It’s a new year and time for a ‘new you’, right? Maybe you’re starting a new job (I am!). Or lost your suitcase. Gained (maybe lost) some weight. Or just want a new look. You may need a few new items, a wardrobe freshen-up or even a complete overhaul.  Whatever the reason, one of the best ways to acquire new clothes sustainably is to shop secondhand. Or vintage. Or thrift. Or pre-loved. Or previously-owned. Or gently-worn. Whatever car dealership phrase suits you.

Our friends at Fashion Revolution recently shared that in 2017 “buying secondhand clothing for environmental reasons increased 22.5% in a year which saw much media attention about the environmental impacts of fast fashion”. 

But the benefits don’t stop with the environment: Buying secondhand has several major advantages over buying new:

  • First, it extends the ‘lifecycle’ of clothes and materials with relatively few new (environmental OR social) inputs;
  • Because secondhand tends to be cheaper, it opens up a market of previously unavailable brands, materials, styles, workmanship etc. to a new audience;
  • Third, it’s an option to get revival ‘fashion’ items, from the first time round when they likely would be truer to the style and better made (think of the nineties resurgence we’re having at the moment – a thrifters dream!);
  • Fourth, secondhand clothes can create camaraderie that you can’t necessarily get at a mall (think clothes swops, bargain hunting with friends etc.);
  • Finally, it creates new markets and entrepreneurial opportunities and in the case of charity shops can even go towards a good cause.

Unfortunately South Africa doesn’t have as established a secondhand market as some more developed countries, but check out your local markets, charity stores (see Chic Mamas do Care), pop-ups (like Vintage with Love) or organise a swop with your friends. If you’re brave enough, there’s also lots of people selling online via their social media accounts or Gumtree. But be as thorough as possible when buying-before-you-try as grainy cellphone pictures can hide all sorts of sins.  As with all purchases, my advice when thrifting, secondhand or vintage shopping is to buy well, wear well and mend clothes to make them last. Try my list of handy tips for when you’re out looking for those gems:

Material

As much as possible stick to natural fabrics (cotton, wool, silk etc.) rather than plastic polymers or blends (polyester). Natural fabric pieces will wear better, be more comfortable and last longer.

Workmanship and wear 

Check your finishes, they’re a quick signal of quality and condition. Examine seams, hems, zips, closures for rips or loose threads, missing buttons etc (although some of these can be easily fixed with a needle and thread). Does a jacket have lining? Has a knitted jersey pilled (can be fixed with a safety razor) or pulled? Is it stained? Rubbed or worn? Some faults or wear can be the opportunity for embellishment or an upstyle (think elbow patches, new buttons, a shorter hem) but others may mean the item never gets worn.

Labels

Look out for labels you know to be well-made, or well-known. (Google if you need to.)

Style

Classic pieces will never date – think beautiful coats, silks scarves, dark jeans, LBDs etc.

Fit

Because it’s unlikely there’ll be a size range in an item you like, you may need to do a bit of digging before you find what you’re looking for. Don’t settle for an item that’s too big or too small unless you have the ability (or know a good seamstress) to fix it – Rather leave it to the next person, who may love it as is. Remember, older vintage pieces tend to run small; and different fashion ‘eras’ will suit different frames. For example, a hearty bosom and hips lends itself better to 1950s styles, than to 1960s pieces.

Accessorise

Don’t be afraid to buy bags, scarves, shoes, hats and jewellery as often these vintage pieces can be the real gems (and they don’t mind if your size fluctuates). Check shoes for wear and tear (bonus here is that they’re often already worn in), examine bag zips, linings and straps, and for jewellery inspect clasps and materials (rather buy silver/gold than plated steel or nickel, as the latter will not last), scan scarves for holes or runs/wear, and hats for dents (although most stiff wool hats can have their dents steamed out over a kettle). For many who don’t fit into conventional or readily available size options (especially since these outlier sizes are often quickly scooped up), accessories are a great way to still get the vintage look.

But remember, buying second-hand and donating your clothes does not ‘absolve’ you – you are still responsible for the items you buy and wear, so don’t buy things that won’t last just to toss them out – buy well, wear well and mend clothes to make them last. And keep reading What’s the Stitch? We’re in this together.

  • In my last column I had promised to next look at using post-consumer and recovered materials in clothing. That column will come in February, fittingly for the ‘month of love’ when it might be apt to tear things apart and make them anew (and better).
  • Image credit: Jackie May