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Chic sustainability: the art of American thrifting

The year was 2017. My YouTube homepage began filling up with videos of young men and women scouring their local Goodwills and Salvation Army stores for vintage pieces of clothing. “Go to the thrift stores, that’s where all the heat is,” they’d say. They’d emerge with dozens of articles of cool clothes, having spent sometimes less than 20 dollars. I remember running to tell my mom about the “thrift vlogs” I was watching, assuming thrift shopping was a new internet fad, and something I’d have to beg her to allow me to do. But she was no stranger to the concept. 

Having been a young adult in the 1990s, my mother told me all about the thrift stores she’d frequent in downtown New York City to find the best pairs of acid wash jeans and the coolest United Colors of Benetton sweaters for the cheapest prices. The worn, tattered, grunge/punk aesthetic of the ‘90s perfectly aligned with the available items in secondhand shops where the clothing was old, yet stylish. And the pieces my mom would thrift, some thirty years ago now, are likely the very same items that have circulated back into the thrift stores of America and found homes, once more, in the closets of thrifty teenagers in the late 2010s and 2020s. 

The popularity of recycling clothing is now as old as some of the clothing itself, especially when we remember the styles of the ‘70s resurfacing in the ‘90s, and the trends of the ‘90s—arguably—never dying out. Thrifting embraces trend-recycling, the repetition of styles every ten to twenty years, and helps perpetuate our national identity in fashion terms. 

The more “trashy,” “grunge,” or “sleazy” styles of the past few decades are embraced heavily in the trends of today, especially when they are overtly “vintage,” or overtly reflect a certain element of older fashion. As Americans become more fascinated with thrifting both as an activity and as a style, vintage clothing is labeled as mainstream. 

Currently, the most popular pre-worn fashion are hot items like vintage band t-shirts, old sweaters, cowboy boots, and denim. A number of factors contribute to the growing demand for this type of clothing, and the results of the commonality of vintage clothing vary.  

Take pre-loved denim and old “grandpa” sweaters, for example. Both are easy to find at thrift stores. Jeans have the versatility to come in so many different styles, and according to The New York Times article, “Is Denim an Identity Crisis?,” the trending denim fit changes at a rapid pace. Thus, denim is frequently donated. “Grandpa sweaters,” a kind of oversized, patterned sweater now with its own designated Amazon category, are the typical “vintage” American-made sweaters that one could find at any department store throughout the second half of the 20th century. These are also commonly donated by older people who don’t need them anymore.

The appeal of these two categories of clothing is twofold: first, the quality of today’s sweaters and modern denim pales in comparison to the quality of their older counterparts. Ironically, as the quality of these items decreases, the price and environmental impact of clothing increases. 

Secondly, thrifting vintage denim and vintage sweaters offers a dual advantage as it’s a cheaper alternative and environmentally friendly, which is likely what draws much of Generation Z to thrift stores. And, as I mentioned before, rewearing the denim styles or sweater styles of the past, especially when they are products that are overtly reminiscent of their eras, contributes to a collective idea of the classic Americana: an image that might look like light wash jeans, an old faded cotton shirt with an American flag or another iconic logo on it, a baseball cap, and some kind of American-made boot, or maybe a popular Nike or Adidas sneaker. 

Band t-shirts, often referred to as “band tees,” are another highly sought-after piece of vintage clothing. They have been consistently popular for several decades in a row now, and the appeal is somewhat obvious: sporting Nirvana memorabilia or a Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” shirt displays an almost undeniable element of coolness. These band logos specifically have been solidified in pop culture as iconic ones, not only because of the bands’ extreme popularity in their respective decades, but also out of appreciation for the artistry of album covers of the past.

The legacies and aesthetics of bands like Sublime or the Grateful Dead are commonly known by most Americans. Wearing vintage, oftentimes tattered or faded, band tees not only reflects a knowledge of past pop culture and good music, but also reminds wearers and passersby of the bands’ prime eras. During the ‘70s and ‘90s, especially, music was good, and life was good. And thrifting band tees from these iconic times sparks visual interest and reflects a sense of coolness, fashionability, and nostalgia. 

Then, there are the iconic cowboy boots, perhaps the most nostalgic for U.S. Westerners or Southerners. This trend has surpassed the ability to invoke nostalgia as they reached an ever-present status in certain states. So why are cowboy boots popping up all over the country, even in the most liberal, northern parts? Well, aside from the attractive pointed toes that look nice coming out of wide-leg jeans, the intricate designs, quality leather, and artisanship of cowboy boots have now become the embodiment of America. And an element of thrifting that is more subverted is the concept of irony.

Cowboy boots, along with camouflage patterns and American flags, are known for being worn by “country” folk who may hunt or fish or listen to country music, attach American flags to their pickup trucks, and vote red. But borrowing the items that are typically connoted with “country” elements, in an ironic way, is now desirable. People who may not consider themselves ultra-patriotic, or who fit a more elitist archetype that does not align with the blue-collar working class people that typically wear boots and American flags, may adopt parts of this style including cowboy boots, American-made frayed low-rise jeans, and an old band tee with an American flag somewhere on it, because together—maybe with some gaudy jewelry and makeup or a dad’s baseball cap—the Trashy Americana look is formed. It is almost poking fun at our national identity, but looking cool while doing it. It’s ironic, it’s punk, it’s counterculture. It’s embracing our roots by providing a new connotation to otherwise forgotten or unwanted aesthetics. 

Among all of the fashionable reasons for thrifting, it is also sustainable. Recycling has become cool, so thrifting is cool. Clothing waste is a serious problem, especially as trend cycles quicken. According to Vox’s article, “Fast Fashion, Explained,” fast fashion creates a “disposable society.” It’s the fashion industry’s way of aligning with the efficiency of the 21st century, and attempts to keep up with trends that are born and die sometimes within a span of a month or two. This leads to a grotesque amount of unnecessary waste. And while thrifting pre-worn clothing is an antidote to this issue, the popularity of worn, tattered, faded and old clothing presents another concern: fake vintage. 

Including retailers like Brandy Melville and Urban Outfitters, even Shein, at practically every place that makes and sells clothing, clothing can be found that looks pre-worn. Or at the very least, mimics traditional styles of previous decades. Shein cowboy boots, for example, are as cheap as pre-loved cowboy boots, ranging from about 15 to 30 dollars, look perfectly traditionally western, and even come in the most on-trend color schemes of any given time. Brandy Melville’s ‘90s aesthetic, complete with faded jeans and a muted color palette, recreates clothing that can be easily found at thrift stores but on a more consumable scale.

But fake vintage undermines the very reasons for thrifting in the first place. Fast fashion is perpetuated; even if the fashion looks vintage, it is still pumped out quickly and the leftovers are dumped in landfills. The element of rarity provided by secondhand pieces is lost when the vintage look becomes commercialized. 

At the core of the current thrifting craze, and perhaps one reason for the relevance of thrifting throughout the past few decades, is America’s obsession with individuality. Expressing one’s personality in clothing, whether it be ironically trashy, punky and grunge, traditional and chic, is all possible by shopping secondhand. As all different aesthetics are accessible in thrift shops, and thrifting becomes mainstream, eclecticism becomes part of America’s style identity; trends continue to ebb and flow at alarming rates, but individuality remains at the forefront.

It is trendy to be unique, and not follow trends, and wear clothing that represents your personality. However, beware the dangers of fast fashion disguised as vintage clothing. Continue shopping secondhand not only for the cool vintage styles, which are becoming more and more commercialized every day, but also because it’s better for your bank account and better for the planet.

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