Wednesday, July 13, 2011

FFB: Fashion, Social Class, and the Ethics of Thrifting

For this month's Feminist Fashion Bloggers post, the theme is the intersection of fashion, feminism, and social class. If you're interested, check out the roundup of other posts on this topic. Today, I wanted to bring up a couple of related ethical issues about thrift shopping. You all know my love of thrift stores...the vast majority of my wardrobe is now thrifted (mostly at the dollar-a-pound store). Thrift stores allow me to experiment with my clothing and style choices, let me have a wardrobe I would not have bought new on a grad student budget, make me feel good about being frugal, and satisfy my treasure-hunter mentality. In general, it seems that thrift shopping (at thrift stores, charity shops, garage sales, etc.) is no longer stigmatized...thrift stores are not just frequented by people who can't afford higher-priced clothing and goods, but also by the hipster college students, the environmentalists, the Ebay resellers, and the bargain hunters. However, as the upper/middle classes descend on thrift stores in search of that $3 designer dress, are they (am I) taking away things from those who truly can't afford to shop elsewhere?


Image credit get directly down

This questioning was sparked by a couple of comments I'd read while idly scanning the Yelp reviews for my local Goodwill store. Along a number of comments praising things people had found at the store, or complaining about the raised prices ("$4.99 for a shirt?"), there were a couple of comments that stopped me in my tracks. One reviewer said, "This concludes my last attempt at a Goodwill Store. I love thrift shopping, but this just isn't for me. I can't shop alongside people who really are scraping by and need Goodwill to help them out. I feel so guilty." Another agreed: "[I've] found nice Armani X, Sigrid Olsen, Ann Taylor, Forth & Towne...Prepare to feel like a tool when you take these gems away from folks that deserve a break." In my place of privilege as a grad student (but one given a research assistant stipend) raised in an upper-middle-class household, my fashion consumption at thrift stores extends my fashion options, but isn't a complete necessity. Am I depriving someone who really couldn't afford a pretty dress for work otherwise? I generally don't think I'm doing something wrong in buying something for very cheap, or at least hope my money helps support those less fortunate than I am...but there are still some interesting class-related aspects to thrift-store shopping.

Certainly, more people are needing or choosing to shop at thrift stores these days. A New York Times article from 2008 discussed some of the ways the social classes of thrift store shoppers has been changing due to the recession:

"The Salvation Army said its average thrift-store shopper had traditionally been upper or middle class. Many came to hunt for designer clothing at rock-bottom prices...But thrift store operators say the demographics are changing. People who once shopped daily or multiple times a week for vintage treasures are making fewer trips. For some, thrift-store shopping is no longer a hobby but a necessity."

Additionally, there appears to be a difference in what people in different economic classes buy at thrift stores. A study from BYU looked at thrifting in relationship to class and economic situations...they found that people in the lower and middle classes tended to thrift for things like clothing and electronics, while the upper classes were more likely to thrift for antiques and trinkets. One of the authors of that study (quoted here) said that "...middle class shoppers have begun to see thrift stores as a place to pick up items they need at a reduced price…[during] hard economic times and still maintain their current social standing."


Photo of the dollar-a-pound store I shop at from vanberto

It's also interesting to look at thrift store shopping, especially for clothing, in relationship to feminism. There are a number of good aspects: often more sustainable/environmentally friendly to buy secondhand goods, not directly supporting sweatshop practices, frequently supporting charities, etc. However, thrift stores and their low prices also give me the opportunity to buy into fashion trends, to have an overflowing closet, to be able to wear a variety of "new-to-me" clothing on a fairly regular basis. In this way, am I participating in the gendered expectations that women "need to be" constantly consuming fashion? Even if most items in my closet cost me less than a dollar or two - even if I may not be consuming clothing in the marketed stores, or for the prices that I'm being told I need to spend, I'm still participating in the cycle of "more is better" when it comes to clothing. This is also something where I'm class-privileged -- at thrift stores, I'm able to afford to buy more than just the few pieces of clothing I really need. Am I thus raising the standards and helping make it seem "necessary" for women of all social classes to own a lot of clothing if they want to engage in fashion/style practices?

On another note, something I came across while reading articles for this post -- it appears the stigma of thrift store shopping = poor has still stuck around for longer than I'd thought. Did you know that a government investigation in 2009 found that credit card companies were tracking whether you used your credit card at a thrift store or other bargain store? Or that some companies were using that information to raise your interest rates or even lower your credit score if they saw you shopping at thrift stores? How's that for stereotyping rather than rewarding people for being frugal? (More from an NBC report) (EDIT: there was a law put in place in 2009 that makes these kinds of actions by credit card companies illegal, so hopefully that's limited some of this...)

Anyway. A lot of thoughts... these aspects won't keep me out of my thrift stores, but I've been starting to evaluate my thrifted purchases much more strictly to make sure I really need/want particular pieces, and not let the low prices convince me into buying things that won't have a valued place in my closet or home. Additionally, as I've been doing more home-cleaning, I've been attempting to donate things I'm not using enough in the hope that they'll find a home with someone who will really use them (or at least make some money for charities). What do you all think? Do you have other insights/ideas about class, feminism, and thrift-store fashion?

30 comments:

Sally said...

Interesting topic. I'm not put off thrift shopping because I'm depriving someone else of the garment that needs it more - there is plenty to go around, as your pictures show. As for my motives, I thrift because I like finding interesting and one-off pieces so that I can style myself differently to what's on the high street. I don't do it to save money.
I also want to point out that thrifting here in the UK is not especially cheap - dresses in charity shops here usually range from about £6 to £12 ($10-20) - much more for designer - I can get new stuff cheaper at Primark (the 'bottom end' of the high street). Over here, charities are much better at spotting designer or valuable items, and selling those straight to dealers, so there are fewer bargains to be had.
I also feel thrifting is a great way of supporting charities, who then use the money to support those in need.... and I donate a LOT of clothes!
 -- Sally (http://charityshopchic.wordpress.com)

The Waves said...

What a thought-provoking post. I have often felt uncomfortable in our local Salvation Army, where people really shop for need. There has been a handful of times I've seen a couple of trendy college girls there, but for the most part, the people who shop there are older, often representatives of ethnic minorities, and judging from their clothing, poor. Our area has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and it makes me sad to see people who struggle. But do I feel like I'm taking something away from them by shopping in "their" store? No, not really. If anything, it actually encourages me to spend more there. Our SA also has a rehabilitation center that employs people, so my thinking is the more business they have, the more people they can help. I also recycle my wardrobe actively: what came from SA will at some point go back to SA.

I do sometimes feel like I participate in the women-must-spend-money-on-clothes pattern by thrifting as much as I do. For the most part I try not to over-analyze it too much though. I don't think I am the capsule wardrobe type, and I am mostly okay with that. I buy what I like, not what's trendy, and I try my best to make long-term investments, even while thrifting. I sincerely enjoy thrifting, and I'd like to keep it that way.

What shocks me is the NBC report. I had no idea about this type of credit card profiling. I guess I am lucky I always use cash at thrift stores...

(Sorry about the long comment, but you gave so much food for thought!)

poet said...

Oh wow, this post really resonates with me - I've had many of the same thoughts especially when shopping at charity-related thrift stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army, and I've sometimes not bought an item I really liked because I felt that someone in greater need would appreciate it much more than I ever could. Alas, I do think it's true that I'm participating in the women-must-have-many-clothes-ideology, but since I often do it as a creator rather than as a pure consumer, I feel it's not quite as reprehensible. I also keep thinking I should donate some of my own clothes because I have so many, but... I've inherited and altered most of them, so their sentimental value is enormous!

Frances Joy said...

So my own post was about thrifting, though from a different perspective.  I'm living in Costa Rica, which, apparently is where thrift store goods go to live their next life.  I don't know that I'm necessarily "taking away" from others in thrift stores.  In my own experience, most people who are there out of necessity were looking for different items than I am (not vintage and not anything too funky).  Anyway, it definitely does make me think about my own consumption and about culling my wardrobe as often as possible.  

Power Femme said...

Excellent post! There does seem to be a divide between shopping at thrift stores out of need and shopping for trends, and I really like your examination at the ethics of belonging to the latter camp and the gendered expectations it potentially reinforces. I think guilt is a really stifling emotion, but this is important stuff here.

Terri said...

To be honest, I have wondered about this "robbing from the poor" aspect of thrifting.  It first hit me last year, because I am in the habit of browsing the larger sizes and snagging pieces I like.  I found myself worrying that I was grabbing up clothing while larger sized women could not do the reverse.  BUT, this assumes that there is a limited amount of clothing to thrift...and somehow I don't that is the case.

Franca said...

I had never thought of it that way to be honest, that I am taking away from those who actually rely on charity shops, but I suppose it's true.  Like Terri though, I think that a possible way out of this is to keep the supply going. Snagging all the good bits and stashing them in one's wardrobe would take them out of circulation, but as long as you replace them with other good quality donations, I don't see a problem.

I really liked that bit about by continually buying from charity shops, we are contributing to the image of women constantly needing new things. I've written about this before, but when i had like 20 readers, maybe I should dig that post out and update it!

Tori said...

Women's plus sizes, for example.

As a plus-size woman who shops at thrift stores because she needs to, thanks for this.

In my city, at least, the selection of plus-size thrift clothing has shrunk drastically, even as the thrift stores themselves are growing (we have more thrift stores and more larger thrift stores than we did when I moved here 3 years ago). I don't know the cause of that -- fewer people donating, more people in need shopping, more higher-income folk shopping, etc. -- but the effect is pretty limiting.

Keri Shadai said...

I honestly never thought of it this way. It is a wonder how many "thrifters" really need to be "thrifting". I have gone to thrift stores and came out empty handed due to the lack of a great find.  
But in the same sense, whether you're in need or looking for a good buy the proceeds go to the needy, homeless, or charities in the end.

Cafe Fashionista said...

I have actually never shopped at a thrift store before because I tend to know what I'm looking for when I go on shopping excursions. Also, the thrift shops near where I live leave quite a bit to be desired.  :P

Corrie @ Brooklyn Bliss said...

I thrift a lot.  I actually always have (since Junior High), and it's never been out of necessity it's always more been I like finding unique items you can't find anywhere else.  I'd estimate at this point in time about 60% of my wardrobe is thrifted. 

I find the one Yelp comment you listed above about not liking thrifting for feeling guilty about taking something nice someone else can use interesting.  If you leave it there, it doesn't necessarily mean that someone less fortunate will take it.  People all have different tastes in clothing and style, and when it comes to thrift and second hand shops it's really a treasure hunt.  Literally what was someones trash (hence giving it away to a thrift store) is someone else's treasure.  So I say own it and find stuff you like! 

Being second hand shopping is also very eco-friendly, I'll always keep it as my preferred method of shopping, since that's important to me.  Regardless of what I think, great post!  You bring up a really great debate and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

Elly said...

Really interesting to read your post and see the cultural differences in thrifting - thanks for letting me know about it!  I particularly am fascinated by your point that the average Costa Rica citizen has to shop at the used clothing stores because of the exorbitant prices for new clothes.  Also interesting to remember that the things I donate to my local thrift stores may find their next home much farther away from me than I realize...first bought new, then who knows what before they ended up at the thrift store where they were purchased by me, then given back to the thrift store, then potentially shipped off to other countries...

(and yes, I agree that it's quite disturbing that whole countries can be clothed in the items *rejected  from* America's castoffs...)

Elly said...

Yes, there certainly seems to be no end to the amount of clothing that's available in thrift stores! (The dollar-a-pound store I shop at adds a whole BALE of clothing every day, three bales on weekend days!)  Though I did see a couple of articles that have argued thrift-store stock has gone down with the recession, thanks to people hanging onto clothing for longer.  Also interesting - I saw one article (though now I can't figure out where!) claiming that secondhand clothing supplies may substantially drop over the next bunch of years as all the shoddily-constructed fast fashion pieces won't be able to stay wearable for long...we may still find plenty of vintage garments in thrift stores now, but a Forever 21 dress probably won't last long enough to become vintage.  It'll be interesting to see if that starts happening!

Elly said...

That's really fascinating that charity shops aren't at the bottom of the line in terms of fashion prices in the UK!  Even with sales at the cheapest fast fashion stores in the US, prices rarely drop below what I'd pay for a similar item at our thrift stores.  And at the cheapest second-hand stores...well, I'd be really hard pressed to find a store at the mall where I could get a pair of shoes for a dollar or two. 

I definitely agree with you, thrifting can be great for supporting charities, both through buying and through donating!  (and certainly, a fair number of things I buy eventually go back to the Goodwill and the thrifting cycle...)

Elly said...

Thanks so much for sharing this!  (And does make me interested to know what my thrifting stories/types of thrift shopping will look like further down the line, when I'm no longer a grad student and moving into other phases of my life...)

I really like your focus that there are some kinds of clothing especially hard to find and especially valued by those who need them... so not worrying about thrift shopping in general, just being considerate of particular categories.  Plus sizes, work clothes in good condition...good things to keep in mind!

Elly said...

Are you talking about this post?  (was curious, so searched your archives for "thrift store"!)  Really interesting, the thought that thrift-store finds are potentially just another way to satisfy the "new is better" mantra.  (I know that fairly often I'll be asked by my coworkers whether an item is "new," to which I respond, "Well, it's new to me...") I do think thrift consumption has a lot of advantages over standard fast-fashion consumption (especially when we then re-donate clothing later), but does seem like it still can fall into trend-following and the joy of novelty. Would be interested to see your opinions on this now!

Elly said...

I agree that the wardrobe recycling is a good thing...since I'm not the type to stick to a small, curated wardrobe, then at least I should be careful to see when items are no longer fitting my style or being worn and pass them on when they're no longer of use to me.  (and actually, since a fair amount of what I buy comes from a cheap-secondhand-but-not-charity-shop, it's important for me to make sure that things eventually do go to a good cause when I'm done with them.)  I love thrifting and don't want to over-analyze the process either!  I think I just need to be careful to make sure I'm buying things because I really like them and think they're really worth adding to my wardrobe.

(And fortunately, it appears they've passed legislation against the credit-card-profiling-from-bargain-stores...but I still can't believe that had to be put in place!  Hoping that my occasional credit card uses didn't give me too many problems...)

Sally said...

Yes, even the charity shops can't compete with the 'fast fashion' at the bottom end of the high street. It's perfectly possible to see Primark dresses in charity shops here priced at more than what they would have cost new!!

Hallie Wilson said...

These photos really complement your story - wow! I'm not huge a huge thrifter but I do enjoy "hunting for buried treasures," so to speak. Great post.

Congrats on being listed in this week's Links a la Mode!



-Hallie :)

www.coralsandcognacs.com

Autumn Rizzio said...

The Garment District! This is where my boyfriend gets allll of his clothing from & I happened to find some silly stuff for Halloween at! That place is a riot, I was on my hands and knees digging around for some othersized sweaters to keep warm in the Northeast wintertime!

Angela Osborn said...

Thanks for such an interesting article. I can't believe that credit card companies can use the information about people's spending habits like that! I think a big problem that thrift stores are starting to face is a lack of quality clothing to sell. As mainstream fashion gets cheaper and more disposable, less of it is of a high enough quality to be resold (in thrift stores) and much of it ends up in landfill. This is problematic for both the environment and those who rely on the affordability of thrift store clothing. 

Okay so I've gone on a massive tangent... That aside, people shop at thrift stores for all manner of reasons and I don't think anyone should feel guilty for shopping there. I also donate my old clothes to thrift stores so I don't feel bad about occasionally shopping at them too! I agree with what you said about evaluating your purchases and that's something I'm trying to do more of, myself.

Claire said...

we may still find plenty of vintage garments in thrift stores now, but a Forever 21 dress probably won't last long enough to become vintage

That is food for thought! I suppose it'll be all the highest end stuff that lasts.. I just hope that all the things that will last belong to the type of person or family who'll put them back into circulation eventually.

Stella Ramirez said...

Excellent post! I didn't know about the credit score...wow. I thrift because, as you mentioned in your post, it helps the environment and my pocket, but, I have also seen people who thrift because they really need to. My attitude when I thrift is: I get what I can. If someone else takes it, it wasn't meant for me. 

Again, thanks for a great post!

iamsugarstoned said...

Love love trifting! Who sez style has to be expensive? <3

Followed you, please visit my site too? :)

xx
Renee
http://www.sugarstoned.com

Bonita Vear said...

~ * ♥ * ~

You have some great points about thrifting Elly; a very interesting post.  I like thrifting for clothes I need, and also try to recycle anything in my closet that I don't wear.  I figure someone else out there may give it the love that it needs!  

I have also found that thrift store prices seem to be going up as well, but I never thought that it might be because all these people that don't need to thrift are shopping there.  Real food for thought there...  

xox,
bonita of Depict This!
~ * ♥ * ~

Heather Fonseca said...

I both donate to the Goodwill and the local "Out of the Closet" thrift stores, and purchase things at the stores.  I don't feel the least bit guilty about buying something that's cute, cheap, and fits well. I feel like I'm supporting a good cause!  

ChellBellz said...

I guess i never thought I was taking away from somebody who deserved more. I donate a ton of clothes, shoes, and bags each year. Books, old toys. I was never a big thifter though. I never had the patience to look through things. When I go, it was more so to look for jewelry, or some sort of trinkets or what have you.  My thoughts is that either was you are still donating something, weather it's to pay the workers there, or cycle monies back into programs that good will and salvation army support.

I

Louise said...

This is a really thought provoking post. I love charity shops and buy lots from them. I don't tend to feel guilt though because I donate so much back. As for social stereotypes, I have worked so hard against those professionally to work in a male dominated sector, I no longer care. Xx
www.princessprudencediaries.blogspot.com

Idstyle said...

There is a lot to think about - I am a thrift store shopper, it started as a means to experiment with interesting clothing on a student's budget, but now has merely grown into a fun 'treasure hunting' hobby. I have never really thought about the possibility of it taking away from someone else - I still have to mull that thought over a few times to see how I feel. But as you mentioned, I often edit my closet and donate back to those charity shops, so hopefully I am equalizing my taking with my giving....

Taratronic said...

I've shopped second-hand for twenty-five years and never thought I was taking away anything from anyone as I donate probably more than I buy.  I tend to see second-hand shopping as a way out of the buy-all-the-time culture - if you can find them, properly vintage clothes will last you a lifetime, whilst high-street fashion will look like the rubbish it usually is pretty quickly.  I still don't buy things just for the sake of it, even if they only cost a pound.
I have noticed that the fashion for 'vintage' means that good stuff is hardly ever reaching charity shops these days - it's all being sold by vintage specialists or on E-bay.  Amazing 50s frocks that I could buy for four quid as a student are now in vintage boutiques for 200+. That's the real issue with class and second-hand shopping.

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