“Where did you get that sweater?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
Most of the times people have asked me where I bought an interesting or high-quality piece of clothing, the answer is usually from a thrift store, but for a long time I couldn’t admit that. Growing up, the fear of people knowing I was poor would replace the words with a lie or even block anything from coming out. Today, I still get a lot of my clothes from thrift stores, but as thrift shopping has become normalized in the fashion world, my fear dissolved.
For generations, the sale of secondhand clothing has been the same form of adapting to changing styles while living on a tight budget. It was the only recourse for poor people when dependable department stores like Filene’s closed and others like Macy’s saw their prices steadily rise. People like us could afford the styles they loved, new and old; it was our little secret.
Thrift stores helped me cope with growing up poor. The only way my mom could afford to dress me year after year was take me to thrift stores around town and find me ordinary, modern kids’ clothing that helped me blend in with my friends and unique vintage pieces that sometimes made me stand out. Aside from occasional trips to stores like Gap and Old Navy, everything my mom got me was special and sold at the very lowest prices.
At eight years old, wearing what had been someone else’s shirt and knowing the only reason I needed it was that I was poor made me uncomfortable and unwilling to tell people about my mom’s habit. Finding treasure in aisles or piles of dusty, disorganized clothes was a skill, but to both of us, it was a source of shame.
As thrift shopping has become more popular and this skill more widespread, the assumption that someone who buys secondhand clothing is poor faded away. The reaction I received when people discovered I had thrifted many of my items changed. I was no longer admitting to being poor, I was boasting my ability to find clothes that just can’t be found in traditional stores at retail prices (where else would I get a windbreaker with someone else’s name sewn into it or jeans that are definitely older than I am?). After all, it had become increasingly normal to buy and wear thrifted clothes because it’s hard to ignore how smart it is to do so.
Non-traditional thrift stores have emerged in recent years to respond to the growing market for clothes without tags. Stores like ThredUp bring trademark thrift-store aesthetics to the online market, allowing people to sell clothes (which would normally be donated to a store like Goodwill and sold for as little as possible) for whatever price they can be sold at. Of course, now that thrift shopping has gotten the attention of wealthier people, a used jacket can be sold for $50 online, whereas the entire coat section at my local Goodwill doesn’t exceed $25.
People who have always been able to afford retail prices now demand the styles that were previously only found in localized small businesses and donated to thrift stores. Even retailers like Urban Outfitters (the worst of capitalist fast-fashion, in my opinion) have co-opted the signature thrift store styles popularized by poor people with distressed, bleached, and imitation vintage pieces.
For people like me, thrift shopping was never just about the trendiness of the clothes we salvaged or the rush of saving money on high-end finds; it was about our real need for low-cost items. Beyond fashion, we found practical items at Goodwill like lamps and chairs that filled our home. Now, I’ve found that my tool for survival has been co-opted by others who have less to benefit from thrift stores, but more to spend.
My favorite store in Cambridge, The Garment District, sells clothing in two different ways. Downstairs, clothing is found in piles on the floor, completely unorganized to be purchased in large bags which are weighed and priced by the pound. Upstairs, clothing is separated by garment type, individually priced and hung on racks like an ordinary retail store. In recent years, The Garment District has doubled the price for clothing by the pound (which is still an extremely low two dollars) and the average price of a shirt upstairs has climbed from five to ten dollars to 15 dollars.
These neo-thrift stores don’t have the same mission as original thrift stores. Thrift stores emerged to make use of old things and provided poor people like me with clothes and other goods without compromising quality, quantity, or originality. Poor people made thrift stores and vintage clothing, something authentic to them, famous. Today, the market for high-quality secondhand clothing is increasingly out of the reach of its most loyal customers, the people who need it most, while corporations profit off of the idea of the thrift store aesthetic.