and plastics, set to reach an alarming 75% by 2030.
The statistics are alarming, and our desire to consume fashion leads to some of the worst working conditions, only exacerbated by fast-fashion retailers such as Pretty Little Thing introducing a mind-blowing 100% off during last year’s Black Friday in a bid to get rid of excess stock and drum up publicity and excitement with its consumers (fig. 5).
In order to help track the individual impact of reducing our clothes consumption, initiatives such as the Count Us In ‘Wear Clothes to Last’ pledge work to calculate the estimated reduction in an individual’s carbon pollution throughout the year. At the time of writing, 1,709 people have signed the pledge.
Let us now turn our attention now to some of the solutions which have helped reduce my desire to buy new clothes.
HOW TO RESIST THE TEMPTATION
- Unfollow brands and individuals who promote a fast-fashion lifestyle, especially if they are being sponsored by fast-fashion conglomerates to do so.
- Tailor your cookies or use ad-blockers to help reduce the number of pop-up adverts you receive.
- Unsubscribe from unnecessary marketing emails from fast-fashion brands
- Actively search for sustainable alternatives.
HOW TO SHOP
Buy to last (and take care of your clothes!)
Donate/repurpose/sell unwanted clothes
Second hand, both online and in person
- Vintage Shops and kilo Sales (details often found on Facebook)
- Local Charity Shops
- eBay; Etsy; Depop (@5thSeasonVintage is a personal favourite)
- Vestiaire Collective; HEWI – premium brands
By making my pledge public, I am hoping to be held accountable by friends and family for any purchases I make throughout the year.
By Georgina Johnston-Watt
Hauser, Kitty, 2005, ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin,’ in Christopher Breward and Caroline Evans, eds., Fashion and Modernity, pp. 153-170
Lipovetsky, Gilles, 1994, ‘The Enchantment of Appearances,’ in The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy pp. 18-54