This is not meant to be some anti-capitalist rant; in fact, I am going to encourage consumption throughout this article. What I will try to make you think about is not why you’re buying clothes, but where you’re buying them.
Rapper-producer duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are now world-famous after performance at the Grammy Awards, with respect to both the number of awards they won, and their performance of “Same Love” that evening. However, the duo is best known for their #1 hit “Thrift Shop”, which highlights looking great by wearing vintage clothing purchased at a thrift shop, all by spending minimal amounts of money on it. This is atypical of rap or hip-hop culture, whose artists pride themselves on gaudy displays of wealth and excess. Songs often name-drop certain brands, or the song itself could be about an entire brand or product (Jay-Z’s “Tom Ford”, Nelly’s “Air Force Ones”, and Run DMC’s “My Adidas” to name a few).
Before “Thrift Shop”, the notion of shopping at a vintage store was largely looked down upon, seen as a place that only hipsters and the less fortunate could ever find sartorial heaven. I would argue that it is not so much a question of class or wealth, as evidenced in Simon Reynolds’ book “Retromania”. In the book, Reynolds describes vintage shopping as an interest unique to the middle and upper class. Because of their (generally) higher level of education, the consumers of these classes have the knowledge to put vintage clothing in a historical context and appreciate its value more than someone who is rummaging through clothing racks at the Salvation Army simply because it is all they can afford. It is the same principle that is applied to antique shopping, or vintage wine collecting. Yet, despite this knowledge of fashion context, our society is still vehemently opposed to buying second-hand clothing. Why?
In 2012, a student at the University of Melbourne named Tullia Jack published a study that examined the people’s habits when it came to washing clothing – specifically, a pair of jeans. When she interviewed over 250 people about why they wash their jeans so regularly, over 50% of the respondents replied that “it was their habit to do so”. The second most common answer was that “the jeans were visibly dirty”, which is surprising; most would expect visible dirt to be the most common reason for washing a garment. Miss Jack used the term “collective conventions” to describe why the vast majority of people wash their clothes so regularly and have a general aversion to dirt. In today’s society, we are conditioned from an early age to be clean, and apparently, we will go so far as to wash our clothes regularly to avoid them becoming dirty, even if there is visible evidence of no such thing! A microbiology study out of the University Alberta determined that bacterial growth on a garment plateaus after 11 days, and never reaches levels that can be deemed harmful to the wearer. So, we fear dirt and disease, even though most of the time it is simply all in our heads.
So what does this have to do with thrift shops? Our fear of dirt and disease prevents us from purchasing clothes at thrift shops because we think they’re just that: dirty. We often forget that after a few wears, all clothing is in essentially the same condition, and only after many years of wear does it begin to deteriorate. So aside from the obvious benefit of saving money on your purchases, what is so great about going to a thrift shop for second hand clothing when you can get shiny new garments at the mall?
Shopping is a temporary psychological reprieve. It offers a rush in the form of a brief search of a largely known commodity, the premise of looking good, but it all goes downhill as soon as you fork over your money. New clothing quickly gets worn, looks wrinkled, and simply doesn’t look as good as it did in the store. At a thrift store, all the potential disappointment created by your garment not being shiny and new anymore doesn’t exist, since everything there has been worn before. Additionally, your search for clothing is full of mystery and intrigue; you simply do not know what is hanging on those clothing racks, so the search is both much more exciting and much more lengthy.
At the end of your search, when you do find something you like, you feel much more accomplished because you put more effort into finding it. Gone is the novelty of something new, but what sticks with you is the experience of searching for that garment. I like to term this approach “experiential consumerism”, where you are more attached to a product based on the effort and experience attached to events leading up to its purchase. This creates more attachment towards the product, and flips the notion of empty, vapid consumerism on its head. You also don’t experience much anxiety in the form of payment since everything at a thrift store is so damn cheap anyways.
I’m going to change gears a bit, because while I did say that you should avoid malls, the thesis of this article isn’t that you should only shop at thrift stores…
Online shopping has revolutionized the world, and made entire businesses become viable and products become accessible. It has also opened the world up to the world of high-end designer clothing, which was previously only available in the largest cities in the world. Most of my wardrobe consists of items from high-end designers, most of which I purchased second-hand online or at a thrift store. Why the eclectic mix? What ties these two together is the experience and search I had to go through in which to purchase them.
I didn’t walk into Barney’s in New York to buy any of my clothes. I saved my money, waited patiently, searched with great fervency online and eventually found what I was looking for. This might have required a bit more work and input on my part, but it makes the clothes you wear that much more special. Additionally, I enjoy having a unique wardrobe, so if you feel like you are comfortable pulling off some more unique looks, then think outside the mall and be better than the Gap. Ebay is a great start to this, but there are many other avenues with which to procure high-end designer clothes for substantially less than what they retail for.
I’m not saying that everyone should just drop everything and only shop at their local thrift store and buy all of their nicer stuff from eBay – it wouldn’t be practical or achievable for most. I will say this, though: if you find yourself somewhat jaded and in need of “retail therapy”, don’t go to the mall, it will probably make you feel even worse the following day. Instead, take the time to search for some cool things at a thrift store, or surf around eBay and save yourself some money. And even if you could care less for clothing, why not save yourself some money and try looking at a thrift store? If you don’t care much about something, why get ripped off and spend too much money on it? Attach experiences to things you enjoy when you purchase them; you’ll find that you’ll enjoy them that much more.