It’s the time of year when fashion magazines suddenly put on weight. The women inside are still thin as wire, but the magazines themselves require careful lifting: the 2007 edition of American Vogue that featured in the film "The September Issue" tipped the scales at nearly 5lb, and this year’s model is apparently the second-fattest ever. Published in high summer but focused on autumn, these lucrative editions are swollen with adverts coaxing us to buy—sorry, "invest in"—our winter wardrobes. The accompanying editorial, if you can find it (86% of the "September Issue" issue was advertising), exhorts us to update our look and get shopping. So now feels like the right moment to question all this novelty and consider its opposite: second-hand clothing.
There are many words for second-hand: pre-owned, pre-loved, re-used, recycled. Even vintage, a term that once meant something specific to do with wine and cars. This wealth of euphemisms tells a tale: second-hand clothes have an image problem, even in an era of planet-consciousness. For anyone who grew up in poverty or in wartime, old clothes—cast-offs, hand-me-downs—have unpleasant overtones. Several people I know have an almost pathological resistance to them, citing the smell of mustiness or mothballs, of old age and perhaps death. Their concerns about hygiene are perfectly understandable. Clothing is personal, after all: "second-body" would be a more accurate term than second-hand. But that’s when dry-cleaners come into their own.
The tradition of second-hand clothes is far older than that of new, mass-produced ones. For most of history clothes were hand-made and handed on; new clothes were a luxury for the elite. Clothes were "turned" to show the reverse of the fabric when the outside was faded or worn, or else made into something else. In 18th-century London, the second-hand clothing industry centred on Covent Garden, but by the 1850s it had moved to the area round Petticoat Lane in the East End, where clothes were "translated" or "clobbered" (remade) and cleaned with turpentine. The Victorian lady of fashion might pass a dress on to her maid, but she was more likely to sell it than to wear it.
During the second world war, the British didn’t need coupons to be able to buy second-hand clothes, and the government ran a "Make Do and Mend" campaign, featuring Mrs Sew-and-Sew. Magazines told people how to make a new coat out of two old ones or a dress out of curtains. The message was "thrift is the fashion": that was the climate into which Dior’s fabric-hungry New Look erupted and the reason it seemed so profligate and so shocking. In the times of relative plenty since the 1960s, second-hand has had a different role: nostalgic, avant-garde, arty. Lately, celebrities have appeared on red carpets wearing designer vintage—also known as expensive second-hand clothes.
I’m an out-and-proud devotee of second-hand, and have been since the days when I’d rummage in jumble sales for satiny slips to wear as dresses. I pass on clothes to family and friends, and vice versa. Even after 30-plus years of shopping, it’s a rare day when I’m not wearing something that’s had a former life on another body—or at least in another cupboard. I’m lucky enough to live near two good dress agencies, where people sell their designer mistakes. Or perhaps they are not mistakes, merely from last season and therefore in need of replacing—some people believe the September issues. As a customer you get far more quality for your money than you do buying new. I would certainly not otherwise be the owner of a floral, halter-neck Dolce & Gabbana dress, and probably not of a Prada jumper with short, furry sleeves. The virtual equivalent is eBay and the other auction or resale sites, but they have the disadvantage that you can’t try the clothes on—the site may give measurements, but that alone doesn’t determine fit. The secret is only to buy brands whose sizing you are already sure of, and even so it remains a gamble.
Shopping in a dress agency is about serendipity. Either there is something you love that fits you, or there isn’t. It’s a black-and-white process. If you arrive soon after a rich shopaholic the same shape as you has left the building, you hit the jackpot. I got married in a shimmery, gold-bronze shift dress (Plein Sud) and sling-back suede heels (Prada) that I’d bought in half an hour the day before. They weren’t borrowed or blue, but they did qualify as old.
Buy second-hand and you don’t waste time trawling through rail after rail of new clothes, comparing sizes or colours or styles, convinced there will be something that works. You are spared the tedium of too much choice and too many decisions. Best of all, you sidestep the fleeting tyranny of fashion: whether that dress is this season, last season or last century is not important. The hype falls away and you are left considering the only questions that matter: does it suit me? Do I feel good in it? Will I wear it? Which are just the questions the September issues don’t want you to ask.