Inspired by Meggy and Jenny at Fashion for Writers, Minh-Ha and I decided to hold a “conversation” about how we shop differently, which turned into a long and somewhat theory-heavy discussion about capital, time, moralism, and our different reactions to patterns! It was loads of fun to explicitly compare our consumption habits and clothing aesthetics, and sparked a lot of self-reflection for the both of us.
THIS MAY BE OUR LONGEST POST YET.
“Strategies for Thrifting with Non-thrifters”
Mimi: So Minh-Ha, the other day you generously drove me to some (I have many more…) of my regular thrifting scores in the East Bay. You’ve never been with me during my favored mode of shopping before, though we’ve done the retail rounds together at H&M to Philip Lim during my visits with you in New York City. (Within a very small radius!) How was that for you?
Minh-Ha: It was fine! I was once told (by you!) that I may not have thrifting stamina – and admittedly, I’ve been worn out before by Brian – but actually it was fine this time. You didn’t spend more than 30 minutes or so at any one place – were you rushing for me?
Mimi: Yes, I have developed strategies for thrifting with non-thrifters! These include looking at the clothes as they hang on the rack with a sort of focusing filter for patterns or visible details (solids are easier for me to pass up if pressed for time); also running my hands quickly across the clothes to check their fabric quality (I try to avoid polyester, although today I bought an entirely flammable nurse’s uniform from the 1960s!); skipping the more time-consuming sections (I will skip pants, since these are the hardest for me to gauge what they’ll look like without trying them on); and so on. Although I did buy some amazing Levi’s Sta-Prest pants once without testing the fit!
I enjoy the chaos, though much of what remains in actual thrift stores now are the “faster fashions” of H&M, Forever 21, Target (which actually donates much of its unsold merchandise to thrift stores), et cetera. I’m not sure to what degree these clothes are qualitatively distinct from earlier eras of mass clothing –though I do suspect that the disco-petro polyester of the past will outlast the flimsy screenprinted cotton blends of the present– but I think it’s safe to say that the rate of production is much, much more sped up (patterns being pre-cut and sent to manufacturing sites via computers and interwebs, the wave of the future!), as is the passing of each garment’s “moment” (consider how quickly the clothes are cycled on and off the racks at F21). These accelerated conditions are rapidly transforming the secondhand clothing industry (un-resellable, textiles are the fastest-growing waste product in the UK, and probably in the US) as well as the categories through which we understand it.
The Politics of Thrift
Minh-Ha: Your observation about the increasing occurrence of so-called fast fashion in thrift stores raises an important point about the difficulty of drawing discrete boundaries around different spheres of fashion. The meanings of sartorial categories like vintage, retro, luxury, couture, mass, sustainable, and fast fashion signify less and less, I think, the actual fashion commodity (the content of its textiles, its modes of production, or its sites of consumption) and reveal more about the particular consumer politics of its wearer.
For example, people who make conscious choices to buy sustainable fashions are saying something about their concerns for the environment. Consumers who reject so-called fast fashion often do so based on their political-ethical distaste for clothes made in poor labor conditions, disposable clothes that are bad for environment, or legally suspect clothes that are sometimes “knocked off” designs from luxury labels. One of the most fervent defenses of vintage or thrifted clothes (overlapping but not, as you point out, synonymous sartorial categories) is made by Kaja Silverman. She argues that “thrift-shop dressing” is a postmodern gesture that disavows “the binary logic through which fashion distinguishes ‘this year’s look’ from ‘last year’s look,’ a logic that turns upon the opposition between ‘the new’ and ‘the old’ and works to transform one season’s treasures in to the next season’s trash.” She goes on to celebrate “vintage clothing [as] a mechanism for crossing vestimentary, sexual, and historical boundaries.” There’s a lot that goes unsaid in each of these sartorial-ideological positions. For example, eco-conscious consumers forget that oftentimes the processes for producing sustainable fabrics like bamboo require heavily toxic chemicals that are decidedly environmentally un-friendly or that thrift stores are full of mass or fast fashions from past sartorial eras.
Smooth, crepe-y, nubby, sparkly blacks and grays,
Minh-Ha’s very focused color palette is full of differences
I’m not saying that fashion consumers are “fashion victims” (a sexist and anti-feminist description that implies irrational consumerism); I’m just suggesting that fashion consumers are not only political-sartorial actors but are also market actors whose range of consumer choices are embedded in a larger ethical-economic system that has long produced and managed consumer citizens by moralizing consumption. To celebrate sustainable fashion or inversely to denigrate fast fashion (the term itself inherits all the negative classist associations of fast food) is to forget that these sartorial spheres are stratified across class differences. Eco-fashion is expensive! So are the most coveted “vintage” fashions. Moralizing consumption often has the effect of reproducing and securing what Lauren Berlant describes in a different context as “the dominant order of feeling, virtue, and ideology.” The moralization of consumption tends to reserve moral values such as good, responsible (in relation to eco-fashion or vegan dress), honest (especially with regard to so-called counterfeit fashions), and even creative for the elite. This is one reason why fast fashion manufacturers are accused of “counterfeiting” designs (a legal and moral condemnation) while luxury designers are celebrated for their worldly “inspirations.”
Witness the chaos in Mimi’s closet: multiple eras, multiple textures, multiple patterns, multiple styles.
Mimi: I guess in approaching these issues I would want to start with how clothes are distinguished by fabric or cut or manufacture because this has very much to do with how these clothes circulate through categories of value (like secondhand or vintage) over time. For instance, I doubt that H&M or Forever 21 garments will pass into the realm of vintage, though these clothes may well hold temporary resale value for secondhand sellers; not only did mass production not “democratize” fashion, it did in fact create new hierarchies of value and meaning along lines of class distinctions (e.g., shoddier construction, flimsier fabrics) that I do believe haunt these clothes past their initial purchase.
I understand what Kaja Silverman meant with her defense of thrifting (as excerpted briefly in your comments), because Fashion (with a capital F) is understood as a realm of Change and the Modern (also in capital letters) and as such Fashion is also inextricable from how we understand time and its distribution. Furthermore, the temporal register of categories of clothes –traditional costume or classic investment or modern trend– is necessarily circumscribed by capital. In fact, Fashion is an exemplary site for realizing the disciplinary forms of time –ranging from the notion of seasons and the sort of temporal distancing at work in the utterance, “That’s so last season!” to the highly disciplinary regimentation of labor’s time in the sweatshop or factory– that are also capital’s doing.
At the same time, it is because Fashion is distinctly modernist that it is not just about the new — it is also incredibly nostalgic and obsessively periodizing. (Here “modernity” refers to a substantive range of sociohistorical phenomena –capitalism, bureaucracy, technological development, the rise of the social sciences and categorization, and so on—but also to particular though often contradictory experiences of temporality and historical consciousness.) So perhaps thrift and vintage do challenge the fashion industry’s rule of seasonal lines, but these categories are not necessarily apart from that industry’s own nostalgic tendencies (which are also a part of its capital production, not entirely unlike Hollywood’s love for the remake and certain properties’ assumed built-in audiences).
I absolutely agree with you that clothes and their differentiated consumption –“fast fashion,” eco-fashion, counterfeit, vintage– are often the objects of moralizing discourses. But I would further parse a distinction between discourses of consumption and consumers themselves, since the former can be understood to “recruit” and “transform” individuals into particular kinds or classes of people –as consumers, in this instance– but cannot describe the latter absolutely. Certainly these discourses produce and reproduce the meanings and values which represent the relationships we imagine we have to our real conditions of existence, and which might take the form of the moral decision-making you note above. But moralism (which Wendy Brown actually distinguishes from morality and dubs anti-politics) is not the same as ethical or political inquiry. And I would further caution against conflating moral and aesthetic judgments with political and psychological ones — and against blurring consumption practices and their consequences for the logic of capital or homogeneous time with the feelings or politics of individuals who engage in these practices. This is to say that it is not necessarily false to make this connection, but not necessarily true either.
Minh-Ha: I get that the temporal trajectory and logics of thrift/vintage aren’t the same as Fashion but I’m not convinced that thrift/vintage is the feminist answer to fashion consumption and adornment that Silverman makes it out to be. That view presumes that Fashion is inherently anti-feminist; it also demands that we have a nostalgic relation to the past. Here, I’m thinking about her assertion that retro “provides a means of salvaging the images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity, images that have been consigned to the wastebasket not only by fashion but by ‘orthodox’ feminism.” But for which female subjects are these past images and past fashions sustaining? And which thrifted fashions enable this? Certainly not the H&M, F21, or Old Navy cast-offs! This idealized past is a distinctly whitewashed past as you so aptly point out in In Vintage Color. And while I love your idea that women of color in vintage styles can enable us to correct this historical absence and “imagine otherwise,” we can only correct “the past” by establishing a different relation to it from “the present.” This isn’t historical-temporal borderlessness; it’s a position that’s firmly situated within (even if or rather because it’s in dialectic opposition to) the dominant logic of linear progressive time. The valorization of vintage as postmodern historical borderlessness doesn’t take into account that borderlessness is a privilege only white bodies enjoy – even in vintage and thrifted fashions.
Even the light dresses in Minh-Ha’s closet (and this is pretty much
all of them) are full of pleats, draping, fans, and shiny detail goodness.
The first dress looks as guileless as a shift dress but it’s the infamous “geisha.”
Mimi: I haven’t read Silverman’s “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse” in several years, but I want to point out that it was published in 1986, and was one of the first essays to attempt to craft a feminist fashion studies, so I would approach its theoretical project on its own speculative terms. Furthermore, secondhand clothing as a whole circulated at a much more subterranean level of the market at that time (as Angela McRobbie documents, secondhand clothed the poor but also the weirdos), so I can’t fault Silverman for failing to predict the incorporation of one aspect of secondhand clothing as vintage into Fashion’s industrial self-replication.
As such, I read her more generously as encouraging the critical recognition that we need not adhere to linear progressive time and consign the past to the wastebasket as useless or worse, which is a form of historical consciousness that both Fashion and some of our critical discourses often demand. This recognition need not be nostalgic –and I don’t believe that nostalgia is necessarily a conservative impulse– let alone idealizing, for either Silverman in particular (at least in the above excerpts) or secondhand clothing in general. Again, the backwards glance can be conservative in some instances –witness some of the comments at the Sartorialist’s photograph of his besuited black driver— but it can also be something else. So it seems to me that the vintage-loving women of color at Fashion for Writers, b. vikki, and Renegade Bean are not just salvaging the past as historical object, but also creating alternate and possibly antichronological images about that past that allow it cohabit with us in the present. I’m thinking also of Lipstickeater Joon Oluchi Lee’s “maternamorphosis,” in which he considers how he might honor his mother’s complex personhood through a reconsideration of her personal style with his.
There is no reason to assume that there is a singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage — let alone one set of practices, values or feelings attached to them. (And here I want to reemphasize that while thrift and vintage are not discrete categories, they are definitely not the same.) Silverman’s secondhand salvaging is one possible approach that might allow us to revisit the past for its pleasures, or to transform that past into something other than waste or debris. For instance, when I read about those “images that have traditionally sustained female subjectivity,” I think of queer femmes revisioning the past’s femininities. But the essay does not claim (it acknowledges that it is a series of “fragments”) that this is all there is.
Fashion and style bloggers featuring young women who triumphantly thrift, sometimes pairing their finds with Chloe shoes and Alexander Wang tanks, are a tiny, eensy-weensy minority of thrift shoppers. Thrifting is also a rational form of consumption as reproductive labor —clothing families, for instance– or as class performance. Secondhand Ann Taylor can still project a “professional” look, or H&M a trendy one. But it’s important to note that thrift also still does bear economic and social stigma because it is used, or otherwise perceived as trash, even in the age of Goodwill on-line auctions and the occasional recession news piece on “smart shopping.” Furthermore, its social and economic significance extends to the geopolitical — our so-called trash is conceived as good enough for global Others. Thrift is the backbone of an enormous secondhand clothing export industry that clothes the Global South in the throwaways of the Global North, and furthers the decline of local textile and clothing manufacturing; but it can also fuel local practices of creative reuse in those same places. In any case, we shouldn’t limit an analysis of thrifting or vintage to its radical potential or lack thereof. Of course we cannot escape capital (or its disciplinary time) through thrift — thrift is possible because of capital and the production of surplus. (It even produces new forms of labor, from professional sellers to exporters and so on!) But not all relations to capital are the same.
Minh-Ha: I totally agree that there’s no singular temporal sensibility to thrifting, or to vintage – and that’s actually my point. I have no problem with thrifting or vintage as such (obviously!) – my problem is with the easy and sometimes automatic celebrations of thrifting as a superior, more innovative, and more progressive mode of consumerism. I’d feel the same way about any form of moralizing when it comes to consumerism! And we’ve certainly talked about this before – only some thrifting bodies and styles are read as creative, hip, modern, innovative. Others are perceived as “tacky,” “ghetto,” and “cheap.” These designations don’t always cut across race and class differences but neither do they transcend them.
Mimi: Yes, absolutely thrift does not cohere as a set of practices and discourses! As one of my students –Roseanne O.– demonstrated in her thrift store ethnography this last semester, even in the same town, at the same chain there are clear distinctions between the different locations that imagine distinct consumers and needs. At the Salvation Army closest to campus, there is an “ugly sweater” rack for all the students purchasing these as novelties for themed parties. Similar sweaters are not separated at the store that serves the non-students, and that is located in the same building that provides other services to low-income or homeless persons. And because bodies and clothes interact and activate certain ideas about each the other, the same sweater on a college student going to a themed party is funny because it is outdated, and on a young fashion blogger pairing it with leggings is innovative because it is renewed, and on an older woman imagined as its appropriate owner the sweater will be “just” unfashionable because (supposedly) so is its wearer.
Sorting Out Our Wardrobes
Mimi: Okay, I want to segue into talking about your shopping for a bit here. When we hung out with the amazingly lovely Joony Schecter, you mentioned that you love the frenzy of the sample sale (in contrast to the frenzy of a thrift store). To me it sounds like a nightmare! All the yelling from Thuy Linh! And I feel like I would be the hapless fit model slash load-bearing boyfriend for you both in this scenario. (Don’t deny it, Minh-Ha!) I’m too thrifty to want to spend even that much at a discount, or maybe because I think about how I could buy ten different dresses for the price of one. As a general rule, spending more than a hundred dollars on one garment still freaks me out. Though I gladly did it for the puffy coat I’m now forced to wear in Midwestern winters, and I’m learning that warm winter boots are going to cost me.
But this is also about how I get dressed in the morning, because sometimes I want to become a 1958 Girl Scout summer camp arts and crafts teacher, or a 1976 Lower East Side dissolute rock n’ roller, or a 1983 Midwestern professional lady newscaster. And sometimes my sartorial moods are cinematic or televisual, and I want to capture a particular character or production’s sensibility: Nicki in Time Square, Diana Prince in second or third season Wonder Woman, Billie Jean in The Legend of Billie Jean. The more options I have for putting these personas and their accompanying narratives together the better! This potential is just one part of the appeal of secondhand clothes for me. Another related part is my punk past, populated with awesome and creative persons who were unafraid to play with their clothes to create a mood or a confrontation. And on a purely sensual level I love certain patterns and textures that I can’t otherwise find (like ’50s abstract expressionism on a full skirt) or couldn’t otherwise afford (what with all the so-called legit designers liberally plundering those archives themselves). Therefore, my grass-green scratchy burlap shift dress with the kelly-green piping and rolled neckline, which seems so genius to me.
So how do you understand your own preferences — shopping-wise, and in terms of how you get dressed in the morning? Is there a politics to the sample sale, the sample as both limited supply but also surplus?
Minh-Ha: Yes! Thrift stores often, but not always, feel like a labyrinth of hyper and multi-sensory hodgepodge to me. You mentioned once that you thought my unease in thrift stores had to do with the various prints and textures — and I think you’re probably right. Whether I’m shopping online (more and more these days) or in a brick-and-mortar shop, my eye is always drawn to solid blacks, grays, and what I’d describe as steel blue or bluish gray. Just thinking about that color – such a perfect color! I mostly wear dresses because they’re all-in-one — this is the same reason I’ve grown to love jumpsuits and rompers. And dresses with some architectural detail are my soft spot. I have a black Alexander Wang dress that I got at a sample sale with Thuy (who else?) that has futuristic shoulders and has a “poof” between the shoulder blades. Interesting and complicated pleats are also a favorite for me. While I don’t dress in “personas,” like you do, my style isn’t quite utilitarian either. There’s a 3.1 Phillip Lim dress I bought from LaGarconne.com that’s only good for standing (the website makes me feel as warm and fuzzy as the Phillip Lim store on Mercer in NYC). The tulip-shaped skirt on this dress is so narrow that when I walk, I’m “doing the geisha” — so NOT my stylo! That’s not to say I don’t wear the dress – but when I do, I’m pre-scheduling the pace of my life that day. So rather than channeling any persona, I’m making decisions about how I want to move through my day and what kind of attitude I want to project. Harder or not so hard. (I don’t do “soft” — which I associate with pastels.) And it’s all probably too subtle for anyone to notice — I mean, my color palette is really focused at this point. But it’s all in the details, baby!
I want to just say a little something about price tolerance – and I think this connects to a couple of different points we’ve already raised about the overlapping spheres of fashion and the politics of sample sales. I don’t know anyone who is completely faithful to any single mode of shopping. I love the rush and sociality of sample sales (strangers being each other’s eyes when there’s only one full-length mirror; snagging the only dress in your size, having a dress that may never see the light of retail, etc.) so if I HAD to choose only one mode of consumption, it would probably be sample sale shopping. Still, there are things that I’d prefer to buy at mass market/cheap chic sites (the classist dimension of “fast fashion” puts me off that term). Tops and jeans, for example! Why I’m psychologically incapable of spending more than $40 on a top is something I’m still working out. And who needs to spend $150 on denim when Uniqlo carries great denim for $30 ($19 on sale!).
On the politics of sample sales – god, this should be it’s own post! To start, though, the term is becoming an increasingly elastic one for retailers. “Sample sale” can mean a pop-up sale that a designer has to gauge the interest in particular designs before they’re released to mass retailers. For instance, I remember going to the Nieves Lavi sample sale a couple of years ago. It was held for one night in the designer’s girlfriend’s apartment in Chelsea. The designer and his partner were there too. These are the kinds of sample sales I prefer. The stock is limited – sometimes only 1 or 2 items in any size are available – but it’s edited, intimate, and manageable unlike corporate multi-designer sample sales like Billion Dollar Babes or the Barney’s Warehouse Sale which seems to be more about discarding excess product, is scheduled a couple of times every year, is open to industry insiders (or those willing to pay a cover charge) for the first 1 or 2 days, and is something like a mosh pit of frantic shoppers and anxious sales staff. The pop-up ephemeral scheduling (and online sample sales like Gilt use this model too) certainly capitalize on consumers’ desire for distinction — but I would argue that this form of distinction isn’t only about class pretensions but also about the social capital of insider knowledge, informed consumption, and sometimes just the luck of being in the right place at the right time. That said, sample sales also commodify ephemerality. And this connects up to our earlier conversation about the politics and disciplinary function of fashion’s temporalities. There’s so much more to say than this! Your question’s inspired me though – I think this could be another chapter in my book!
Mimi: Lady, don’t front! I know about your exception for florals! And I see now that you hate separates, and it’s absolutely true that when I think of your well-edited wardrobe, I remember best your dresses and one-pieces and no tops (except for that one sweater you also bought at Forever 21 after you saw me in it). Also, I just want you to know that the 3.1 Philip Lim dress I bought for your wedding hobbles me too! (And I confess that it deeply freaked me out to drop several hundred dollars on that dress; I kept thinking about all the things I could buy with that cash.)
My shopping has changed since I moved to my isolated college town, which has terrible thrift so I could not be faithful even if I wanted to. Previously, I was almost entirely wardrobed for the Midwest –and for professorial labor– by thrift stores in Western Michigan. But since living here I started shopping on-line, which fueled a brief frenzy for buying denim — specifically, high-waisted and wide-legged denim from Dittos and 18th Amendment. I attribute this to our screening of the 2001 refugee camp melodrama Green Dragon, Minh-Ha, and my sudden seizure with the sartorial sensibility of what we dubbed “teenage refugee mom.” I thought of it as a semi-playful pursuit of a different stance toward my personal history. Our personal histories! So perhaps we could end this installment with some thoughts about how refugeeness might inform our sartorial sensibilities.
Two floor-length dresses and a button-down top:
literally all the florals in Minh-Ha’s closet.
The black dress is from the Nieves Lavi sample sale.
Minh-Ha: I have a lot of your tops or tops that I got after seeing you in them because I’m no good at shopping for them! I can’t “see” tops. I can’t imagine how they look on me. Pants, I get. Dresses, I get. Tops, not so much . . . But I can’t believe you outed me on the florals!! Is NOTHING sacred? Ok, so the thing about florals (and by the way, we’re talking about big splashy hi-res almost graphic florals, not calico) is that I really do love them but it’s a complex and nuanced love! I don’t actually wear them (much) . . . they mostly make my closet (and bed) happy . . .
As for the role of our refugee past on our sartorial and consumption practices . . . some context: Mimi and I were both born in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, during the war. We left Viet Nam after Sai Gon’s collapse in 1975 and we both lived the first part of our American lives in Camp Pendleton, a refugee camp near San Diego, California. We were there at the same time! We like to think that we crossed paths but in Mimi’s version of events, I’m always stealing her broken but cherished toy or something because I’m a year older and I was a big refugee baby. So, really, our friendship was destined!
It’s interesting to me that our experience as refugees has produced different effects with regard to our consumer practices. We obviously had very little disposable money growing up – it’s the reason a lot of my clothes were homemade – shopping trips to the flea market (what we called the” swap meet”), buying furniture by collecting green stamps (this was a fun game to me), and window-shopping comprised the bulk of my consumption history. I also remember having to endure a lot of delayed or more often denied sartorial gratification. My mom loved clothes, shoes, and handbags. She still does today but her intensity was even greater back then. And she always took me on shopping trips with her – not so much my sister but always me. But my mom could be satisfied with just looking and appreciating. This was an intolerable and infuriating character quality to me – even as a young child.
One of my favorite books growing up was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There’s a scene in that book when the young Francie Nolan, who comes from a working class Irish family, pours her coffee down the sink. She said it made her feel extravagant to be able to waste. This is a wonderful example of Sau-ling Wong‘s observation that Extravagance and Necessity are “contrasting positions on a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories” — I also never finish a meal or a drink, always leaving something on my plate or in my cup. This was entirely an unconscious act for me until my dad pointed it out. He thinks I inherited that desire for lavishness from my northern Vietnamese side (my mom’s side). Anyway, I don’t remember when, but I’m sure there was a moment maybe after college that I made a conscious decision that I would not deny myself clothes that I really loved – that I permitted myself to embrace extravagance. But this extravagance is circumscribed for me too – like I said, I’m thrifty about a lot of things. Tops, jeans, personal technology, car accessories – and a lot of my big purchases (big for me): Phillip Lim dresses, Alexander McQueen tuxedo jumpsuit, Frye boots, and my Fiorentini and Baker oxfords were all bought at sample sales or at sample sale prices.
Mimi: As a refugee, secondhand clothing has been a part of my life since arrival! So perhaps I have a perverse attachment to it. From the donations distributed at the refugee camps and through the religious charities that later sponsored my family to our first home in cold, cold Minnesota, and still later from local church sales, almost everything I wore as a child was used, discarded or, alternately, made by my mother. Some of my most vivid childhood sense-memories are defined by this secondhand: burying my arms up to my elbows in a giant pile of clothes in the basement of a church, for instance. And I remember deciding (in an inarticulate fashion) that being poor and being different would not be sources of shame. If my clothes were odd –because they were ill-fitting, outdated, used– I would become more odd to match these clothes. This wasn’t that hard, frankly. I was a weird kid! I clashed colors and patterns, I dressed “like a boy.” So I drifted toward clothes as a form of confrontation early. I loved punks before I ever thought that I could become one too — that they were always the “bad guys” on television (CHiPS, Quincy, Hunter, all had episodes with punks as the villains of the week) was part of the attraction for me.
We seem to have covered the bases, and it’s clear we’re very different shoppers with very different aesthetics –the photos tell all– and still great friends! And that’s quite enough from the both of us!
Some of the gladiators, military boots, oxfords, stacked heels, wedges,
peep-toe ankle boots, and mid-top sneakers that is Minh-Ha’s shoe collection