︎︎︎episode 76

Secondhand News (the recurring and always controversial trend of secondhand fashion) Part 1 - 1900s-1970s

Mar 28th, 2023

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Welcome to episode 76 of The Department. Today we’re going to be talking about a major retail and fashion trend that we’ve been touching on all year:  secondhand shopping.   I was actually going to do an episode about the “monoculture,” (a term that comes up often when we talk about the historical nature of trends), but I’ve been working on a series of Clotheshorse episodes debunking a lot of myths around secondhand resale.  And in the midst of that research, I realized that secondhand shopping has a trend cycle of its own. Yep, this is not the first time that secondhand shopping has been enjoying a rise in popularity. And when I say that, I’m not ignoring or pretending that people haven’t  been shopping and trading secondhand items as a way of life this whole time (because they have).  But rather, I am talking about secondhand shopping as a larger trend, appealing to people who don’t normally think of secondhand. We’re talking about a trend that is getting more and more media coverage, generating significant revenue, and impacting the retail sector of the economy.  In this particular return of the secondhand shopping trend, we see online platforms being a big part of its presence, but I promise as we look back to a pre-internet era, secondhand had its trendy times, and it was just as controversial.

Now, this is not an episode about the ethics of resale. We’re not going to get into why thrift store prices are rising and we won’t be debating whether or not resellers are “taking all the good stuff.” If you want to hear more about that, you should check out Clotheshorse next week.  Instead, we are going to get into the social and economic phenomena that fuel secondhand as a fashion and lifestyle trend.  And we’ll break down the ways this trend has played out in the past (without the benefit of the internet).  This week’s episode will be part one of two!

Before we get started, Kim has her spiel…

Wanted to shout out a podcast I have been enjoying for all the Cathy fans (and for everyone who is interested in working on our Cathy dark reboot):  The Aack Cast, by Jamie Loftus.

Also: Over $30 Million Worth Of Funkos Are Headed To The Landfill:

“Part of what seems to be going on here is that supply chain shortages combined with extra income and time at home during the early pandemic years spurred a temporary run on Funko Pop! sales. Now that the initial rush has subsided, the company has a ton of extra stock at the same time sales are dropping. It’s also hard not to wonder if the entire bobblehead redux has hit peak saturation.”

Okay, so unless you’ve had the pleasure of NOT watching people argue about the ethics of secondhand resale on social media, then you know that shopping secondhand is enjoying a major “moment.”  To set the context of just how big this “moment” is, let’s take a look at some statistics:
  • The US fashion resale market grew from $13.6 billion in 2018 to an estimated $28.1 billion in 2022, according to a December 2022 report from Coresight.  In the same report, Coresight predicts 15% growth for 2023, hitting about $32.3…I’ll just say that 15% growth isn’t WILD to me, yes, it’s decent, but it say to me that either we are hitting a ceiling with secondhand clothing sales OR the current economic climate is dampening enthusiasm here.
  • According to the ThredUp Recommerce 100  (a monthly report on the landscape of clothing/fashion resale), as of now, 128 brands are  currently operating their own resale platforms.  Of that list, 72 (more than half) launched their resale platforms last year! And the list is pretty diverse and occasionally surprising:
    • Mall brands like Athleta, PacSun, Francescas, Hot Topic, Lulelemon, and Madewell.
    • Outdoor brands like REI, Patagonia, The North Face, and Timberland.
    • Brands that already focus on sustainability and quality, like Eileen Fisher, Tuesday of California, Nooworks, Wolven.
    • And so many more (seriously, go  check out the list yourself).
  • In terms of the big platforms: Depop, Poshmark and Mercari are making profits. ThredUp and The Real Real haven’t turned a profit yet.  The difference maker? The first group doesn’t actually handle the inventory, but the second one does.
  • While conversation about secondhand shopping tend to focus on apparel, shoes, and accessories, that’s actually only a small part of the secondhand resale landscape.  “Fewer than one out of four (24%) items sold through recommerce are clothing, according to a 2022 OfferUp report, citing GlobalData estimates. The balance of resale purchases is in categories including ‘electronics, furniture, home goods, home improvement, sporting goods, outdoor equipment, and auto parts’ according to OfferUp.”

As I was researching resale/secondhand for Clotheshorse, I had a pair of lightbulb moments:
  1. Since we as humans seem to be in sort of endless repeating loop of trends and behaviors, was there a time in the past when people were fretting about the impact of more mainstream secondhand shopping?
  2. I remembered from my numerous readings of Pamela Des Barre’s I’m With The Band that the most fashionable groupies were wearing a lot of vintage and secondhand clothing (particularly from the 1920s). So there was definitely at least one time in the past when secondhand clothing was adopted by the most fashion forward of society.

Of course, I also knew that wearing vintage clothing in the 1990s was also super cool (that’s how I got into it) and the film Pretty In Pink is basically about making amazing outfits out of vintage clothing, so it was pretty clear that secondhand shopping as an “aspirational” activity was nothing new.  Contrary to what you might hear, neither TikTok nor Depop invented wearing secondhand clothing. And while I’m sure ThredUp would LOVE to take credit for it, they didn’t either.

It goes without saying that people have been wearing and using secondhand items forever, particularly those with lower incomes and those who just live a thrifty lifestyle.  And while secondhand has become a big money maker for the last 70 years or so for thrift stores, ragyards, and resellers, it wasn’t always a business.  People have always passed things around person-to-person (hand me downs, sharing within families and communities). Having less money (and less stuff as a whole) means getting the maximum use out of everything.  I think we can all agree that nothing is truly disposable, and we shouldn’t pretend that anything is. But despite that, there has always been a stigma against thrifting: that it’s gross, that it’s dirty, that only the poorest people do it. 

That attitude may have begun in the early days of thrift stores.  In the early 1900s, organizations like The Salvation Army and Goodwill helped poor people get jobs and opened stores where they could buy things (rather than just giving clothes, etc to these people for free).  In fact, the intention was never to “give” this stuff away. Historian Susan Strasser told Jezebel, “Goodwill and the Salvation Army offered poor people, not necessarily the poorest of the poor, a chance to participate in the developing consumer culture by being able to buy things that they would not otherwise be able to buy.”  It was sort of a “bootstraps” model of charity, kinda like “we won’t give you direct assistance, but we will give you the opportunity to buy stuff for less money.”

Before the Industrial Revolution, people didn’t really “buy” clothing, they made it.  And because of that, they didn’t get rid of stuff. They would just repair, repurpose, or pass it on to someone else in the family.  But the Industrial Revolution was all about making and selling stuff, so now clothing could be store-bought.  Still, it felt very unnatural to people to just throw away clothing, but they still wanted new clothes. How to make that work? Oh yeah, just donate the stuff they didn’t want any more,  making more room in their closets AND doing some kind of good deed!  Another historian, Jennifer Le Zotte told Jezebel, “If you tell a middle-class housewife in 1920, we’re starting to accelerate fashion patterns and there are all these new styles, but your old clothes aren’t worn out yet, that’s okay. If you donate them, you’ll be helping all these families. Then middle-class housewives can feel happy about buying new flashy fashions.”  So yeah, we really are using the same logic in the fast fashion era as people were 100 years ago!

During World War I, Americans slowed down their spending and held on to the belongings (including clothing) for a lot longer. The Salvation Army and Goodwill leveraged this desire to be more thrifty and get more use out of things by upping the thrift store experience: adding racks and hanging clothes, creating window displays, and even shifting their real estate strategy to focus on more high traffic, middle class areas.

At the same time, surrealist artists were using secondhand items in their work–whether they were stolen, gifted or purchased from thrift stores or flea markets–as a rebellion against the commercialization of art.  A great example of this is Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.”

I found a great essay from Jennifer Le Zotte about the connection between secondhand and art (and I’ll link to it in the show notes). But I wanted to share some sections from it:

“André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst were among the first to transform cast-aside objects directly into works of art known as “readymades” or “found objects,” or to channel inspiration from such goods into their paintings and writings.

Coinciding with (and emerging from) the anti-art art movement Dada, which fiercely rejected the logic and aestheticism of capitalism, the movement surrounding that elevation of pre-owned items would soon have a name: Surrealism.

In his 1928 semi-autobiographical work ‘Nadja,”;Breton, the ‘father of Surrealism,’ describes secondhand shopping as a transcendent experience. Discarded objects, he wrote, were capable of revealing ‘flashes of light that would make you see, really see.’Exiled by the France’s Vichy government in the 1940s, Breton settled in New York City, where he sought to inspire other artists and writers by taking them to Lower Manhattan thrift stores and flea markets.”

This lent a romantic “bohemian” air to thrift stores and flea markets, probably setting the example of musicians, artists, and “creative types” preferring secondhand shopping for generations.

Artists continued to integrate secondhand items into their work basically until now: think about all of the makers on instagram creating new things out of upcycled fabrics and other materials.  And secondhand costumes and other pieces are still an integral part of theatre and performance art.

Plenty of us are cringing with despair over the popularity of secondhand Y2K clothing (in all its low rise glory), but what if I told you that the “despair” of younger people wearing past trends purchased secondhand got its start back in the 1950s?  And like a lot of things here at The Department, it relates to raccoons?

The racoon fur coat was the “it” item of the 1920s. From a fascinating Smithsonian article (go read it):

“The heavy and unwieldy furs were popular with Ivy League college men, though some spunky girls also sported them, as well as members of the growing, black middle class. "Democratic" though they may have been, the coats were still undeniable emblems of wealth, often retailing at between $350 and $500—about $5,000 adjusted for inflation.

Full-length coonskin automobile coats were the "it" accessory for cruising around a cold New England college town in a Model T—and certainly the most appropriate gear for attending college football games. Football star Red Grange and silent movie heartthrob Rudolph Valentino helped launch the fad, and it spread quickly, peaking in popularity between 1927 and 1929.

But following the stock-market crash, such symbols of wealth, recreation and youthful frivolity quickly lost popularity in the fiscally lean 1930s, and clothing outlets and department stores were left holding the bag.”

Fast forward to the 1950s…architect Stanley  Salzman and his wife Sue were a popular and affluent couple living in Greenwich Village in NYC (by then, it was already becoming too expensive for artists to live there).  One night they were hosting a party, and Sue told the story of spotting a raccoon fur coat at an antique store. She wanted to buy it, but was a little too hesitant and another customer bought it first.

“As it happened, a party attendee, one of Stanley Salzman’s former architecture students, Gene Futterman, volunteered a potential source for another coat and not just one, but also a pile of the old coats—a 20-year-old supply leftover from the original trend of the late 1920s. By one estimate, as many as two million fur coats moldered away in storehouses and were available to any taker.”  Futterman had a relative who had bales of these things! Soon Sue had her coat (and enough to gift to 13 of her party guests). And the trend just kinda took off from there.  People would see her wearing it, ask her about it, and then they would buy one.   Sue was super stylish, really into 1920’s fashion, rounding out her outfit with beads, a floppy cloche hat, and blue-black lipstick.  This definitely was not the style “norm” of the 1950s, but people wanted to buy into it.  By late spring 1957, the Salzmans had sold about 400 coats, sourcing them in thrift stores, antique shops, and flea markets. According to Smithsonian, “The Salzmans fueled the furs’ romantic images by reporting that ‘in one coat, they found a revolver and a mask; in another, a list of speakeasies.’”

In June 1957, Glamour published a photo of a raccoon coat, listing the Salzmans as suppliers.  And soon Lord & Taylor was knocking on their door, placing a huge order for these secondhand coats.  Lord & Taylor advertised these “vintage” coats, promising that each one would be in a“state of magnificent disrepair."

College students went wild for the trend! It was around this time that college students emerged as the trendsetters in fashion, so if they were wearing them, every one who wanted to feel cool wanted one!  Other department stores jumped on it, first selling all of the excess inventory that had been semi-rotting in their warehouses for decades.  And that was part of the appeal.  Stores promised that they would be full of holes and damage.  Customers loved this, because it made each one unique and authentic.

But eventually department stores ran through their own stash, so they reached out to the Salzmans for help.  Of course, the Salzmans also ran out of stock.  Retailers tried to create their own fake new versions, but it just didn’t appeal to consumers in the same way, and soon the trend dried up.

By the 60s, Americans were being urged to buy more new clothes than ever.  “Space age” fabrics like nylon and polyester made clothing cheaper (although still not as cheap as now) and plentiful (but still not as plentiful as now).  Mass produced clothing was becoming more and more the norm, while magazines and television dictated fashion trends that created almost “uniformity” in how people were dressing.   But if you were disenchanted with capitalism, the norms of the middle class, your government, etc…you didn’t want to wear the same clothes your square neighbors and peers were wearing.  And for young people joining the counterculture (along with artists, poets, and musicians), secondhand was THE thing!  Beatniks, hippies, and bohemians embraced secondhand clothing as their uniform.

From Jennifer Le Zotte (who btw wrote a book called From Goodwill to Grunge that I plan on ordering this week)sa.  “The postwar period, and perhaps ever since that, was marked by a popular rejection of middle-class status. Sometimes this is in cultural appropriation, wanting to look like or act like a minority group, or with the Beats, it’s wanting to slum it with the working class or like you can’t afford good clothing. And sometimes it’s wanting to show I can afford to buy old vintage clothing that takes more care and expertise and that’s kind of exhibiting higher than middle-class status.”

It’s also important to call out that in the 50s and 60s, big retailers (aka department stores) were complicit in the anti-LGBTQ campaign the Lavender Scare, firing queer employees and even calling the police on people who dared to try on clothing that didn’t align with their assigned sex.  Queer communities found themselves feeling safer in thrift stores and secondhand shops, While none of these businesses were putting up signs that said “queer people welcome,” they were sort of turning a blind eye to the people that department stores were rejecting.

So by the end of the 1960s, we have secondhand clothing being the domain of the counterculture and queer communities.  And if we use the “Skinny Jeans Paradox” as a lens for viewing the trend cycle of secondhand clothing, we can see this being the early years of skinny jeans, when only the most fashion forward were wearing them, when skinny jeans were an indicator of uber-coolness.

In the 1970s, secondhand clothing was about to hit the next step in the Skinny Jeans Paradox, becoming a more mainstream–but not totally Old Navy-fied–trend.

And to truly understand why secondhand clothing would become more mainstream in the 1970s, you have to consider the economic conditions of the time. The United States was in a state of economic malaise.  For the first time, Americans were grappling with the possibility that their children might have a lower standard of living than they had.  This was after years and years of upward growth for the economy after World War II.  The country was experiencing both high unemployment and increasing inflation, a situation called (and this is depressing) “stagflation.” And the inflation was crazy: 11% in 1974, 18% in 1980.  Things got more expensive and while people also made less money.  Ultimately rising gas prices (tripled between 1970 and 1980) and overall inflation lead to the Reagan presidency!

A 1975 New York Times article called “Thrift Shops Rise as Economy Falls:”

If there is any institution that has profited from the current economic crunch, it is the friendly neighborhood thrift shop. Once the preserve of the poor who had to hunt for bargains to survive, these outlets, usually run by charitable organizations, have become a mecca for the middle class trying to make ends meet.

“People who wouldn't be caught dead in thrift shops before are competing with the lower socio‐economic group today,” said Isabelle Weygandt, who heads Southampton Hospital's outlet. “It's the recession. Everyone is looking for bargains.”

Thrift stores saw growth in their business, which allowed them to do several things:
  • Hire employees.  Most had been staffed by volunteers, but now they were able to pay people to work there.
  • Invest more money in making the spaces nicer, from displays to fitting rooms to fixtures! Stores leaned into more a “department store” set up, breaking the stores into well organized departments. Adopting visual merchandising strategies.  Adding mannequins and mirrors!
  • Sell more expensive things. 

Thrift stores were still selling to cool young people (who were searching for 30s and 40s clothing at this point), but secondhand was becoming more “normal” and palatable to a mainstream audience.

In 1975, Cheap Chic  by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy hit bookstores.  Both women were “creative types” in their late 20s/early 30s.

From a NYT article “‘Cheap Chic,’ Manifesto of a Fashion Revolution, Is Back,” published in 2015:

“One of its authors, Caterine Milinaire, was a French-born photographer, fashion editor and all-around It girl who had been lured to American Vogue by Diana Vreeland, and who went on to be an editor at a nascent New York magazine and had all sorts of adventures traveling the world as a photojournalist. Her co-author, Carol Troy, a Vassar-educated Californian, had been the New York editor of Rags, a short-lived magazine that aimed to do for clothes what Rolling Stone would do for music.”

They declared, “Fashion as a dictatorship of the élite is dead. Nobody knows better than you what you should wear or how you should look.”  I have the 1978 version (Cheap Chic Update, with a pink cover). Essentially billing itself as a bible for young women looking to dress well for work and social events while working within a budget, this book was pretty groundbreaking because it included an entire chapter about thrift shopping!

I will say that this books does have many flaws that don’t age well (a little bit of diet culture, referring to prints as “ethnic”), but it does have a lot of great advice that feels more relevant than ever for the Slow Fashion movement:
  • The importance of cultivating a unique personal style. “The stuff in this book applies to a trip to Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, or I. Magnin, as well as a trip to Woolworth’s.  We’re merely encouraging you to embrace your own style and express your own individuality with confidence.  You have the freedom to sidestep designer dictatorship and make the clothes you spend your money on work for you, rather than making you work for your clothes.”
  • “Cheap” doesn’t mean “unethical” or “low quality.” Milinaire told the NYT: “‘Cheap Chic’ wasn’t about cheap stuff. I always worried about the high price of chasing cheap, the human cost. Whatever comes out of the sweatshops is not what we want to be wearing on our backs.”
  • No focus on brands or labels, really more about just knowledge and access to developing your own personal style.  And the last page was a laundry care guide!
  • Focusing on a wardrobe of a few good pieces  that make you “feel good,” rather than having a closet jammed full of novelty stuff you never wear.
  • Encouraging readers to shop secondhand! In addition to an entire chapter about thrift stores, the book included an index of flea markets and secondhand shops in the US, Canada, and Europe.

<Amanda to read from the introduction to the secondhand section>

The book goes on to share tips and tricks for successful secondhand shopping.

And this was just one small part of secondhand clothing’s move into the mainstream.

In 1978, secondhand clothing was such a big deal, that the New York Times published a big article (full of so much good info) called “Rags to Riches.”

Thanks to the terrible economic conditions of the 1970s, more and more people found themselves shopping secondhand.  According to the NYT, “The boom in secondhand clothes, which has bred hundreds of new stores in urban centers around the country, is now bringing department stores such as Macy's, Abraham & Straus and Bamberger's into the market.”

That’s right…not only were stores opening all over the US with the sole focus of selling secondhand clothing to middle class customers,  department stores were getting in on the action, creating entire departments filled solely with preworn clothing.  And customers were LOVING it! Macy’s reported that customers were preferring 40s and 50s clothing. They couldn’t get enough!  Small secondhand shops worried that the department stores were driving up costs because they were buying by the pallet, rather than by the piece like smaller shops. In fact, department stores were selling this stuff so fast, they struggled to obtain enough inventory.  Why? Well for one, people weren’t buying nearly as many new clothes as they do now.  But the thing was, there was still plenty of secondhand clothing to go around.  Logistics for the secondhand industry were not as robust as they are now.  And three other factors were at play: thrift stores didn’t want to give up market share.  After all, they had been seeing their sales grow and grow through the 70s. And the second factor:  ragyards already had a robust and profitable business selling secondhand american clothing overseas. Lastly (factor #3), the middle class was feeling the pinch of inflation, so rather than donating their unwanted stuff, they sold it at flea markets and yard sales to generate a little bit of extra cash.

Thrift stores were not just going to give up business to the department stores. They fought back by campaigning aggressively for donations.  And they revisited other aspects of their business:

“The Salvation Army, a giant among nonprofit thrift outlets, is making a concerted effort to upgrade its stores across the country to compete with the new wave of retailers. ‘They have both expanded the market and made it more competitive,’ says Raymond F. Howell, who is in charge of the Salvation Army's collection program in the New York City area. Revenues at Salvation Army shops in the area are up about 15 percent from last year, he says.

How will the Salvation Army meet the new competition from the large department stores? Aggressively, says Major Howell. ‘We will do more piggybacking. Whatever they promote into fashion, we will set up special racks for and raise our prices to get in on the fashion action.’”

And then there was the global secondhand clothing trade (once again, not as wild and damaging as it is now, but still a big business):

“Harvey Schefren runs a large rag warehouse in Queens as well as Noamex Inc., an export company. He considers himself a ‘fashion rag dealer.’ More than 50 percent of his secondhand clothing is sold overseas. ‘Many countries in Africa and the Far East buy this clothing just to give people something to put on their backs,’ he says. ‘Europeans buy it because they have a passion for secondhand American fashion. They've been buying it for years.’

Mr. Schefren offers a special explanation of the evolution of international high fashion. When he gets a big collection of old clothes from his sources around the country (rag dealers who are less fashion‐minded than he is) he sends it to ‘a back‐burner market like Amsterdam to see how it does there,’ he says. ‘If it goes, I start shipping to the Paris flea markets, and usually I have a fashion hit. ‘Then American designers spot it and claim it as their own. Most of the recent so‐called fashion innovations have been stolen from Parisians wearing old American clothes.’

Not everyone was super stoked about the increasing popularity of secondhand clothing:

Mr. Russack was a comedian who forsook the nightclub circuit for the secondhand trade in 1969. He bought unclaimed clothes from Brooklyn cleaners and sold them at his first store, Thrift Village, in Brooklyn. ‘I began by selling to poor people at low prices,’ Mr. Russack recalls. ‘But pretty soon I noticed a lot of young people coming in looking for fashion, so I changed my tack.’ He started getting merchandise from rag merchants.

As his business prospered, Mr. Russack spent more and more hours hunched over large piles of garments in Brooklyn warehouses, hunting out things he could sell as fashion items to young shoppers. ‘We used to buy dresses for 50 cents and overcoats for $2. Then everybody found out about it. Every hippie who finally decided he had to support himself went into the secondhand clothing business. It was natural for them, but it was the beginning of the end for me.’”

So let’s recap where we are by the late 70s:
  • Young people, the queer community,  and “creative types” are still loving secondhand shopping because it is a safe space and an outlet for creative personal expression.
  • Middle class people are getting into secondhand clothing because it is more affordable. So much so, that department stores are getting in on the game.
  • Smaller businesses in the secondhand area are frustrated because this is driving up pricing and creating sourcing issues.
  • Thrift stores are raising prices and aggressively going out for business via merchandising and marketing.

Questions for discussion:
  • How does this compare to now?
  • At this point–in the late 70s–where is secondhand shopping in the Skinny Jeans Paradox?

We are going to stop here in say, 1979…and we’ll resume next week as we look at the trend cycle of secondhand clothing in the 80s, 90s and this century!