Wearing secondhand clothing runs in my family. Or really, it runs through my family, as hand-me-downs often do. The women in my family are magpies, and we don’t let go of things easily. Sometimes, this tendency manifests in mounting clutter; piles of clothes stacked on chairs waiting to be mended, old pieces of furniture clogging basement corners, standing by for their next purpose.
But sometimes, it manifests in magic.Here I was as a little girl, running downstairs to watch Nick at Nite on a hot August evening in my grandmother’s old slip as a nightgown, feeling as glamorous as Eva Gabor in Green Acres as the cool satin slid across my skin. Here I was at thirteen wearing my mom’s lavender terry cloth tube top to a friend’s pool, striding through my suburban neighborhood while feigning as much 70s free-spirit confidence as I could muster.
Because that’s what secondhand clothing can do at its best: allow us to embody someone else for a little while, and imagine the adventures through which it saw previous owners. Even better, it can enrich our own lives.
My mom kept racks of old clothes, pieces that had belonged to her or my grandmothers as younger women. My friends and I would play dress-up in 50s cotton dresses, faded to shades of sherbet oranges and pinks, and as we got older, my sister and I would browse the attic every few years to see what pieces appealed as trends changed. Chunky wool sweaters one year, high-waisted linen skirts the next, graphic novelty tees always. Many a Halloween costume was pulled from those ranks.
I was endlessly inspired by Claudia from The Babysitters Club books, whose inventive outfits were always described in detail. I felt like my best self in one particular ensemble I knew she’d have approved of: white overall shorts from The Limited (from our neighbor), a black long-sleeved shirt (from my mom’s stash), black tights, white Keds.
Much as I loved my secondhand treasures, I also came to understand that not everyone saw them as such. Buying new clothing has always been at least peripherally about status, especially growing up in the US during the 90s. It was peak label-mania, all Calvin Klein waistbands and Tommy Hilfiger-tinged Americana.
There was a particular pride that came with adorning oneself in the latest trends, one that I wasn’t immune to. I once received, from the aforementioned neighbor, a glorious trash bag full of name brand hand-me-downs from her older daughter. I remember the delight in trotting out my new pieces, but also the undercurrent of shame I felt when my classmates found out the clothing’s origin, their voices hinting at pity at this perceived charity. Didn’t they understand the good fortune that came with such a gift?
Of course, for many people wearing secondhand clothing isn’t a stylistic choice, it’s a necessity. But that’s even more reason to remove the stigma. Wearing secondhand clothing is resourceful, it’s sustainable, and it should be celebrated, not shamed.
That shift is starting, with new secondhand online retailers and sustainable Instagram influencers popping up every day. It’s a movement that, hopefully, will expose more and more people to the benefits of choosing secondhand compared to the impacts of exploitative fast fashion.
At its simplest, though, wearing secondhand clothing is still about infusing purpose into items that would otherwise be cast aside. About honoring a family heirloom or finding the perfect white tee shirt that could have once belonged to James Dean. It’s about imagination. That’s where the magic comes from.