From so-called “VSCO girls” to “eboys,” punk rockers to sustainable activists, everyone seems to get their clothes from the same place: thrift stores.
Despite thrift shopping’s current popularity, there’s a thick, red line we’re all denying the existence of. A line that draws a distinction between socially acceptable thrift shopping between privileged — primarily white — teens who shop for the mere trend of it all, and those who use thrifting as public welfare.
Given the undeniable stigma around individuals and families who rely on thrift shopping as a way to provide for their families, it’s not in the place of people in the higher socioeconomic classes to deem thrifting as a “cute social trend.” What exists as a means for us to find vintage tees that go down to our thighs and easy outfits for school dance after parties is so much more.
We don’t always look up to see the people shopping around us. Single mothers fighting for GEDs stopping by to get a new pair of shoes for a job interview. College students living out of their cars, so broke they can barely afford ramen, desperately looking for a winter coat without any holes in it. Senior citizens spread too thin paying medical bills hoping there’s a pair of jeans in their size because their current ones have gotten too ratty.
These are all realities most of us can’t even begin to imagine. I’ve grown up in a middle class family, which for me means never having to worry about where my next meal might come from or how I’m going to afford new clothes. Regardless of my circumstances, there are members of our community, even in our school, who hide vastly different backstories. For them, no matter how trendy it is now, they’ll always carry a complicated relationship with thrifting.
An East student who chose to remain anonymous reached out to me and revealed that though she sports an almost entirely thrifted wardrobe now, it wasn’t always a choice. In elementary school, her family couldn’t afford the same clothes her classmates wore, so she grew up shopping primarily at thrift stores.
Other people’s negative perspectives of thrifting brought on lasting insecurities and social rejection. She grew up thinking she was lesser because of her clothing, because her peers were implying her identity and her family were something to be ashamed of.
My intent isn’t to get all “holier-than-thou” and try to ban everyone at East from thrifting. I mean, I’d pretty much be the biggest hypocrite in the world — all of my baggy, collegiate sweatshirts are thrifted, and every shirt that goes past my shorts is straight from the Men’s XL section. Thrifting is a budget-conscious and environmentally friendly way to shop, and it’s become a large part of teenage expression.
I realize I’m part of a large group who thrifts because of thrifting’s rise in cultural popularity. But where has the newfound obsession with thrift shopping come from? I quickly came across the answer the way I come across most of the important things in my life — political memes, videos of dogs and turtles becoming friends and Chrissy Teigen’s tweets — by scrolling through social media.
In the influencer era, it’s no surprise the trend seems to originate on the Internet. Your favorite Los Angeles-based YouTuber uploads her thrifting haul videos to millions of followers and before you know it, everyone is thrifting. Suddenly seeing girls with messy buns and boys with cuffed jeans in every shop from Salvation Army to Plato’s Closet is completely normal.
But it hasn’t always been, and it’s important to recognize the privilege that allows us to treat thrifting as an Internet-supported fashion moment instead of an institution that allows individuals to provide themselves with basic needs.
So how can we give back to a system that, while not made for us, has been so beneficial? Start by dropping off some of your old clothes in a donation box. Instead of shopping only from stores like Arizona Trading Company in Westport that primarily operate through buying clothes from sellers and pricing them up to appeal to an indie-hipster market, look for places that directly benefit the underprivileged. Thrift stores like Savers partner with and donates portions of their profit to local nonprofits.
No matter the similarities in the purchases of a high schooler and a four-person family running on one minimum wage salary, there’s a massive difference in the way they’re treated by society. The next time you pop into City Thrift to see if you can nab a Grateful Dead T-shirt, take into consideration the myriad of stories that surround you, and ask yourself how you can help lessen the stigmatization of thrift shopping.