“Dead White Man’s Clothes”

Did you see the ‘Secret Life of Your Clothes’ last night? The BBC2 This World documentary followed the fate of your charity shop donations, showing that most of your old clothes don’t end up on the rails of your local Oxfam at all, but thousands of miles away in Africa. This has never been something charities wanted to admit but it is a massive business. It’s also something I had mixed feelings about – charity shop prices aren’t that cheap anymore, they always seem to be begging for donations, and to think that they have all this surplus that they are shipping out to the poorest countries of the world not in aid but to sell to them (the bales are always tightly packed and wrapped so it’s pot luck what traders end up buying).

In the programme Ade Adepitan follows the trail to Ghana, the biggest importer of our castoffs. One million pounds’ worth of our old clothes arrive here every week. Ade meets the people who making a living from our old castoffs, from wholesalers and markets traders to the importers raking in a staggering £25,000 a day. They call them ‘dead white man’s clothes’. The documentary really did show a story of two-halves. On the one hand, people are building businesses selling second-hand clothes (the size of the markets were astonishing) and trade is booming; but on the other hand, local traditional textile businesses are struggling to compete on the low prices of second-hand fast fashion. The second-hand clothes are simply much cheaper, and not only that but many young Ghanaians want to wear Western clothing. It shows that they ‘know what’s out there’.

I think we’ve actually become used to seeing Africans wear Western clothing, haven’t we? Where did we think they came from? At one point Ade visits a professional factory that have specialised in uniforms and exporting garments to the US. The factory manager describes how Africa has become a dumping ground for stuff – ‘when will it end?’ she says. I understand her frustrations but it’s hard to deny that the second-hand economy is thriving and these are clothes that still have plenty of life left in them. Yes we should be consuming more sustainably in the West but part of me is pleased that these clothes can be loved and used after we’ve discarded them.

Ade makes the point that these clothes go full circle – from being manufactured by some of the poorest people in the world they come back to some of the poorest people in the world, via a few months in our UK wardrobes. In Ghana it’s so difficult for their own factories to stay afloat they have to specialise (funeral wear was the example they gave) and/or export. In the UK we import African-produced products via fair trade groups and Western-based social enterprises/businesses who sell their wears to the middle-class ethics conscious consumer looking to divert from the fast fashion mainstream. These networks of trade are astonishing, clothing perhaps more than any other product really do link the world together within this evitable thing we call globalisation.

You can catch up with the show here.
If you are interested in the academic debates on this topic I recommend the work of Dr Andrew Brooks.

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Diverse Economies and Alternative Channels of Consumption

A couple of months ago I went to a fascinating conference/workshop organised by the Geography department at the University of Leicester. It was called ‘Diverse Alternatives: living, working and playing differently in the capitalist mainstream’ and followed the department’s distinguished annual lecture by Professor Katherine Gibson (of J-K Gibson Graham) which was held the previous evening. J.K. Gibson-Graham is a pen name shared by feminist economic geographers – Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham. Their first book ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ was published in 1996 and I read it last year – much of it over a fieldwork weekend in Newcastle, sat very contently in various coffee shops around the city.

My discovery of J-K Gibson Graham came at the perfect time as I’d be struggling to conceptualise what second-hand shopping (specifically the nearly new sales I study for my PhD) was. Was it an alternative form of consumption? Informal consumption? Inconspicuous consumption? Ordinary consumption? Whilst shopping as an activity and economic action has been studied now extensively by academics, second-hand consumption had been studied only a little. It had been pushed aside, yet it’s so common (isn’t it?). It’s fairly ordinary, yet so complex – perhaps that is what made it difficult to study. J-K Gibson Graham came to the rescue with their map of the diverse economy, the concept of which inspired the workshop I presented at in Leicester.

Gibson-Graham argue that whilst capitalist firms, wage labour, and market-oriented production produce the dominant discourse of the economy, a whole host of hidden labours and systems of exchange construct everyday life. The iceberg economy visualised here makes visible all other economic relations beyond wage labour and economic exchange.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

The Iceberg Economy reproduced from Graham, J. (2001) Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures. Socialist Review, 28 (3 + 4): 93-135.

So much work goes into maintaining the capitalist economy and it often goes unrecognised. The work of Gibson-Graham calls for a new way to look at the economy – everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies. A diverse economy might be a voluntary run community cafe, a car sharing website or clothes swapping parties. Second-hand shopping or the general procuring of used goods is often considered ‘alternative’. How though, I ask, is the daily provisioning of a mother for her family ‘alternative’? And how is people passing on used clothes ‘alternative’ when we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years? If we’re talking about what’s novel historically, going to the shops every Saturday to buy a new dress would have been impossible for most people just a century ago. Shopping should be seen as ‘alternative’. Calling such diverse economies alternative (like second-hand stuff) just means they are alternative to the capitalist system. And capitalism is just that – a system, or an institution. It’s not life, it’s not the only way, it’s just one way. For this reason I really like the term diverse; it’s less loaded than alternative. The nearly new sales I study are a diverse economy.

Renowned geographer David Harvey has published a new book ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’. In it he says ‘the economic engine of capitalism is plainly in much difficulty.’ I haven’t read it yet but there is a section entitled ‘capitalism as a process or thing?’ and he calls for the need of an open forum ‘a global assembly, as it were — to consider where capital is, where it might be going and what should be done about it.’ Can anything be done about it? I don’t know. I’m not anti-capitalism, I just don’t think it should rule, but where capitalism is no other alternative gets a real look in. We just need to regain control of it as a system, not a way of life.

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Twenties Night at the Candlelight Club: My free outfit

The Candlelight Club host 1920s nights across London – a “clandestine pop-up cocktail bar in a secret London venue, a stunning, tucked-away den with a 1920s speakeasy flavour, completely lit by candles.”

I went to their Christmas extravaganza last night, it was beautiful. It was in a wood panelled ballroom near Paddington; there was jazz music, Charleston dancing and amazing Christmas-themed cocktails. Of course, a 1920s night called for a 1920s outfit and half the fun of the night came from people watching. It amazed me just how many different and beautiful outfits there were. My own outfit was very cheap and chic, in fact most of it didn’t cost me anything. I had looked around the high street but the only dresses I liked were super expensive (this one by Ted Baker was quite nice), plus it seemed a shame to buy something new when I knew I could find the real deal in a vintage shop. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time or money either to find a great vintage dress but with a little bit of thought I put together an outfit which didn’t cost me a penny (apart from the shoes which I wanted to buy anyway).

twenties

I wore a Zara dress borrowed from a friend who had bought it herself from a charity shop for a similar 1920s themed party. I teamed it with a necklace that I picked up from the last University of Southampton Swap Shop and a bag I already owned. Around my head I tied a piece of ribbon/trim that came in a bag of textile knick-knacks bought from an antique shop in Brighton. The gloves were borrowed on the night. I wondered how other guests had pulled their outfits together. I know one of my friends had found a dress in a charity shop, another had bought one new. Charity shops are the perfect starting point for themed nights like this – they are treasure troves of random pieces. And don’t forget to ask around and borrow from friends too, just be prepared to repay the favour!

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Oxfam Posts: Three Key Reasons for Second-Hand Shopping

Clothes rail

For my last three blog posts for Oxfam Fashion I looked at why we might choose to buy second-hand clothes and accessories. Reasons and motives are more complex than you might first think and vary depending on an individual’s priorities and circumstances. I used an academic study as my basis and fed in elements of my own research (I should write a PhD update at some point). I then pulled the reasons into three key points:

Buying clothes second-hand (with a focus of charity shopping):
Saves money
Is more ethical/sustainable
Is fun!

If you want to read more about these reasons click on the links above to the respective posts. I’m always keen to hear about why people choose to buy things second-hand and what you buy, so let me know by leaving a comment or tweeting me @EmsWaight

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Refurbished Store Launch for Octavia Foundation Charity Boutique

Cupcake

I’ve spent quite a lot of time researching London’s best charity shops. There are loads of great ones; you just need to know where to look. Yes prices are inflated in the capital, but there’s a much higher concentration of designer pieces and fabulous vintage finds so I was delighted to get invited to the launch night of the newly refurbished boutique style charity shop by Octavia Foundation.

If you don’t live or work in London you’re unlikely to have heard of Octavia Foundation but they are a fantastic charity that work across London to improve people’s lives. Some of their work includes:

• Facilitating assistance and friendship for older and vulnerable people through Garden Guardians, a handyman service, lunch clubs and day centres, and outreach and befriending.
• Working with young people and children through youth centres, arts and sports programmes.
• Helping local people with jobs and training through Westminster Works, Future Foundations and apprenticeships.
• Providing advice on money management, welfare benefits and debt.

Octavia Foundation have around twenty charity shops across the capital. The Fulham Road store that I visited last Thursday is small but packed full of amazing finds. It has a boutique vibe with exposed brick walls, a spacious changing room and thoughtful displays. On the event launch night they had 130 guests through the door, who in total spent £2500. The money raised will be used to help local people during times of difficulty or crisis.

After having a good rummage around the store I bought a Moschino Cheap & Chic printed silk circle skirt and my friend bought a gorgeous floor length corset dress. They had a Burberry cream trench coat, perfect condition, for just over £300 – a great buy for somebody but sadly my budget didn’t stretch that far! They also had Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahnik stilettos and a Marc Jacobs handbag. This is a real destination shop; I will certainly be visiting again!

Clothes on offer at Octavia Foundation

Clothes on offer at Octavia Foundation

Bumped into fellow Oxfam blogger Ron from Dresses on a Clothes Line!

Bumped into fellow Oxfam blogger Ron from Dresses on a Clothes Line!

I very nearly bought these red shoes . . .

I very nearly bought these red shoes . . .

But instead I bought this skirt

But instead I bought this skirt

Moschino Cheap & Chic silk skirt, charity shop £36. Jacket, Topshop

Moschino Cheap & Chic silk skirt, charity shop £36.
Jacket, Topshop

My friend Sandeep's corset dress

My friend Sandeep’s corset dress

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A Second-Hand Christmas? The Etiquette of Giving Second-Hand Gifts

Where did you do most of your Christmas shopping? Online? In a department store? Out-of-town shopping centre? Whilst doing your weekly supermarket shop? . . . . You haven’t started? Well you’d better get to it!

The fact is there are many consumption avenues for buying your Christmas presents but how do you feel about buying second-hand presents? My PhD research is about second-hand things; second-hand baby and children’s clothes, toys and equipment to be precise. I am currently immersed in the data collection phase, carrying out interviews, and have spoken to a number of parents who happily buy second-hand toys for their kids for Christmas. The feeling is that you don’t need to spend a lot to keep children happy and furthermore, many children get plenty of expensive gifts from extended family and friends. I myself have bought second-hand things as gifts before. It got me thinking then, what is the etiquette of second-hand gift giving?

Virtually any resource can be turned into a gift, as we have seen with the rise of gift day experiences, gift subscriptions and give a child the gift of reading with a camel library (check it out). When I talk about second-hand gifts I don’t mean recycling gifts, that’s something your own conscience will have to wrestle with. I’m talking about finding something in a charity shop, a church bric-a-brac stall, or on eBay and gifting it to a recipient. The interesting thing is, doing this no doubt says much more about the giver than the receiver.

There is a body of academic work on gift giving in the social sciences, indeed gift giving is a fundamental social system. Every single gift is tied up with expectations; we are expected to give, to receive and to reciprocate. Gifts can reflect social roles, reinforce or weaken social bonds, and be heavily inscribed with a signifier. As suggested by Sherry et al. (1983:159) ‘We give, receive and reject gifts strategically, thereby symbolically predicating identity’.

We often hear that it is better to give than to receive and we can all relate to the warm fuzzy feeling you get inside from making others happy, but gift giving can equally generate feelings of anxiety for the giver. This sense of anxiety comes not just from the thought of traipsing around the shopping mall on a Saturday in December, but from the worry that the recipient won’t like our gift or that it won’t elicit the desired reaction (Wooten 2000). In a sense, giving something that you have sourced second-hand can heighten this risk and anxiety, and is probably something we would only do if we knew the recipient well (or planned to palm off the present as bought new).

So why might I give or not give someone a second-hand present? You could say that giving a second-hand gift requires more of a time commitment and more thought. Half the fun of second-hand shopping is that you never know exactly what you’ll find where, and you have to search to find the treasure. Some people will never appreciate being given something second-hand, however much thought that goes into it, and there’s the risk of being considered ‘cheap’ although, of course, vintage and antique things can easily be particularly expensive but that it not really what I’m describing here. I could give a second-hand gift as a political, moral statement, and thinking about it maybe, just maybe, that is what I have done before. “I will force you to accept this second-hand present because it is morally right and see how ethical I am to not buy you something from a mass-marketed corporate store”.

Interesting don’t you think? In a consumer era when it is increasingly common to worry what to get the person who has everything, a second-hand book, jewellery or ornament could really be the most thoughtful gift of all.

References
Sherry, J. F., Jr. (1983). “Gift Giving in Anthropological Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Research 10(2): 157-168.
Wooten, D. B. (2000). “Qualitative Steps toward an Expanded Model of Anxiety in Gift‐Giving.” Journal of Consumer Research 27(1): 84-95.

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