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!

Second Hand Rose – The Beauty of Buying Second Hand

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My family call me Second Hand Rose! I’ve earnt this nickname over years because of the huge proportion of things I buy second hand. Be it charity shops, eBay, jumble sales, car boots, Facebook selling groups, friends, friends of friends- you name it, I’ve probably bought an item that way! Above is an Ercol hoop back chair I picked up for £2 on a Facebook selling group. I don’t think the seller had an idea of its value (but I did!) It needed sanding down as it had a few paint splatters on it, but nothing structurally wrong and look at it now, good as new and looking fantastic!

My family think I inherited a double-dose of the second hand gene, as my maternal grandfather used to love rooting around at a good car boot sale and my paternal grandmother was a definite charity shopper, along with the good old church jumble sale! Friends have pointed out that I have a nose for a bargain and can spot a good brand a mile off! I think this is down to years of learning to spot the good stuff and also knowing what I am looking for. This doesn’t necessarily have to be item specific because I think it’s important to keep an open mind when shopping second hand, as you never know what you might find. But, you can know what you’re looking for in terms of good brand names, quality material and manufacturing, condition and style. There are Antiques and Collectables Guides which you could consider borrowing from your local library to gen-up. But they will usually only cover furniture, crockery and that kind of thing. I’ve tended to learn from experience and by spotting a good-looking item and then reading up about it or the brand online afterwards.

For example; I’m often buying ladies clothing for myself- if you keep an eye out for the higher end brand names (and occasionally designer pieces. Yes really, get to know your designer labels!) you will often find a good piece. To be more specific, I would be looking for Hobbs, White Stuff, Seasalt, Phase Eight, Laura Ashley, Whistles, Lands End and that sort of thing. A brand name doesn’t always spell quality, in my humble opinion White Stuff make some real cheap tat these days- really thin, poor quality cotton items. You also want to check out the condition of the garment – has it been washed too many times or incorrectly and is the fabric starting to look pilled, bobbled, misshapen or even shrunk?

Always try on your garments before buying, just as you would do in a shop. There’s often a reason why an item has ended up in a charity shop – it may be an oddly fitting or unflattering garment. Sometimes you don’t notice a flaw until you try it on; like a zip that doesn’t work, or a stain that only shows up in the bright changing room lighting. Most charity shops these days do have changing rooms, but if not – make sure that you can return an item for a refund if it doesn’t fit. Beware the charity shops that will only give you a credit note, as that probably won’t be much use – you can’t guarantee that there will be another item you want to buy. Another way to mitigate against potential disasters is to carry a tape measure with you and know your own body measurements off by heart. That way you can quickly and easily ascertain whether an item is likely to fit.

I buy a significant proportion of my wardrobe second hand with most pieces only costing a few pounds. Much of the time (because I look out for good brand names, in excellent condition and won’t pay over the odds), I can sell an item on after I’ve finished wearing it for the same or more than I paid for it. This only works if you also take care of the items whilst they’re in your ownership – so don’t stain them or shrink them in the wash! But it works out as a zero cost per wear! How many people can say that?

My general advice is that you don’t want to pay more than £10 for an item like a jacket, coat or dress, no more than £6 for a skirt and no more than £4 for a pair of trousers or a top. Occasionally I might go a little bit higher, say £12 for a  really nice dress and £15 for a proper, winter coat. But charity shops that ask any more than that for High Street names are trying to take the mickey and over inflate their prices. I see this more and more these days, and to be honest you might as well just look on eBay where you’ll often find things for less. Personally I dislike car boot sales and jumble sales for clothing because you can’t try items on, but the advantage is that items are usually so cheap (we’re talking anything from 10p up to about £2), that you can afford a few mistakes! Always remember to check the care labels before buying clothing – you might love the item, but you’re not going to love paying to dry clean it all the time! I try to stick to machine washable items only and that’s probably better for the environment too.

Whilst I’ve majored on clothing in this post, we’ve bought a significant amount of our furniture and homewares second hand. The only thing I’m slightly squeamish about buying second hand are mattresses and sofas, or easy chairs. Soft furnishings can easily be harbouring nasty bugs, you don’t know if the previous owner has had pets (fleas!), or basically what bodily fluids are on the items. Ewwww. That said, I have purchased 1 upholstered chair second hand and it has been fine. It’s a bit different if you’re going to re-upholster something and just keep the frame. Mind you, some people are squeamish about second hand shoes, but as long as they’re in good condition that doesn’t bother me. And no, I’ve never caught anything nasty! The fact is you can shave a significant portion off the price of new by buying second hand. If you stick to good brand names, you’ll probably break in or even profit (so long as you check, for example, sold prices on eBay beforehand to make sure you don’t bid over the top). I’d recommend looking at items made by John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Ercol, G Plan, Laura Ashley and similar.

Sometimes it’s helpful to go to a specialist retailer that deals in a particular item, or group of items. For example, for a musical instrument, sporting equipment, sewing machine. They may also service the item before sale and possibly give a guarantee with it. You’ll also benefit from their expertise. This is particularly helpful if you have children who grow out of items quickly, as you’ll often find barely used items for a fraction of their original price.

You can buy almost anything second hand and it can really help your budget to stretch further. I’d love to hear stories of your second hand bargains. What kinds of things do you buy second hand and why? Where do you like to shop for them?