︎︎︎episode 77

Secondhand News (the recurring and always controversial trend of secondhand fashion) - Part 2:  The 80s and 90s

April 4th, 2023

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Welcome to episode 77 here at the Department. This week we will be continuing our conversation about the recurring (or perhaps timeless?) trend of shopping secondhand.  When we began this journey into the past, I thought we could do it in two episodes, but guess what? This is turning into a three episode miniseries.  In part one, we talked about the early days of thrift stores. Then we moved through the first 80-ish years of the last century, where we saw secondhand shopping being adopted by the Surrealists, college students, hippies, chic downtown It girls, the queer community, and really just about anyone who has lived outside the  mainstream. And in the 1970s, we saw thrifting move into the mainstream, as more and more people struggled economically through years of high inflation and unemployment, a combination depressingly called “stagflation.” Department stores–the biggest retailers for most of the 20th century–found themselves creating entire departments of secondhand clothing! And meanwhile, thrift stores fought to hold on to every last customer (and grow their businesses) by remerchandising, following the department store trends, and revisiting their real estate strategy by moving stores to high traffic, middle class areas.  And oh yeah, tons of Americans cast off clothes were traveling the world as part of a massive global secondhand clothing industry.

Does that sum up everything we’ve discussed so far? Oh yeah, there were also raccoons.

Today we are going to focus on what happened with the trend of secondhand shopping in the 80s and 90s.  It’s going to be very nostalgic for many of us, with lots of style icons and films that have inspired us over the years. 

In the 1980s, three things are at play in the world of secondhand:
  • People are SO OVER the 70s, that they don’t want anything that looks remotely like it, so designers are borrowing from 50s and earlier, dressing women in menswear styles/shapes from those eras, also borrowing a lot of the hyperfemininity of that era but mixing it with menswear.
  • It’s a time of “faux prosperity,” so people want to buy expensive things for less money.
  • We see a certain archetype appearing in movies and music:  (generally female, but not always) that embraces an eclectic secondhand style, and it’s all a key component of their identity and place in life. 

So let’s start breaking down these three phenomena:

First things first:  by say, 1982, the last thing anyone wanted to be associated with was the 1970s.  For many, it was a memory best left in the rearview.  It was a decade full of financial struggles, the final five years of the Vietnam War, gas shortages, widening economic inequality, nuclear accidents (Three Mile Island in 1979), Watergate and on and on and on.  Many look at the 70s as the end of the sort of exuberant optimism that had persisted since the end of World War II. 

So naturally, no one wanted to dress like it was the 1970s anymore either. That means no more disco, no bell bottoms, no leisure suits, and no more (well, kinda no more) synthetic fabrics.  Of course synthetics would still be around, but kinda sparingly and in new, less 70s incarnations thanks to improving fabric technology.  The 60s were sort of lumped into this anti-70s sentiment because of the use of synthetic fabrics during the era.  And people just had this major nostalgia for the 50s, with filmmakers churning out some big movies set during that decade:
  • Stand By Me
  • Back to the Future
  • Peggy Sue Got Married
  • La Bamba (Ritchie Valens)
  • The Buddy Holly Story
  • Dirty Dancing

It’s also important to note that we had already received an early taste of 50s nostalgia in the 70s with American Graffiti, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Grease, and we know Grease started a lot of its own style trends.

The “return of the 50s” makes sense for several reasons:
  • The 70s had been a rough time and while all of us here know that the 50s were only a great time for white cisgendered straight men, it was widely considered a simpler and better time.
  • It hit that nostalgia sweet spot, reminding baby boomers of their childhoods and their parents of their early adulthoods.
  • There had been so much aesthetic and cultural transformation in the 60s and 70s, that the 50s felt like this completely different era, easy to romanticize.
  • The 50s and the 80s were sort of the “bookends” of the Cold War, with it beginning in the 1950s and ending in the 1980s

Fashion trends launched by the return of the 50s:

The brand enjoyed a stratospheric resuscitation after inking a deal with Burbank-based Unique Product Placement, which pimped and subsequently placed the shades in about 300 movies and television shows into the mid-80s (could Risky Business-era Tom Cruise have peered through another brand of sunglasses as darkly?).

Wayfarers would fall out of Vogue in the 90s, returning again in the aughts as 80s aesthetic became a key component of the indie sleaze/party hipsters.  Don’t worry, we’ll be talking about all of that in the next episode.

  • Blue jeans and white t-shirts, directly mimicking James Dean. Moto jackets.
  • Gloves, pearls, rhinestones, cardigans and sweater clips, even poodle skirts and saddle shoes
  • Fit and flare dress silhouettes, The New Look
  • Polka dots
  • In addition to these more traditional 50s looks, people of all genders were also loving the very traditional menswear coats of the era, often opting for the real thing (a vintage one).  Side note: something I have noticed both in my lifetime and while working on this series coats are frequently the first foray into secondhand/vintage clothing for many people. 

From a 1985 NYT articled called “Vintage Coats: A Fad Keeps Growing”

Those American and European designers who showed oversize men's clothes for women have produced a bonanza for old-clothing stores. Men's coats from the 1940's and 50's are being snapped up by young women and young men who either can't afford designer prices or won't pay them, or find the vintage look more attractive.

Whatever the motivation, Saturday on lower Broadway from Astor Place to Canal Street is a mob scene of high school and college students. Smaller crowds can be seen in the West Village, the St. Marks Place area and SoHo. Most of the shoppers are looking for used black and white tweed coats. When they find them, they pay anywhere from $9.99 to $180. Most of the coats are in the $20 to $75 range.

Many young members of the fashion avant- garde started buying such coats, mainly from thrift shops and flea markets, two or more years ago. Like many fads that originate on the street, this one has now come full circle.

''A couple of years ago, high-fashion people were the base of our business,'' said Guy Levy, owner of Chameleon, a vintage clothing store at 270 Bleecker Street.''Now people from the suburbs who wouldn't have been caught dead in old clothes are coming in, trying on the overcoats, rolling up the sleeves and feeling terrific.''

Many people who were into this 50s trend found themselves wearing a mix of vintage clothing and brand new stuff, as more and more designers and brands began to make their own “80s does 50s” (a great online secondhand shopping search term btw), creating 50s silhouettes in bold 80s print motifs.  50s clothing was the most sought in the vintage world. Most vintage clothing aficionados kinda sneered at clothing made from the 60s and later because it would be polyester and mass produced. So even these “80s does 50s” new clothes wouldn’t have as much cachet as the real thing.  This desire for 50s clothing le d more and more people to get into secondhand/vintage shopping to be more “authentic.”

From a 1982 NYT article called “A New Look In Old Clothes”

VINTAGE clothing shops, once the realm of hippies, artists and college students, today are attracting a more diverse clientele, as people search for distinctive, well-made clothes at affordable prices.

''It used to attract primarily the eccentric, but I really don't believe that's true anymore. I get all kinds of people here looking to express their individuality and sense of style,'' said Belinda Foust, who owns Charisma! in New Milford.

''There's been a rebirth of romanticism and nostalgia,'' said Miss Foust, whose store is painted in peachy hues. ''In everything - movies, music, fashion - people are searching for a more romantic mood, and they're looking to the past for inspiration.''

''Attitudes have definitely changed,'' said Joan Murphy, who owns the tiny shop, Roxie Taylor, in Old Avon Village. ''People aren't as concerned about something being used. I think it's because of the quality of the older garments and because the price of new clothing these days is astronomical.''

So that’s one type of person getting into secondhand shopping, and in this case, the focus was on vintage.

Next, we have a swath of people who may have been already shopping secondhand who are continuing into the 80s, maybe picking up some more people along the way.  And that is the person who is thrifty.  The 80s are a big time of quasi-prosperity.  While egregious displays of wealth are “the thing,” from luxury brands to sports cars to fur and leather coats, the reality is that wealth inequality is continuing to widen and more and more people are struggling.  The Reagan administration removed a lot of regulations that were designed to protect consumers, workers, and our planet. The reasoning? That these regulations were holding back business growth, which was therefore, holding back American prosperity.  What really happened is that the rich got richer, and everyone else struggled.  The administration also chipped away at the social safety net as much as possible, driving more people into even more dire situations. So many people aren’t doing well financially in a decade that is all about seeming as conspicuously wealthy as possible?  Why not buy all of those fancy designer clothes, shoes, and purses secondhand?  Brands are such a big deal at this point and it turns out there are plenty to find at consignment stores and thrift shops.  These types of stores saw even more growth than they had in the 70s (which was also substantial).

From a 1982 NYT article called “Prosperity Drops In At The Thrift Shops”

While some owners of department stores and retail shops have been crying the recession blues, business has never been brisker at the thrift shops run by Long Island charities that sell donated merchandise and equipment to raise funds for their philanthropies.

The five Long Island thrift shops of the National Council of Jewish Women reported an increase in sales volume of about 25 percent over the last year. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, which operates six stores and warehouses in Nassau and Suffolk Counties and opened its seventh and largest store a few days ago in Selden, reports that its gross sales have reached the $1-million-a-year mark - double the gross sales figure of four years ago. The Salvation Army, with seven stores in the two counties, estimates that its sales will be about 1.5 million this year, up 10 percent over last year.

According to Blossom Zimmerman, the coordinator of the national council's Peninsula Section thrift shop, the recession and inflation, which have hurt the regular retail trade, have contributed to the upsurge in thrift sales.

''At one time,'' she said, ''there was a widespread belief that only people at the poverty level would buy at stores selling donated merchandise. But now the cost of everything is so high that people from the middle class, and even the upper middle class, are looking for bargains, and they have discovered we have good ones to offer.''

James Mulcahey, director of stores for St. Vincent de Paul, said that some of the organization's stores were called ''nearly-new shops'' because today's thrift merchandise had improved markedly. He said that in addition to the recession and inflation, the flea markets had indirectly contributed to the increase in thrift sales.

''The flea markets,'' Mr. Mulcahey said, ''have educated middle class people to the fact that if they went to the right places they could buy new merchandise at discounts. After that they became interested in merchandise that was 'slightly used' at even greater savings.''

Changing social patterns also have affected sales, according to thrift-store supervisors. They say that many unmarried young couples do not want to make a commitment to buying new furniture, and so they go to thrift shops, where their furniture investment is small.

The new social climate affects donations as well as purchases. ''The rate of divorces and separations keeps climbing,'' Mr. Mulcahey said. ''In a sense, we are in a distress business. When there is the stress of a family breakup, we benefit from the donation of appliances and furnishings that are no longer needed because of the split.''

Thrift shops are selling a much wider assortment of merchandise than before. The range goes all the way from children's booties to Cadillacs, trailers, boats and grand pianos. Clothes racks bulge with designer jeans, tuxedos and name-brand suits, all selling at about 10 or 15 percent of the original retail price.

Thrift stores once again are seeing that they should invest more money into the general vibe of their spaces, so they remodel, remerchandise, and try to make stores look even more like regular stores that sell new stuff. And like the 70s, we see thrifting becoming even more mainstream for people of all economic levels.

From a 1986 NYT article called  “Thrift Shops Are Updating Their Image”

''We have everything from the very best to the very cheapest,'' says Nanette Hayes, president of Everybody's Thrift Shop, ''but we're in an affluent time when the better stuff is selling. People on welfare don't shop in thrift shops.''

I do wonder about this quote. Because while my family was poor and would have been well served to shop at thrift stores, it was highly stigmatized in my low income community. There was sort of this feeling that if you entered a thrift store, you were completely surrendering any chance at becoming middle class or achieving the “American Dream.” Basically the last thing you could do was engage in something that made you seem poor, even if you were poor. And so my family was more likely to shop at Kmart and other discount stores. 

But nonetheless, thrifting was seen as a savvy move for people with more money. And the New York Times was regularly publishing tips and tricks for thrifting (for all the newbies).

Okay, the final cultural phenomenon sorta fueling interest in secondhand shopping? We began to see an archetype forming in film and music: the wacky/cool (often female) person who rejected the mainstream style (often preppy as the decade progressed) in favor of an eclectic maximalist secondhand style. Let’s look at some of these style icons:

Cyndi Lauper: Such a vintage lover, that she worked at Screaming Mimis in her late 20s before she achieved major success as a musician.  In fact, she didn’t really get “successful” until her 30s.

From L’Officiel:

Lauper was known for her distinctive, free-spirited image that was influenced by bold trends of the ‘80s. An armful of stacked bracelets, bright-colored locks, and retro cut dresses and skirts, Lauper blended the boldness of the ‘80s with punk-rock elements when it came to her ensembles.

The B-52s.

From an amazing Vice article by Scarlett Newman (go give a read) that focuses on the importance of wigs in the B-52’s aesthetic and image:

The front women, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, managed to hone in on a style that heavily referenced the ’50s and ’60s, combined with elements of futurism: lots of reflective materials, lots of silver, and sky-high hairstyles that resembled satellite towers. Establishing an iconic image early on worked in their favor as the band started to grow and build a fan base in the early ’70s. On stage, they celebrated an exaggerated version of femininity with a touch of drag, and a touch of Science Fiction B-movie. It wasn’t your standard nihilistic punk image, full of rage, but it was still pretty punk.

When we get into films of that era, we start to see this archetype being an even bolder statement about class, the boredom and predictability of the middle class, and a general way of life/attitude about life:

Madonna & Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985

From “Desperately Seeking Susan's Lessons in Thrifting and Thrills,” from Another Mag:

“Susan is never not clad in kitschy clothes – she seems permanently to be draped in the sheen of polyester and lycra, with an abundance of lace and the clinking and clacking of multiple trinkets following her wherever she goes. She has a particular penchant for gloves, which she refuses to take off – even to snack on Cheese Doodles – and presents as someone who has tripped and fallen into a clothes rail at a thrift store at all times. So naturally, when Susan arrives in New York, she immediately embarks on a second-hand shopping trip, falling in love with a pair of sequin boots in the window of her go-to store ‘Love Saves The Day’. Exchanging her jacket for the dazzling footwear, Roberta – who by this point has been following Susan's movements in complete awe – buys it for herself. Bringing the jacket home, Roberta’s yuppie husband is less than pleased: “You bought a used jacket? What are we – poor?” Thus, the theme of thrifting present throughout the film is suddenly rendered a political statement; representing an antithesis to the money-obsessed capitalist culture of the 1980s.”

Despite the aesthetic of this film deeply leaning into secondhand, unique style, retailers were happy to cash in on making brand new versions of clothing inspired by the movie.  For example, mall retailer Bakers had the exclusive license to make a collection of shoes inspired by the film.

Pretty in Pink, 1986

Costume Designer, Marilyn Vance created the looks in Pretty in Pink. And here we see the secondhand aesthetic being the realm of the cool (but outsider) working class kids. No John Hughes movie holds up in 2023, so I don’t recommend a rewatch, but the style is on point.  So maybe just google some photos instead.

In 2021, Molly Ringwald told https://www.vogue.com/article/molly-ringwald-pretty-in-pink-35th-anniversary

“At that point, people were still mostly going to the mall and shopping at places like Judy’s or The Gap. The idea of shopping vintage was somewhat bizarre. Everything Andie wears was sourced from vintage stores in Los Angeles, and that was very much the way I shopped at the time. I definitely think the film had an impact in that teens started dressing in more vintage outfits and in more layers. I really loved everything Marilyn did except the prom dress, which I’ve been pretty open about not liking at the time.”

So Kim, how did you feel about the prom dress?

In 2017, Molly Ringwald wrote for Teen Vogue:

I’m still not sure how that dress happened. I don’t know if I was swayed by Marilyn’s passion when she talked me through the sketches, or distracted by the algebra final I was preparing to take in my trailer in between scenes, but whatever the reason, I signed off on the design. Weeks later, when I saw the dress for the first time, I burst into tears. The only thing I liked, and even vaguely remembered from the consultation, was the halter neckline. The puffy sleeves and inverted-triangle, sacklike silhouette confounded me, but it was too late to change it.

In this film we have two different groups of people who dress very, very differently:
  • The preppy rich kids, in a light colored cliche 80s preppy style.
  • The quirky vintage outsider people (who also have great taste in music and probably grew up to be super cool creatives), Duckie, Andie, Andie’s boss at the record store (Iona, played by Annie Potts), the other people in their social group.

From a Fast Company interview with Pretty in Pink Costume Designer, Marilyn Vance:

Both Andie and Duckie have extremely good taste in fashion for high school kids, or just about anybody. The way these characters dress is utterly unique for the era, but in addition to communicating taste, their clothes also says a lot about their thrift-shop-hopping financial situation.

“Economically speaking, Duckie couldn’t go out and buy the linen suit worn by Steff [an insanely hot yuppie James Spader]—he wouldn’t think about it because he couldn’t afford it,” Vance says. “There’s a scene in the movie where Andie’s looking around for a prom dress. You see her outfit there—she’s actually wearing a little jumper under that patterned dress, which we made, because she put that outfit together herself and this is how she was perceived. She couldn’t keep up with those other girls, there was no way.”

As counterpoints to Andie and Duckie’s economic status, Vance dressed up Steff and Blane’s [Andrew McCarthy] whole well-to-do group of people to look a certain way. The costume designer went to K-Mart and bought beige and pink and blue and white and just mixed up everything for the girls and the guys. All the friends of Steff and Blane served as a backdrop and a subtle, color-coded reinforcement of Andie and Duckie’s outsider status.

“Duckie will always be my favorite character,” Vance says. “He was modeled after the Teddy Boys from England, in the ’70s, the big haircuts and layered outfits. Jon Cryer was the straightest guy you’d ever meet. He came in looking like a nerd–it was who he was–but the character, he was open to visualize the character and work with us.”

So by the end of the 80s, we have a lot of people shopping secondhand for different reasons:

  • People trying to get that authentic 50s aesthetic.
  • People who want to have that “conspicuous wealth” look of the 80s but don’t want to or can’t afford to spend that kind of money.
  • The people who were already shopping secondhand in previous decades: creative types, the queer community, and  anti-consumerist/anti-capitalist people
  • Young people being inspired by a whole new set of fashion icons from musicians to fictional characters to curate their own unique secondhand style.

No one was talking about running out of secondhand clothing.  In fact, a change in US tax code in 1988 led to an overwhelming flood of donations in 1987, because people would no longer be able to write off donations in the same way the next year. Thrift stores were posting signs turning away donations as there was far too much to process or house.

Furthermore, clothes were continuing to be shipped overseas, to the Global South and Europe. And American secondhand clothes were becoming more and more popular in Europe in the 1980s. According to the New York Times:

The popularity of American styles in Paris is hardly new. First came les blue jeans. Then the university sweatshirt craze hit. Next a passion for Cub Scout uniforms inexplicably overcame the French. But only in the past year or so have Parisians begun wearing used American clothes

'During the Vietnam War, no one wanted to look like an American,'' said Mr. Morice  (a secondhand clothing seller). ''Then in the 70's, the dollar fell and the French started going to the U.S. They fell in love with the easygoingness of the States, and that's what the clothes represent.''

Mr. Morice's partner, Patrick Brieg, agrees. ''Europeans are naturally uptight. It is somehow easier for them to be themselves in American clothes.''

But there are more pragmatic explanations for the fact that the French are dressing up in old American clothes. Used clothing prices are low compared with the price of new clothes in France - $35 for a good-quality man's shirt, for example - and a bargain compared to the cost of the trendy American copies, with imitation American labels, that French manufacturers are turning out.

Enthusiasts say American clothes are better made than French and last longer, used or not. ''Even when French manufacturers buy the denim from the U.S., the jeans wear out faster than American jeans,'' said Gaston Kercenty, a wholesaler.

Mr. Karcenty is amazed at the condition of the American clothes he receives. ''Some look as if they'd never been worn!'' he says with approval, leaning on one of hundreds of burlap-wrapped bales in his Rue Pelleport warehouse.

Okay, let’s transition into the 1990s. Where are we economically? Well, the economy is still bad. In fact, in the early 90s, the U.S. was in a big old recession.  We see more and more conversation about the “shrinking of the middle class” as the country feels the hangover of all of the “pro-business, anti-people” policies of the 1980s.  The conspicuous consumption of the 80s is straight up embarrassing, but people still care about brands…but different brands. 

Interestingly enough, thrifting isn’t as big for the general adult population in the 1990s, despite the economic situation. And that’s interesting because retail is not having a great time, either.

A 1995 article from the San Francisco Examiner says it pretty bluntly, “90s Have Been Rough on Retail:”

Retail sales for the state (California) as a whole during the four years rose a pathetic 3 percent, total.

Subtract seven percentage points for population growth and that gain evaporates into a 4 percent decline in per-capita sales.

And while this data was for California, it was indicative of retail for the entire country.

In the 1980s, people looking for affordable name brand clothes had only two options: catch a sale at the mall or shop secondhand. But in the late 1980s and early 90s, a new group of players emerged in a much bigger way:
  • Walmart
  • Costco & Sam’s Club
  • Off price stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Ross. TJX (the parent company of TJ Maxx) was on a roll in the 1990s, buying Marshalls, launching Home Goods, and opening new stores all over the US. Today these stores are primarily stocked with goods made especially for them, but back then, they really were scooping up closeouts from brands and department stores, especially as the recession continued to impact regular retail sales. 
  • Outlet Malls: in the late 80s and through the 1990s (in the pre-ecommerce era) we see these popping up all over the United States and many chains are finding these to be an exceptional means of liquidating excess product at a decent margin.

So the brand-focused, mainstream adult shopper had an easy way to find affordable clothes, without thrifting.  And no matter how many of us may feel who are listening to this, the majority of people are always going to vote for something new over secondhand.  There is a lot of stigma attached to secondhand items.

However, this customer segment DID feel okay shopping at a consignment shop.  For one, it gave them the opportunity to get some cash for their unwanted stuff, which you might remember was happening in the 1970s as well.  Back then people were using yard sales and flea markets as a means of making some cash off of their stuff. But consignment stores were easier, and the seller might make more money.  Many of these shops provided a more boutique experience and in general, the country saw strong sales growth in this particular type of retail throughout the 90s.

From a 1991 NYT article called “The Shops Where Recession and Recycling Meet:”

RECESSION and recycle. Those words are changing the way a lot of people shop. The owners of stores that sell "previously owned" merchandise, for example, say they are seeing a lot of new customers seeking bargains in this form of recycled goods.

Mind you, these are not dowdy thrift shops but resale establishments with names like Instant Replay, Elegance II, the Clothesline and Play It Again, where shoppers pick up pre-owned clothes and children's toys for a fraction of their original cost.

"We've always catered to the woman who describes herself as having champagne tastes and a beer pocketbook," said Florence Kalvin, one of the owners of Instant Replay in Harrison. "And now with the recession, there are a lot more people in that category, especially working women. They have to look smart on the job. Lately, we've been seeing a lot of young women who come in desperate for something special to wear on an important job interview."

But secondhand (vintage, thrifting) was getting its own huge shot in the arm in a big mainstream way during the 1990s, with young people (and the young of heart) being swept up into the “alternative” subculture, thanks to MTV, Nirvana, zine culture, Sassy magazine, and so much more!

The irony of all of this “alternative” stuff being a subculture? It was actually a massive cultural phenomenon that inspired multitudes of people.  It wasn’t just some tiny niche interest. It was major label albums, alternative radio stations, magazines, movies, you name it…”alternative” and its subgenres of grunge, riot grrl, kinderwhore, rave culture, skating, etc were just the counterpart of the mainstream culture, rather than some tiny group of weirdos.

We’re going to hopefully do an entire miniseries on the 1990s at some point this year (I know many of you have asked for it), so for this episode’s purposes, we’re just going to talk about some of the cultural icons that made thrifting and vintage an aspirational lifestyle and then a way of life for many young people in the 1990s.

Sassy Magazine:

While many viewed Sassy as a cool little independent magazine, the fact of the matter is that it was a huge mainstream teen publication (that maybe flew a little too close to the sun).  I could talk about Sassy for about 100 years, but we’re just here to talk about secondhand clothing, right? And unlike i’s stodgy competitors YM and Seventeen, Sassy used a mixture of vintage, high end, and accessible brands in its editorial.  It reinforced some of the “uniforms” of the 90s alternative girl:
  • Vintage ringer tee with flared jeans.  The jeans could be bought new or be used Levi’s.
  • The slip dress or vintage dress with Doc Martens.
  • 70s polyester collared shirts and maxi skirt (the skirt would be new, the shirt could be vintage or come from Delias)
  • Vintage teddy bear coats paired with Homecoming dresses
  • A tee with plaid skirt (either or both could be vintage)

Chloe Sevigney began as a model and then an intern at Sassy. She told Sassy in 1992, “I never miss a tag sale or walk past a thrift shop without going in. You can get good cheap stuff that no one else will have. And I never throw anything away – you never know when you’ll be in the mood to wear something.”

And of course, Kurt and Courtney were basically the king and queen of thrifted clothing in the 90s, setting everyone off on a search for the perfect vintage fuzzy cardigan (Kurt) and the ideal dress with a peter pan collar to emulate Courtney’s kinderwhore aesthetic. Both were very vocal about their love and appreciation for thrifting as a treasure hunt of sorts.

Video of Kurt talking about thrifting: https://youtu.be/TJLUa3QjZOs

Courtney told Rolling Stone in 1994 (in a particularly brutal interview called “Courtney Love: Life Without Kurt”) about why she chose the kinderwhore aesthetic of dresses, barrettes, mary janes, and knee socks:

I would like to think–in my heart of hearts–that I’m changing some psychosexual aspects of rock music. Not that I’m so desirable. I didn’t do the kinder-whore thing because I thought I was so hot. When I see the look used to make one more appealing–when I see a 14-year-old girl in a fanzine acting like she’s nine, it pisses me off. When I started, it was a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? thing. My angle was irony.

Then again–my friend Joe pointed this out to me–ever since he’d known me, I had little baby teacups and blocks and toys. Maybe it had to do with never having patent-leather shoes. Never being allowed to wear a dress. Never having gender-specific dolls. I absolutely insisted on taking ballet lessons when I was young – which caused a big, big fight in our house. Nothing was gender specific

The alternative subculture embraced thrifting and secondhand clothing as a means of differentiating itself from the mainstream with its malls full of Gaps and Limiteds.  It saw thrifting as not only an anti-capitalist statement, but also as a way of curating a unique personal style.

Dustin told me that the Beastie Boys were his gateway into thrifting, particularly during the Check Your Head era, when he saw a House of Style interview where they talked about their love of thrifting and collecting clothing much in the same way they collected records, always looking for something unique and special, even if those finds might be few and far between.

A Mr Porter essay about the Beasties as fashion icons describes the Check Your Head era this way:

Style-wise, these were the “classic years” – ski hats, workwear, deadstock adidas and the occasional bit of thrift-store flair, such as the double-knit Irishman polo Mr Horovitz wears under a parka in the “Pass The Mic” video. They also wore a lot of flannel, aligning circumstantially with rock-fashion trends of the moment (Mr Yauch, in the film, says derisively to a reporter: “You must be talking about grunge.”)

If you haven’t picked up already, the alternative aesthetic of the 90s focused on the 60s and 70s, particularly the 70s.

But dance music was really leaning in to the 1960s with Dee-Lite and Betty Boo.

Lady Miss Kier of Dee-Lite really focused on the psychedelic side of 60s fashion, with Pucci prints and architectural John Fleuvog shoes.

Betty Boo’s style was more Mary Quant/Avengers, with a hint of outer space.

On the screen, we had Parker Posey, the It Girl of indie film (Party Girl, Dazed and Confused, House of Yes). I read this delightful NYT profile of her from 1997, which you should absolutely read. The oddest thing is that it seems to be written by her in the third person? I have no idea.  Anyway, it focuses on her wardrobe.

As a result, the 28-year-old actress's entire wardrobe consists of costumes -- clothes that inspired her screen wardrobes, clothes inspired by the roles and clothes bought in the conviction that life is a dress-up ball. Each piece comes with a tale.

Her tastes run to thrift-store fabulous. The origin of an orange velvet jacket? ''Got this from a woman on Portobello Road,'' she said, referring to the must-stop street in London for anyone who loves vintage clothing. ''She has blond bangs and is in her 50's, I think.''

As she opened a giant wooden wardrobe -- one of three crammed into her tiny bedroom -- sartorial history tumbled out. Yellow chiffon, pink sequins, silk shirts and brocade -- they filled the wardrobe like an overstuffed chair. The bottom was covered with shoes: blue Moroccan-style slippers, a pair of heels spray-painted bright blue, Chanel white shrimping boots, Italian leather slip-ons and dozens of vintage pumps. A side closet was filled with pants: new pants, old pants, men's pants, Army pants, pajama pants, lots of Levi's.

On television, we had characters that weren’t technically wearing secondhand clothing (at least as far as we know) but they embodied that secondhand chic look of mixing eras, prints, and patterns into a unique look:  Blossom and Clarissa of Clarissa Explains It All.

And so basically, we end up with tweens, teens and twenty somethings leaning into secondhand shopping because all of their heroes and icons are doing it, whether it’s Courtney, Blossom, Parker, Drew, or anyone that could be found within the pages of Sassy.  And so, everyone wants that look, but maybe they can’t get to the thrift store or they don’t know where to begin.

Don’t worry, retailers and designers are happy to help:
  • Delia’s and Alloy
  • Urban Outfitters
  • Merry Go Round
  • Even department stores were like “sure, we have grunge clothes”

The thing about grunge was…it began as musicians, artists, and scenesters in the Pacific Northwest staying warm while having their own unique style: flannels, tees, long underwear, destroyed jeans, vintage dresses, boots, sneakers…all easily thrifted and authentic.

But when everyone wants to buy in on a cultural moment (and everyone wanted to be a part of grunge and alternative music), well, someone is going to pop up and make a new version. We saw that with racoon coats, 50s clothes in the 80s, and now with 70s clothes/grunge in the 90s.

So that brings us to Marc Jacobs’ disastrous? Infamous? 1993 grunge collection for Perry Ellis.

From a Dazed piece that explains what happened (go read it):

Marc Jacobs’ spring/summer 1993 show for Perry Ellis is the stuff of fashion legend. After being hired as creative director for the sportswear brand in 1988, Jacobs politely did a few seasons of easy American elegance before paying homage to Seattle’s grunge scene with the landmark collection, which was sent out on November 3, 1992. Two-dollar second-hand flannel shirts were translated into plaid-printed silks, lumberjack thermals were re-imagined in cashmere and Kurt Cobain’s floral granny dress was turned into floaty chiffon, worn with untied DMs or duchesse-satin Converse. Backstage, Sonic Youth were shooting their video for “Sugar Kane”, starring a very young Chloë Sevigny.

It was a seminal moment, from Christy Turlington opening the show as L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” blasted out behind her to Kristen McMenamy and Kate Moss closing in matching beanies and layers of pastel knits and plaid. “That’s the way beautiful girls look today,” Jacobs told the New York Times in February 1993. “They look a little bit unconcerned about fashion.” Women’s Wear Daily hailed Jacobs as the “guru of grunge” but the suits at Perry Ellis didn’t really get the finer points of bare midriffs and shirts tied haphazardly around the waist. Shortly after picking up the CFDA Designer of the Year award in January 1993, Jacobs was dropped by Perry Ellis and production on the collection was killed.

Jacobs actually sent a box of the collection to Kurt and Courtney (because he loved them) and both were horrified.  In 2010, Courtney told WWD, “Do you know what we did with it?We burned it. We were punkers – we didn’t like that kind of thing.”

Jacobs was simultaneously laughed at and criticized, but he stands by that collection. In 2011, he said, “There was so much more to it than making plaid shirts and flowing silk dresses. It wasn’t about that. It was about a sensibility and also about a dismissal of everything that one was told was beautiful, correct, glamorous, sexy. I loved that it represented a newness. I think that’s how people dress now. I think that moment hasn’t passed. It’s morphed into different things but it really hasn’t passed.”

In other reading I have done about this in the past week, I realized that Jacobs wasn’t looking to cash in on grunge.  He was reflecting a particular era and a new approach to beauty and fashion. 

Around 2010-2015, more and more fashion people were coming around to that show and realizing that it may have been a stroke of genius, misunderstood at the time.  There’s a great piece from The Cut called “Changing My Mind About Marc Jacobs’s Grunge Collection,” that explains how the “grunge” show wasn’t the first time people were appalled by a collection that pulled from a change in personal style and women’s ownership of what they wore (read it for more detail, but a YSL show in the 70s is cited). 

Jacobs remembered: “I was so pleased with that show, and because it did get a lot of attention and it did look younger and fresher, I said, ‘I’m going to do what I feel is right.’ And that’s how grunge started. I joked about it at the time but I had designing diarrhea. I just couldn’t stop. The ideas came from everywhere — whether it was Corinne’s pictures, or David Sims’s, or Juergen Teller’s. Or meeting Helena Christensen for the first time and seeing her in a shawl over a nightgown with a pair of Birkenstocks. Or it was my friend Ellen running around in pajamas and Converse with a bra. I was, like, oh my God, this is all pointing to the same thing.”

By the mid-’90s, other designers, notably Miuccia Prada, were questioning notions of beauty in new and unsettling ways; and going without makeup fit with the decade’s minimalist fashion. But at the time, Jacobs thinks now, and in the environment of Seventh Avenue, grunge exposed fear. That was the main reason, he said, people turned the show into a punching bag.

“I’ll use Kate Moss as an example,” he said. “A woman buying designer clothes can’t go to a store and put on a slip with Converse sneakers, and have dirty hair and no makeup. A woman of a certain fashion education can’t achieve Kate’s look. It went against everything that one could aspire to. I mean, you could go to a beauty parlor and look like Joan Collins. Or you could say, ‘I want to look like Cindy Crawford or have my hair cut like Linda Evangelista.’ But you couldn’t go into a shop and say, ‘I want a child’s Victorian dress that looks torn.’ I think that’s where the fear comes from.”

I think it’s safe to say that it also comes from new things, of which fashion writers are oddly intemperate. “It’s always so easy to look at the next thing and be part of the past thing,” said Jacobs, “and say, ‘That doesn’t work. It doesn’t tick our boxes.”

So that’s all I have for this section (wooooof 32 pages later).  We’ll pick up next week as we approach the end of the 90s and get into this century, where things get more complicated as online platforms for buying and selling secondhand arrive on the scene!