Old Clothes, New Looks: Second Hand Fashion by Alexandra Palmer and Hazel Clark

J’adore le Vintage.
— Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt slogan, 2004

Whenever someone compliments me on one of my vintage jackets, I always respond by saying, “You can’t just go out and buy something like this; you have to go on an archeological dig for it.” Los Angeles boutiques now sell second hand couture to Hollywood celebrities at stratospheric prices; high-end designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Dolce & Gabbana incorporate vintage pieces into their collections. Vintage has gone mainstream through styles like the three-button jacket with narrow-lapels that looks like the coat from a resale suit, and is usually worn with an untucked dress shirt, jeans and Chuck Taylor All Stars. Unraveling the threads of the used clothing system is the aim of Old Clothes, New Looks: Second Hand Fashion, a collection of essays edited by Alexandra Palmer, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and Hazel Clark, chair of critical studies at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.

About half of the 12 essays are based on first-hand research among consumers of used and vintage clothing in different parts of the world. The rest are more historically rooted but generally accessible and engaging. Most useful is a 20-page consolidated bibliography at the end that includes academic and trade references plus online resources (including URLs) for further investigation.

The market for second hand clothing really isn’t new. People have traded in used garments pretty much since they stopped going around naked. But before the Industrial Revolution made cheap attire widely available, the demand for second hand clothes was driven as much by need as by desire. Fabric was scarce and expensive, apparel manufacture labor-intensive. In many places and times, fine clothes were literally as good as gold and could be used in lieu of money for all kinds of transactions. High-quality clothing retained its value for decades and was refurbished or remade into new articles as it passed from owner to owner.

The unprecedented material plenty of modern mass-production created enormous surpluses of clothing in industrialized countries, which spilled over into the rest of the world. Fittingly, a number of the essays in Old Clothes, New Looks concern themselves with the effects of second hand Western clothing on lesser developed regions. In places like Hong Kong, the Philippines and Zambia, second hand Western clothes represent the embrace of modern lifestyles and the renunciation of traditional ways. In their analyses, the authors tend to want to separate the preference for Western clothing in these cultures from “trickle down” imperialism at work.

Karen Tranberg Hansen argues in her chapter on the Zambian second hand clothing system that consumers create their own unique meanings in their use of Western cast offs, thereby escaping to a significant degree dependence on their former colonial masters. Yet as anthropologist Jane Schneider (not represented in the book) points out, at least on an economic level the global trade in second hand attire must be recognized as a clear case of “inequality through clothes.” That this inequality tilts in favor of the advanced nations seems indisputable.

Schneider notes that the world’s top three used clothing suppliers are the United States, Northwestern Europe and Japan, in that order. The vast preponderance of the approximately 50 million tons of used clothing coming out of the United States each year starts off as charitable donations to nonprofit organizations who in turn sell about half of what they collect to brokers for export to foreign markets. (The rest is distributed inside the US.) In 1995, more used clothes were shipped from the United States to Africa than either food or machinery. In the wake of economic reforms mandated by the International Monetary Fund over the last 20 years, the indigenous cloth and garment manufacturing sector in Zambia has been decimated. Local producers simply can’t compete with the glut of high-quality low-cost used Western imports. While it may be, as Hansen asserts, that salaula (the Zambian term for second hand clothes meaning “picked from the rummage bale”) truly reflects the sui generis Zambian love of fashion, it’s an eddy in a tide of global forces, more a defensive tack than a self-directed course of grassroots empowerment.

Closer to home, vintage taste in the industrialized world is often seen as a quest for authenticity and originality, a form of conspicuous consumption intended to express sartorial knowledge and individuality through the acquisition and display of fashion items not readily available through conventional consumption channels. In the case of retro trends like the German sixties scene, consumers do indeed become archeologists of a sort, foraging through rummage sales, thrift shops and flea markets in search of treasures, and sifting through old magazines and other ephemera to educate themselves on the finer points of period styles. These consumers are in effect self-appointed curators of vintage fashion, preserving and many times restoring the objects in their collections.

One of the book’s main themes is how the second hand clothing market has provided opportunities for female self-determination, however limited by the silk canopy of patriarchal authority. In Renaissance Italy and Elizabethan England, women used their social networks and knowledge of the household arts to profitably manage supply and demand in the informal resale market that existed outside the male-dominated guild system. In present-day India, poor, predominantly female bartanwale (utensil dealers) trade pots, pans and other kitchen equipment with middle-class housewives in exchange for old garments, which are then reincorporated into the domestic clothing industry, transformed into tourists items or consigned to the international rag business depending upon the article’s condition.

For its length, Old Clothes, New Looks covers a wide range of topics. And while one might disagree with individual contributions, the book as a whole should appeal to anyone with more than a passing interest in vintage fashion.