Something Old, something New

The mixed up world of used clothing

In this time of gifts, of crackly packaging and new things, I've been preoccupied with the old and used. Heirlooms and hand-me-downs, cast-offs, rejects and flea-shop finds: the strange universe of second-hand clothing.

Within most families, used clothing is a given. Baby gear is nearly always recycled, saris are handed down, siblings scrabble over the same stuff. There's a red-and-white houndstooth pinafore that's followed the little girls in my family down the decades.

I remember playing dress-up with my grandmother's chain-strap purse and drapey sari, soft with age, but way more glamorous to me than my mother's handlooms.

Things get more complicated when you're giving away clothes to people you know, but are not family. Is it acceptable to give lightly worn things to domestic help, as so many people here do? Clothes are such an intimate thing, they sit right there between your skin and your ­social self — so it feels weird and disrespectful to expect someone else to wear your discards. I'm comfortable with clothes being charitably sent over to others who might have some use for it — but I'd prefer it to be an ­abstract transaction between strangers.

Used clothes have long moved down the class ladder, and from the metropoles to the margins. It used to be hemmed in by trade laws and tariffs, but the flow of clothing from the US and Europe to the developing world has grown hugely since the mid-'90s. When there are societies of glut and societies of scarcity, sending stuff from one to another may make sense, and be kinder on the environment, but it's still a bit troubling. When first-world consumers feel sated and sickened by their things, they clean them out to Goodwill or Salvation Army stores, which then sell them to recyclers and dealers who sort and export them to less lucky places around the world. Where they become new again, in a fresh context — sought after, exclaimed over, worn by new people.

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