“Vintage! So adorable” Said Regina George in an iconic scene from Mean Girls where she was hypocritically complimenting Cady’s clothing. 

Thrifting is now a favorite activity for young generations. For a variety of reasons that we’ll address later, it is an activity that illustrates the current social and political context that we live in. But buying second hand stores, with the risks of running into coats with stains of blood, or dresses that remind of the Bill Clinton scandal of 1998, thrifting has not always been as popular and trendy as it is these days. 

American vedette, burlesque dancer, model, and businesswoman Dita Von Teese bought a vintage Dior suit from the 1950s made under Mr. Dior himself from a small shop in San Francisco. She received an email from an angry customer of the shop saying “How dare you? I was saving to get that suit!” Image Courtesy of the Guardian. 

Back in the early 2000s, thrifting was not an activity of interest for young people to do after class. Teenagers would go to the mall to buy whatever they could afford from the department stores, or the soon-to-become fast fashion stores that target the young consumer. The branded polos of Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren or Vineyard vines became some sort of uniform that was nowhere to be found in the handbook, yet everywhere at school in students of all grades. The fashion interests of these generations involved y2k aesthetic, an early influence of pop culture like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, and a very consumerist mindset that kept accelerating as fashion became more affordable with production expanding overseas. Online stores became available, as well as more fast fashion companies that produced clothing to accommodate the interests and tastes of different profiles for these markets. 

Elle Woods shaped fashion in the 2000s. Image Courtesy of Vogue. 

This was the fashion of the generation that grew up in the 2000s. A generation where the shoes that had lights that turned on while you walk were the coolest, and where having a ripped logo of Hollister or American Eagle was almost a symbol of status quo. Jeans were the base of an outfit that with a white tank top would work for the day, a nice blouse would work for the early evening bar, and a shimmery cowl top would brighten the night with some sparkles. A lot of these fashion styles came from the shows that were airing at the time, from Disney Channel’s teen stars, to the 2000s Golden Age of the Cinema with Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, White Chicks, A Cinderella Story, and the Notebook. The accessibility of clothing that made it quicker for fashion brands to produce those clothes and have them available at the mall, encouraged the youth to go to the mall for the vibes, for the clothes, and the next week and the week after for more vibes and more new clothes. 

This doesn’t mean that thrifted clothing didn’t exist back then. In fact, the reuse and repurpose of clothing is as old as the very first clothing humans ever worn. However, our relationship with our clothes has changed in these two decades, so we’ve paid more attention to other ways of relating better to our clothing, such as thrifting. 

Lisa Fonssagrives in Harlequin Dress by Jerry Parnis, published in Vogue 1950. 

What changed? 

A sense of individuation 

Individuation, not individualization, is the process by which individuals in society become differentiated by one another. This means, what makes me different from the others? How am I different from those who are my same age, gender, race and background? And what if I have a twin? 

The expressive need for individuation comes at the peak of mass produced fashion goods. Global brands like Zara or H&M that produce the same blazer in the same color are available online and in stores all around the world. The blazer is seen on social media through paid advertisements. The blazer is seen by an influencer who was an early buyer. The blazer is seen on other entertainment figures, like TV hosts or Youtubers who often rely on fast fashion to diversify their styling. By that point, the blazer has only been in the store for two or three days. Very soon, the blazer gets into the hands of the cool students at school, the neighbors, the cousins, the people trying to be influencers using their credit card limit to keep up with these trends. The blazer doesn’t say anything about a person, as an individual identity. These mass produced clothes fight against our strong needs for self-expression.

Consumers begin to realize that these brands are not helping them fulfill their need for individuation, not if they are being offered a blazer that has been produced millions of times and is spread all around the world. 

Vintage green velvet Moschino coat with coin pouches. Image Courtesy of Resurrection Vintage.

That is part of the reason why thrifting is such a fascinating and fulfilling experience for new generations. Price points are clear, established and spread from store to store, and the products that you see may have been produced last month, or three years ago or maybe a decade ago. It is unlikely that you will see that exact same piece on someone as you scroll through your Instagram with the same frequency that you would see that blazer from Zara. 

An element of surprise

Image Courtesy of The Seattle Times

Fashion stores change their color stores bi-weekly or monthly to keep the clothing visually interesting for consumers who go to the store week after week. They add different products, accessories, or decor to make the experience different for the customer and encourage them to visit more frequently (so they can buy more and more often). These fashion stores already have an accelerated system of production where clothes arrive to the stores regularly, and present from 40 to 50 collections per year!

Now, in thrifting, there is an accelerated system that happens almost organically. Consumers buy and as more and more spaces are available in the racks, these spaces are filled with new products that arrive at the store. These new products create a new visual experience that encourages the customer to visit frequently as there is this element of surprise in a second-hand store since you never know what you will find.

Vintage dress by Jean Paul Gaultier from the 2000s. Image Courtesy of the Real Real.

Individuation comes as a natural reaction after mass production, and global brands being available online across the world. Consumers don’t want to feel like they’re wearing the same clothes as others. And, in fashion cycles when we are inspired by the 1970s in the 2020s, and the 1990s were back in 2017, and we throw 1980s parties for our 24th birthday, it feels more authentic to bring back clothes that were part of this time period we are trying to revive through fashion. Materials are high quality, and the styles are true signifiers of the context of these decades, almost as if we could time-travel with these clothes. 

A green mindset

Image Courtesy of Cottonbro Studio

Purchasing clothes from a second hand store has a significantly smaller environmental impact than purchasing clothes from the mall. You are giving a second life to clothes that otherwise would be thrown to the trash and end up in the landfill.

A lot of the branding from these second hand stores comes from clever marketing that manages to merge the concept of sustainability with buying more stuff, almost as if you were giving back to the Earth by actively buying more thrifted items. 

This idea has resonated extremely with consumers who are more conscious about the impact of their purchases and are looking to minimize the number of goods they are getting from the mall.