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Taste and secondhand clothing: sorting the wheat from the chaff

In my quest to expand my academic fashion reading, I’ve been looking at The Fashion Reader, a great compendium academic and non-fiction writing and journalism touching on various aspects of the fashion. One paper that caught my eye was Angela McRobbie*’s ‘Secondhand dresses and the ragmarket’. The article is about the role of market stalls selling secondhand and vintage clothes in the subcultural movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She is highlighting that rather than completely opting out of consumption and capitalism, there were numerous ‘subcultural entrepreneurs’ making their careers out of providing alternative forms of consumption.

What interested me was the following quote, which starts off by saying that in contemporary consumer culture, surplus goods are produced and chucked out while they are still good enough to be used, and are then revived and enter another round of consumption. But:

Not all junk is used a second time around. Patterns of taste and discrimination shape the desires of secondhand shoppers as much as they do those who prefer the high street or the fashion showroom. And those who work behind the stalls and counters are skilled in choosing their stock with a fine eye for what will sell. The ‘subversive consumerism’ of the ragmarket is highly selective in what is offered, and what, in turn, is purchased. There is a refined economy of taste at work. For every single piece rescued and restored, a thousand are consigned to oblivion. Indeed, it might also be claimed that there is a thinly veiled cultural elitism in operation […] The apparent democracy of the market, from which nobody is excluded on the grounds of cost, is tempered by the very precise tastes and desires of secondhand searchers. Secondhand style continually emphasises its distance from secondhand clothing.

I was thinking about how much that applies today, the amount of work that is involved in filtering of ‘the wheat from the chaff’ by vintage sellers, both online and vintage boutiques, and by all of us thrifters as we go around the charity shops and thrift stores looking for treasure.

I like to think I do most of my filtering on the basis of the quality of the garment and fabric (I favour natural fibres and avoid polyester unless the design is really amazing), so I think there is an element of the stuff being filtered out because it’s really not good enough or not really fit for use. But I must admit I am also influenced by trends and change my mind about what I would and wouldn’t buy.

Trends in vintage clothes and housewares move a lot slower than the very fast turnover on the high street, but they’re still evident. I remember about a year ago (or was it longer?) there was this craze for boater hats on all the style blogs. If I had found one in a vintage shop before then I would have just ignored it as unwearable outside a fancy dress context, but now I would be really pleased to find one. And just on Saturday I was talking about how you used to be able to get lots of cake stands and old lady china in charity shops, but now that those things have become fashionable, you rarely see them, and if they’re there, they’re expensive. And other people were saying that they had got rid of lots of things like that which they now wish they’d kept. But you just never really know how you will change your mind about things, even if you generally have a pretty strong sense of style/taste in what works and what doesn’t.

This is forever fascinating to me, how trends appear and even if you don’t initially like the thing, more often than not you own aesthetic changes and you start considering things you would previously have dismissed. For example, both Dave and I were resisting skinny jeans for years, but now we both wear them and like them, too. I wonder if I’ll ever change my mind about the leggings as trousers/exposing your bum trend? It still seems completely unacceptable to me now, but appears to be here to stay, so maybe I’ll come on board eventually.

Trends and how they influence more long term style ‘rules’ is something I want to think about some more in the future, definitely! Sorry this post isn’t as focused as my usual arguments and musings posts, but sometimes it’s kind of nice to just let your mind wander in random directions without really making a point.

* for the benefit of people with sociology or cultural studies backgrounds: Her name rang a bell so I looked her up: she was part of the Birmingham School.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sal 26 April 2010, 3:45 pm

    I feel like thrift stores are incredibly undervalued here in Minneapolis and, because of that, I seldom find that newly-trendy items are scarce or expensive. But I know it happens in other cities, and often!

  • Lemondrop Marie 26 April 2010, 4:00 pm

    Lovely post! We are on a similar vibe because I just posted about thrifting last week. I like your sorting the good from the bad analogy. I do look for trends as I thrift, but I think I also know my style and what I would be willing to try even if it goes against the current grain. You are right- the fashion blogs do cause me to llok at things with an eye for possibility…
    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge

  • Awais 26 April 2010, 4:04 pm

    Here in pakistan we can say it "LANDA" 🙂

  • Retro Chick 26 April 2010, 4:34 pm

    I was thinking about the exact same thing the other day.

    If you have an interest in fashion and style your tastes will always change depending on what you consume. It is interesting when Charity Shops cotton on to the perceived value of some of the items they get and mark them up accordingly.

  • Julia 26 April 2010, 8:43 pm

    Interesting post! I often find my own taste shifting, often despite myself.


  • The Waves 27 April 2010, 1:39 am

    Great post!

    In Finland I always saw a major distinction between the downtown Helsinki thrift stores and the ones in the suburbs – the downtown ones were always "on trend". For example, after leather shorts walked down the runways, all of a sudden there were 1970s leather shorts in every downtown second hand shop. The same didn't apply in the suburbs, so clearly what I was witnessing was a form of second hand shopping elitism. Also, sites like Hel-looks.com feature a lot of thrifters who strangely start to look alike when you browse through, say, 50 photos in one go. I don't know what it means, really, but it makes me think whether there exists a distinct second hand consumerism that, in its core, might not be all that different from "regular" consumerism.

  • madam0wl, a.k.a Sandra 27 April 2010, 2:34 am

    Yes, while I'm an avid thrifter, I pass by racks and racks of stuff at thrifts that has no appeal to me whatsoever. Either due to the color or fabric or it looks "dated" rather than vintage, etc. It really is a search for whatever "look" I'm feeling at the moment, which I agree can be influenced by what I'm seeing other thrifty/vintage ladies rocking.

    What might be an interesting challenge is to purposefully thrift some of the chaff and style it in a way that it is interesting again. Like maybe set aside $2 – $5 to buy something you would have otherwise overlooked and then see if you can make it work for you.

    If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that doing something like that might actually be fodder for the makings of a trend… because to me, at the beginning, trends are trickled from person to person because it is viewed as a novelty, something not done or seen before, so then "early adopter" types get interested/excited about it and goes on to try it themselves, and then other people who maybe respect or admire that person will try it out kind of blindly and then onward and onward and onward.

    I'll have to see if I remember to do something like that the next time I go thrifting.

  • Style Eyes 27 April 2010, 5:01 am

    I agree no matter how much I say that I am not influenced by trends I certainly am. I have never really considered that vintage clothes have trends. I have always considered these pieces as kind of timeless, but I can see what you mean. I do think that we are on a constant cycle with the same trends going round and round and only a few new ideas being added each time. I guess that is partly why second hand and vintage clothing is so popular. I always think of it as a survival of the fittest, only the better stuff in terms of quality and style tend to survive to become vintage pieces.

    I always said that I would never wear leggings too, but I am. I am not a minimalist sort of girl but I have just invested in a minimalist beige dress.

  • Louise 27 April 2010, 9:28 am

    Fascinating post. I love skinny jeans too, but hopefully neither of us will end up embracing the leggings as pants trend.
    I see teen girls wearing second-hand items these days that I would have thrown out as rubbish some years ago. The old adage 'what goes around, comes around' certainly bears true.

  • Designer Store 28 April 2010, 9:10 am

    Nice post!

    Now a days lot of designs have arrived in to men & womens fashion style. But one of the key items every men & woman should have is a pair of jeans that flatters your figure and can be dressed up or down.

  • The Frog's Eyebrows 29 April 2010, 9:00 pm

    Fantastic article! I've also found that I've been looking for more of the trend items, not because they are a trend but because I see other style bloggers interpreting them. Although I can't see myself wearing skinny jeans or leggings as pants, I have been searching high and low for a straw boater. I've noticed that thrift stores in the past year or so have been raising their prices in general because thrifting has become a trend, which does hurt those of us who buy most of their stuff at thrift stores because we want to and not because it's the "in" or "cool" thing to do.

  • juliannelefay 30 April 2010, 7:35 pm

    Great post, I'm here via Links a la Mode, and looking forward to reading through your archives. I took two courses run by Angela McRobbie as an undergraduate at Goldsmiths so I get all excited whenever somebody's read any of her work!

    I volunteer in a charity shop and we do a lot of filtering before items even go on sale. There's a lot of hideous 80s-90s polyester that won't ever sell so goes straight in the rag bag, and I also cut shoulder pads out of otherwise fine jumpers and shirts before putting them on sale. Yes, shoulder pads had a recent mini-revival, but they have to go from the original clothes! Clothes that fit current trends get priced higher than clothes that aren't fashionable, and I've learned to spot clothes that are just so lovely they'll sell quickly on their own merit. They're usually brightly coloured and quirky, but they can have originated from any brand.

    We rarely get the old lady china in, most of it is from Sainsbury's or IKEA and plain!