Working at a thrift shop has been an education in clothing and textile history.
There’s the fun part – changing silhouettes, sizing, and color stories – and then there’s the bleak part: today’s clothing simply doesn’t last.
I discovered the curious and creative world of vintage clothing collecting in college when I first started crawling thrift shops for deals.
From 1950s cotton day dresses to thick polyester ’70s gowns to the sweet rayon florals of the the ’90s, each garment told a story not just of fickle fashion trends but of new technologies, globalization, social progress, and changing lifestyles. This is an intimate tactile history that we can still partake in directly by continuing to appreciate and use garments that have held up for as many as 70 or 80 years.
But what will our grandchildren and great grandchildren see when they enter a thrift shop decades from now?
They’re more likely to find a dress from the 1960s than one from the 2020s, because today’s clothing doesn’t hold up. Made with thin polyester and low grade cotton wovens with torn and twisted seams, contemporary clothing pays no mind to quality or longevity.
Part of this is because our clothing is cheap: I did a price comparison on dresses from the 1950s and, with inflation, standard clothes cost anywhere from $100-130 per piece in that decade, versus today’s $5-25 at fast fashion stores like Forever 21 and H&M. But price doesn’t tell the full story, since many high end brands produce with similar fabrics at the same sweatshops. These items use marketing and brand recognition to mark their clothing up as much as 350%.
Our children and our children’s children will inherit a world with less nostalgia because our junk can’t be resold or repaired.
That is, unless we commit right now to hold up the brands and quality markers that produce what I’m terming tomorrow’s vintage. Pyne & Smith Clothiers, for instance, creates their own special linens and produces in small batches to ensure high quality.
Their pieces recall the past – this one makes me think of Anne of Green Gables – but will hold up for future generations. And these clogs, made with recycled vegan fabric by Nicora Shoes, are made with precisely the same techniques as traditional Swedish clogs so they, too, will stand the test of time.
I get that stagnating wages and a destabilized social safety net make it harder for us to invest in our clothing. But I have come to believe that part of a “shop secondhand first” ethos that prizes beautiful used and vintage pieces is considering the quality and longevity of the new pieces we buy, too.
Today’s new is tomorrow’s vintage, and that means what we buy will mean something to people 20, 30, even 100 years from now, whether it’s because we’ve created a massive amount of textile waste for them to deal with or because they discovered, with a gasp of delight, our old linen dress buried in a rack of secondhand clothes, waiting to be worn and loved again.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.