A Short History of the Second-Hand Clothes Market

Anyone who knows me well will know that I love to shop second-hand, be it charity shops, jumble sales, car boots, eBay or anything else! During the many years I have been a part of the second-hand market, I have built a working knowledge of the value of items and particularly those which are sought after (hint: it tends to be the good brand names, as people know those are quality items). I also have been able to develop my love of vintage style, as I find genuine vintage items in the charity shops. One of my great loves is vintage Laura Ashley garments and I hope to be able to share a little more of that on my blog soon. I recently discovered a book published by Laura Ashley in 1983 and it’s a really fascinating read. It’s called Fabric of Society – A Century of People and their Clothes 1770-1870 by Jane Tozer and Sarah Levitt. You can pick up a hardback 1st edition for 1p, plus P&P on Amazon so it’s a real bargain!

I was very interested to come across this information about the history of the second-hand clothes market. As still is the case nowadays, second-hand clothing provides a way for poor (and financially savvy) people to buy the essentials. Then, as much as now, people were often too busy to sew or make their own garments. The Primarks of the day were known as ‘slop’ shops! I’m not sure if that’s where we get the word sloppy from. But just as today, the quality was poor and the garments did not last. The savvy people knew to buy second-hand, high quality garments that had come from the large houses. People who knew the market were very shrewd and able to judge which were the high-quality pieces. This meant if you were buying through a dealer, you’d pay a higher price than if you found the bargain yourself. Nothing changes eh?

Certain items of clothing were only worn by the gentry, such as dress coats and so, there was no second-hand market for these. They had to be turned into other garments, so they could be sold on. So, people either bought them and turned them into wool hats or caps, or traders did. These coats were also used to patch other garments. If a waistcoat began to wear, then it would be cut down into a smaller size or used to create cloth tops for boots. I think we could learn a thing or two from those days, don’t you?

Woollen garments which were so worn, they could no longer serve as clothing were sent for recycling. They would be ground down and mixed with new wool, into a fibre known as ‘shoddy’. I wonder if that’s where we get that word from also? This fibre was used to make cheap, mass-produced clothing. They didn’t waste anything and the dust from the mills, was used as manure on the hop-fields of Kent. This of course is safe with natural fibres, unlike the plastic micro-fibres that are clogging up our oceans today because we like to wear micro-fleece garments.

Old boots and shoes were patched up with anything they had to hand, even cardboard! Although that can’t have been great for anyone concerned, as it’s hardly durable or waterproof. Then they would be blackened to look good as new, if only temporarily. For this reason, people who worked outdoors often purchased new boots, even if they had to save up for them because they knew that quality footwear was essential to do their jobs safely and well!

In the 1700s and 1800s, women’s dress was less subject to change and this was because they knew how to sew! They would carry out any alterations themselves if fashions changed, or either repairing garments or cutting them down into child-sized ones. They would also tend to sell garments on themselves, after cleaning them. Old silk garments were used to line new clothing, or work boxes or dressing cases. They could also be turned into childrens or even dolls clothes!

Wool and cotton were recycled into shoddy thread and linen rags went to paper mills, but silk was not salvageable once damaged or worn. Cotton gowns were the most popular as they stood the test of time well and could be cleaned. Woollen dresses were less popular, as they did not last so well- probably prone to bobbling. Then of course, there were the furs. Any second-hand furs were mostly sold to prostitutes, as most people could not afford them – even second-hand! So much of this bears true today, if you buy a quality cotton garment it will be very long-lasting, as opposed to cheaper man-made fibres. I suspect that wool is more long-lasting today, as we know to hand wash it to keep it looking good.

The items that were most worn, such as trousers obviously tended to wear out and that’s why we don’t see many of these types of items, or working-class items at all in museums today because people actually wore their clothes out in those days. That really is a testament to the thriftiness and historic success of ‘the rag trade’, which really abhorred waste. A story that really is so relevant today!

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One thought on “A Short History of the Second-Hand Clothes Market

  1. Pingback: Is it Vintage or is it Second Hand? | Minimalist Exposure

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