Poppin' Tags: Vintage, Thrift, and the Value of Slow Fashion

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Photo by slightly everything, licensed under Creative Commons.

afternoon, to reward myself for a morning of hard writing work and because I
couldn’t stand using my brain for one minute more, I went looking online for a
new winter coat. Online shopping is fun where real-life shopping is stressful:
I don’t have to get all sweaty and frustrated in a fitting room, and I don’t
feel driven to buy something to justify the time I’ve spent negotiating crowded
stores. I can just look.

on this occasion, actually, I wanted to buy. I had seen an ad on some fashion
blog for these gorgeous cloaks made by designer Lindsey Thornburg. That’s what I want!, I thought.
Not a dorky old coat like I’ve worn every year, all fastened into it like a
Stay-Puft straight-jacket. I want to swoosh around in soft fabrics that sort of
wrap around and hang off me, all cool and chic. Visions of Denise Huxtable
danced in my head. But talk about getting sweaty: The cloaks cost between $600
and $1200, and as beautiful as they are I couldn’t justify spending that much
money on one piece of clothing.

other people make nice cloaks / capes / cape-coats
, I thought. I toggled the
terms and did some Google searching and to my surprise etsy shops kept popping
up. I like etsy, which is an online craft marketplace where makers of all kinds
of things can sell them. I’ve had my own etsy shop for quite a few years now; I
use it to sell my zines and other paper crafts. But to my total dismay I soon
understood that many of the stores that were offering the–trendy, cute, and
inexpensive–coats I liked were being sold by overseas clothing manufacturers
posing as craftspeople. The vast majority of these were located in China. The
same thing has happened on ebay, if you’ve noticed, though this doesn’t have
quite the same meaning since that site has no requirement that the things sold
there be “handmade.”

and for the last twenty years or so now, most of the clothes we Americans buy
have not been made in the U.S., but in poorer countries where the legal hourly
wage is much lower. I know that you know this. But did you know that Americans
now buy an average of 64 pieces of new clothing a year? That one reason we’re
able to get clothing as cheaply as we now can is that huge “fast fashion”
retailers like H&M and Target can order clothes in previously unheard-of quantities,
a production rate that is devastating for the environment? Or that more than 40
percent of the clothing now produced worldwide is made of plastic in the form of polyester and other
synthetic fabrics?

didn’t, not really, until I read Overdressed:
The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
, by Elizabeth Cline. Cline, a
journalist and first-time author, talks about sweatshop labor in the tradition
of books like The Travels of a
T-Shirt in the Global Economy
. But she goes beyond this and looks at something else: Our
hunger for excessively cheap clothes and trends that cycle in and out every
week or two, and the massive machine that keeps it all moving.

is a serious problem. Unfortunately–very unfortunately–it’s a problem that’s
hard to feel. Cheap
clothes are everywhere, looking bright and cheerful, and few of us Americans
have actually seen, firsthand, the environmental desolation caused by all the
unsustainable factory production in other parts of the world. (Cline writes
that after visiting China’s Guangdong Province, where polyester plants and
electronics factories are clustered, her throat ached, her eyes burned, and she
got a sinus infection that lingered for months.) It’s not the 90s anymore, and
people who talk about conspicuous consumption and petroleum products don’t get
invited back to parties. Furthermore, our economy sucks right now–ironically,
in large part because we’ve outsourced almost all of our factory work to other
countries–and a lot of us are out of work or working jobs where we can’t get
enough hours, enough pay, or any health insurance. If things aren’t really
cheap we might not be able to buy them at all. We’ve come to expect cute
clothing–and electronics, and other entertainment and luxury goods–to be about
as inexpensive as we want it to be, and where there’s a demand, there will
always, always be a supply, even when the toll is human lives.

found Cline’s book fascinating and distressing. It would have moved me to make
some serious life changes if I’d read it ten years ago, when I was a frequent
lunchtime H&M shopper. But I don’t go into malls or other stores that sell
new clothing very often anymore. This isn’t because I’m not vain about how I
look (!!! trust me), or because I’m so morally superior that I always make the
unselfish choice. It’s because at this point I buy almost all the things I need
and want secondhand, and I do so because it’s frugal, interesting, and fun. I
know this isn’t terribly unusual of me, and also that it is not revolutionary.
Except that it is, in a small way–a way I can feel.

have a million thrift shop victory stories. Let me tell you one. A few weeks
ago I discovered a junk store in an outer suburb of Philadelphia, a sweet and
down-to-earth town with a thriving main street filled with small local
businesses and a commuter train that goes right through its center. And this
store, it’s incredible. It’s dank in there–they said something about the front
half of the store being heated with electricity and the back with oil, and they
were still waiting for the month’s oil delivery, yeesh–and its darkness and
clutter would probably repel a more casual shopper. This is how I knew it would
be good. This place has more records than some small record stores I’ve been to
and, pinned to big bolts of fabric hanging on the walls over the crates of
records, some woman’s enormous collection of band buttons from the ’70s-’90s.
(The place sells on consignment, and the owner told me about the person who
brought those in.) I found a Fad Gadget button and a Human League one, and ones
with Bobby Brown with a hi-top fade! I also found a stack of papers in the
magazine section that were some kind of survey about nuclear energy taken by
college students in the 1940s. Point is, all the clothing, including shoes,
cost $1.50 apiece. I bought a beautiful light blue sweater that’s embellished
with beads and ribbon and has gathered sleeves and shoulder pads, a pair of
black ankle boots, and a terrible teal pants suit (which I wanted for the pants
only) that I don’t think I’ll be able to keep because, oh gosh, it really looks
bad. I plan to wear the sweater on New Year’s Eve, though I may have to have it
laundered first. It was such a fun way to spend a blank Saturday afternoon.

writes that one of the ways we have tended to give ourselves permission to buy
trendy clothing that we don’t need is the idea that there is always a “poor
African” who will be grateful for our donation when we’re through with it. She
says this is pretty much a fantasy at this point, and this dangerous
thinking–besides being arrogant and insidiously racist–is instead helping to
fill landfills with fabrics that won’t break down for like a hundred years, and
leak poisons into our soil and water supply as they do. But if you buy the
stuff used in the first place, it’s got to be an improvement, right? When I’m
tired of a piece of clothing or it no longer fits me, I give it away to a
thrift store again, sometimes the same one I bought it from.

bought mostly secondhand things for several years now has changed my attitude
toward objects and ownership in an interesting way. I do have things I’d hate
to lose, but for the most part it feels like I have an apartment full of
knick-knacks and books and shoes on loan, like I’m lucky to get to look at and
wear all these neat things and it’s extra special and sort of poignant too
because I know they’re not really mine. This is a more light-hearted and also
more emotionally engaged attitude than the shackled sense of fretful
responsibility I have felt toward things I paid a lot of money for. Like, go
ahead and steal it, it was practically free. Knowing that something once
belonged to someone else–coupled with the fact that I paid only a dollar or
maybe ten for it–makes my ownership of that thing feel less real, temporary,
like the universe is my big sister and I’m borrowing stuff from her closet.
I’ll give it back soon, I promise.

happens that Cline’s book came out the same month as my first book, White
, a small memoir which is, in a nutshell, about going to yard sales
with my mom. It ends up also being about my relationship with her and my
deceased father, and whatnot, but it really is honestly also a book about stuff. About the piggy banks, teacups,
clip-on earrings, picture frames, typewriters, paperbacks and, yes, heaps of
clothing I’ve bought for next to nothing in church basements and on people’s
front lawns, and about the pleasure I get from imagining these objects’ history
or even meeting the people who own them and want to tell me about them. 

her book, Cline addresses the problem of true “vintage” clothing (anything
older than 20 years) being picked over by resellers and given a high price tag
at hip boutiques, and she talks in a doomy way about how everything at the
Salvation Army these days is just some tired-looking thing from Target or Old
Navy. (Indeed, because to the rapid production of “fast fashion” clothes, even
thrift stores can’t keep up with all the donations they receive. They end up
having to throw many of these new clothes away.) But this was the one part of
the book I couldn’t fully relate to. I go to a thrift store or yard sale once a
week on average, and I’m always able to find legit old clothing that is weird
and wonderful and much better made than most things you find new these days.
That said, I’ll wear the crappy sparkly fast-fashion top, too, if I can get it
secondhand. Is this immoral or hypocritical of me in some way? Or is buying the
thing new what keeps the big bad machine in gear? I’m not sure I know the
answer to that. These are confusing problems, and I love glitter.

writes that the lesson she’d like people to take away from her book is not that
they can never again buy something new, or that they should go off the grid and
start making all their own clothes (though she found, by taking sewing lessons,
that knowing how to make and alter things is deeply satisfying and far from
impossible). She wasn’t interested in making us feel ashamed or guilty. She
placed the blame where it belongs: On the big, greedy companies who have
created a marketplace where, depending on where you live, it can be basically
impossible to buy new clothing that wasn’t produced by people working in
dangerous conditions or in a way, and at a rate, that is ruinous to our
environment. What she wants, she says, is for people to be mindful when they
buy new things. To not let clothing be an impulse purchase, just because it’s
cheap. For us to treat our belongings with respect because they were made by a
human being, and only a spoiled brat throws her nice things all over the floor.

one of the things I like most about secondhand shopping–that thoughtfulness. I
like having to dig for my treasure, to not know what I’ll find, and to fill my
home with things that vibrate with other people’s energy. It’s neat to think
that mine will be the life someone else imagines when I pass my stuff along to

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit music video, “Thrift Shop feat. Wanz”

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