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?
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?