“Just because it looks cool”? An exploration of young people’s reasons for shopping second hand clothing

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By Caroline Sprangers

I moved to Amsterdam this summer, August 2016. When coming to a new place to live there is always a lot to take in and a lot that is different. One of the things I noticed my first days when biking around the city was the amount of second hand stores. Having a personal interest for second hand clothing I was naturally happy about the discovery. I couldn’t believe how many stores there were! And not only stores, but also markets and special events dedicated to second hand clothing. As a sociology student it also got me thinking – the flourishing market of second-hand clothing is made possible because there is a customer demand, so what reasons do people have for shopping for second hand clothing? Why is it attractive? How come it’s popular? These thoughts motivated me to look deeper into the second hand shopping scene.

In this paper I seek to explain the reasons for young people in Amsterdam for shopping at second hand clothing venues, by focusing on two themes that emerged from my research on this topic. The first theme is style and identity – to what extent and in which ways is second hand shopping a way to express identity through style? The second theme I call the conscious consumer – to what extent and in which ways is second hand shopping a way to express consumer consciousness regarding sustainability and related issues?  To investigate these questions, I conducted research which consisted of two observations and four interviews: three individual interviews with young women from different countries who work in second hand shops in Amsterdam, and one group interview with three Dutch young people who enjoy second hand shopping.

Weekend observations at two kilo second hand events

I started my ethnographic research with attending two second hand kilo sales taking place at two different venues in Amsterdam arranged by different organizers. Kilo sales is a concept that is sometimes used for vintage and second hand clothing, where one does not buy clothing at a set price per item but instead there is a price per kilo. I got on the metro to go to the first one. I was excited, since I hadn’t been to an event like this before. I walked from the metro to the place that the event was taking place, Radion, a restaurant and club venue that arranges different types of creative events, this kilo sale being one of them. The sun was shining and even though it was late October people were still sitting outside and enjoying the warm weather, a drink and company. I went inside and reached the room where the event took place. There were a lot of people and a lot of clothes – my first impression of it was: structured chaos. Looking around, I saw mostly young people. Some seemed determined and focused in their search for clothing while others were more relaxed. Some people where there alone and others with friends or family. The organizers were running around with stacks of clothing, putting new things up on the racks and within minutes the clothing were gone from the racks again. The racks held a wide selection of clothing: everything from vintage dresses in flower prints to leather skirts, flannel shirts and warm knitted jumpers with Christmas prints on them. People were weighing their clothing, laughing at clothing they found weird and stripping down to their underwear in the open (in lack of changing rooms) to try on things they got a liking for.

I had a look too and found a lot of items that I thought were really cool. I tried on the things I found, contemplating on which items where going to come home with me and which ones where staying here or going home with someone else. Two American girls were trying on things next to me. I could see that they glanced at me, and a bit later one of the girls asked if I was keeping the purple multi-patterned kimono that I had found or if she could try it on. Having decided that the kimono was not lucky enough to come home with me, I gave it to the girl. She tried it on and asked her friend: Do you like it? on which she replied: Yes! It looks good on you. The two friends seemed very excited about the clothing they had found, constantly commenting upon how the clothing looked. I felt another glance and the girl said to me: I like that, that’s very original. The black suede skirt with petrol coloured details on which she commented upon was lucky enough to come home with me. I agreed with her comment – it was original, and too special to be left behind.

I went back to walking around the space and thought I would chat to some people as a first step in figuring out why young people in Amsterdam shop second hand clothing. From the crowd I walked up to two girls and asked them why they came to this event and what reasons they have for shopping second hand clothing. One girl, who said that she had never shopped second hand before, said that she got an instant liking for it. She described it as being edgy and unique, something that not everyone else is wearing. The other girl joined in and agreed, adding that it is also a cheap way to update your closet. I moved on and saw two girls holding up a shirt and placing it next to other things they had found. I asked them what they were doing, and they said that they were trying out combinations for the clothing that they had found. I asked them what reasons they have for shopping second hand, and this was one of the reasons: the possibility to combine things and create unique looks. One of the girls said that second hand shopping is one of the ways in which she expresses her interest in fashion. The other girl added that she also likes the idea that someone throws something out but now it gets to be used again. Both of the girls further said that they like that it takes some work (to find the desired items), that they are happier when they find something at a second hand place rather than at a chain store, because there you can just walk in and it is all so easily available. Here, it takes more effort to find something and the feeling when they do find those special things is more pleasurable.

On the other side of the room I saw something of interest, I walked closer and had a look at a winter coat in a soft pink colour, it was fussy and leopard patterned. I tried it on and to my great disappointment it was too big for me. As I was about to hang it up again, the American girl who tried the kimono earlier walked up to me and asked if she could try it. I talked some more with them and asked them what reasons they have for second hand shopping. The girls said that it is a way to be unique and to stand out, and that second-hand clothing is more special. It is also fun, to come to these places and look around and see all the fantastic clothing as well as the weird and a bit too special ones. The girls where rounding up their shopping day, weighing the stuff that they had found, and exclaimed: “It’s also cheap! That’s another reason”. The girl who wasn’t weighing her clothing at the moment started talking about that it is also a way to avoid fast fashion. Her reasoning was that even if she would end up throwing one of these things out after six months she would feel less bad about it if it’s something that was reused and then gets the opportunity to be used again rather than buying something new and getting rid of it after the same time.

The next event I participated in took place the day after. I walked to Roest, a cool venue that apart from being a restaurant/city beach hangout also hosts a variety of events such as clubs and this vintage kilo event. The clothing was inside a large former industrial building, and as I went in a buzz of sounds welcomed me. Mellow electronic music was playing and people were talking, looking at clothing and from what it looked like having a good time. This event was a lot like the one the day before. The same things were going on, the same structured chaos. I strolled the aisles of clothing and looked around for people to talk with. I saw two guys digging through a large pile of clothing. When I asked them how come they’re here one of them said that it is for style reasons and that it is also a hobby: “Searching for clothing is an adventure!” The guys told me that they travelled one hour to get here especially for this event, making me think that this is something worth investing time and effort in. When I looked around I saw a guy and a girl that I walked up to and talked with. The girl said that she likes second hand shopping because it is sustainable and, like next to all the people I talked to, praised the uniqueness of it. The guy added that he likes that the clothing has a history – even though not knowing the exact history, what he does know is that the clothes have “lived”.

Finding the respondents

After doing my observations, I wanted to gain a deeper insight into the reasons that the people I talked to at the events mentioned. I decided that I wanted to do interviews for this, because “if you want to know how people understand their world and their life, why not talk with them?” (Kvale, 1996, p. 1). I started thinking about whom to interview. At first, the only thing I thought of was to interview young people who shop second hand, but later I realized that I could also talk to people who have a great insight into the second hand world – people who work in second hand shops. Thus, one rainy day I grabbed my bike and set out on the streets of Amsterdam to find people who work in second hand shops who might be interested in taking part in my research project. On my way out I bumped into a guy who lives in my student flat, Daniel* (the names in this paper are not the respondents’ real names to protect their anonymity), and knowing from before that he shops second hand clothing, I told him about my paper and asked him if he would like to do an interview, at which he said yes. Two steps out the door and I had found my first respondent.

I biked to the first shop on my route and asked a guy who worked in the store if he would be interested in doing an interview for my research on why young people shop second hand. He didn’t look very excited and then said to me that it wasn’t really his thing but that I could ask his colleague. Lisa was busy with a customer at the checkout so I looked around as I was waiting. A rack fully dedicated to glitter and sequin clothing caught my eye. The customer left the store and so I got a chance to talk to Lisa. She seemed hesitant at first but then interested and excited and said yes to meet for an interview. Happy to have found my second respondent I left the store and continued to the next shop. It was just about to close and the two people working were wrapping it up for the day. I walked up to Maria, who was organizing and hanging up hats on a rack, and told her about my paper. She seemed a bit tired after the long day yet to my surprise she wanted to do an interview, and said to meet her at the shop at closing time the next day. So soon! Good thing I had an interview guide ready with a framework of questions. I then went on to a third second hand shop and talked to Alice, who also agreed on meeting for an interview.

I biked home, happy about having found three people from different stores to interview and also the guy from my flat. I came home and went to the communal kitchen. I had already talked to one other person in my flat about my paper, Marieke, and already knew that she was up for doing an interview. When I was in the kitchen the same night I asked one last person, Sofie, and she was up for it too. I was very excited about all the interviews I was going to do. To conclude, I did three individual interviews with the girls from the shops and one group interview with the people from my flat.

Identity and style

I met Alice at a coffee place in De Pijp. It was raining and I biked like crazy to get there on time (being on time is not one of my strong suits unfortunately). To my relief Alice was not there yet but as I came into the café I saw her through the window. We sat down and ordered coffees and started talking. She told me that she moved here to do a masters and ended up staying. About a year ago she got a job at a second hand shop in Amsterdam, and when she tells me about the job she has this glow to her – it is obvious that she enjoys what she is working with. I would like to start this theme with something that she said about why young people in Amsterdam shop second hand clothing:

In Amsterdam for most people it’s about the style, they wanna have that cool vintage style ‘cause everyone wants to be like a little bit different you know, and vintage is – well it’s not technically one of a kind but basically, it’d be hard, it would be difficult to find two matching pieces of clothing, it’s basically one of a kind. So people want that look.

Here, Alice describes that vintage is a style that is different and cool. This was something that the other respondents mentioned, too. Lisa, who also works in a second hand shop, put it like this:

What I found very attractive about vintage is that it’s unique, first of all, like you only have one piece, and I really believe that people like their individuality in a way. (…) It really has to do with being unique I think.

These quotes point to the same concern: “wearing vintage clothing could be considered as another viable option for expressing individuality” (DeLong, Heniemann & Reiley, 2005, p. 24). By taking part in second hand fashion and shopping second hand clothing, one can become a distinctive, special and cool person, one can express one’s individuality through the style that second hand clothing provides. I asked Lisa when she first started taking part in second hand fashion and she told me her story. When she was in her teens, she used to go to a big thrift shop in her home town. Ever since she has shopped second hand and describes her relationship to second hand clothing as follows:

I’ve noticed that when I started making my style that way I would really like the way that I looked and people would find it fun how I looked they would say like you’re wearing something super weird but it suits you and that made me feel good about it or something. (…) In my town I was quite different in that way, which was nice.

Lisa shows that wearing second hand clothing can be a way to create and to do something different. In other words: “Dressing in history may produce a sophisticated feeling of individuality and distinction” (Jenß, 2004, p. 396), and also ”vintage items symbolize uniqueness and authenticity: a distinctive individual look that is worn by nobody else” (Veenstra & Kuipers, 2013, p. 357). Lisa describes the vintage items as the sensation that “you find a little diamond that was there for you”. Alice describes a similar love for the clothing she finds:

It’s just nice to be a bit different. And because it’s one of a kind stuff, I really then fall in love with it. (…) And then I feel this like connection to the clothing that I’m wearing.

Second hand shopping and the “different” style it brings can in a way be said to be “more about helping individuals build their own personal identities rather than rely on a universal standard” (DeLong et al., 2005, p. 24). Thus, it becomes a means of differentiation and self-expression (McColl, Canning, McBride, Nobbs & Shearer, 2013, p. 140). Maria had this to say:

It (second hand clothing) makes me feel like more personal also in the way that I decide how to dress. (…) The way you dress is always in a way a way to express yourself. I think if you do it with clothes which are more like unique and for example something which you can find in a second hand shop it’s even, you want to make it clear which kind of style defines you.

Now, let me introduce the views of the respondents from my flat who enjoy shopping second hand clothing. Marieke, Daniel and Sofie live together and with more people in a big student flat in Amsterdam. They are all from the Netherlands and moved to Amsterdam for study. The interview took place in my small student room. Daniel was eating traditional Dutch stamppot sitting on the bed and the rest of us sat in unmatched chairs, like students typically do. Since we all knew each other more or less it was a relaxed atmosphere, and it was a nice talk. Below is a longer extract from the interview that I would like to show at length:

Marieke: It’s very nice to have things that I know that probably not other people have or not a lot of people, so that when you go out and you walk on the street it’s not like ooohhh that girl has the same jacket or ooohh that girl has the same pants, so it’s something that is yours and that you wear and it makes you, instead of that it makes a whole lot of other people like with H&M like everybody has that, then it’s not unique any more.

Daniel: Maybe it’s a nice idea that you are following less the trends and more maybe your own style you know… Your own style. It gives you some more freedom in how you can express yourself. But also you see with second hand clothes you also see trends.

Marieke: Yeah!

Sofie: Yeah exactly!

Daniel: Now it’s you know this year was really the sporty clothes you know the tennis shorts, that I happen to have, haha. The sport socks with the logo, Adidas or Nike, and yeah Polos like the caps that was really this year, but also tie-dye was this summer.

Sofie: Yeah but I think that’s always the case with clothes, it’s always you kind of want to make your own thing but it’s never totally possible probably. Because you still have the clothes, you can buy them in a shop and other people can buy them as well. And I think if you look in a shop like Episode a lot of the things are almost the same so I don’t think you can totally make your own style there.

Marieke further mentions that if you’re not alone with something, then it’s not unique. And since it is nice to have things that probably not a lot of people have, this implies that uniqueness is something desirable, which was also described by the respondents who work in the second hand shops. Indeed, for all the respondents it is as if the “originality and uniqueness of the garment literally rubs off on the wearer” (Jenß, 2004, p. 396). However, there really was a shift of thought as they were talking with each other, which shows the complexity of everyday practices. In the beginning Marieke describes how second hand is a way to be unique, but as the conversation continues Daniel says that it is about following your own style, but then points out that there are actually trends in second hand, and the other two agree. The fact that there are trends seems to compromise in a way the uniqueness of the own style, because as Sofie goes on to explain, it is probably never possible to attain a unique style. Being trendy implies that a lot of people follow this trend, which in a way opposes the idea of second hand being unique and that wearing second hand clothing is a unique expression. Lisa told me this:

It’s actually also funny that everybody says that it’s about this uniqueness that it actually makes that no one is unique anymore. (…) Like in the shop we have a lot of jeans jackets that are ok they are each and every one is different but they’re also kind of from the 80s and the same style, are you still that unique then still? (…) People are looking for uniqueness but also are super mainstream all the time.

Similarly, Daniel said:

We all think what we buy is so unique but really it’s not. (…) Isn’t that what is also our generation, generation Y…? It’s like we’ve grown up with the idea that we’re all special and individual and so we’re all walking around with the idea that we all are unique.

There definitely is a paradox surrounding the concept of uniqueness, like parallel discourses working alongside each other. The respondents talk about it as being more unique, individual and different but then reach the insight that at the same time it is not unique at all, since a lot of people are attracted to that same style. As Marieke said after Daniel’s statement: “So we’re all not individuals, we’re all mainstream followers”. This simultaneous working could be described in the way that Steph Lawler (2008) frames how people in the West understand their identity today:

The notion of identity hinges on an apparently paradoxical combination of sameness and difference. (…) The idea that not only are we identical with ourselves (that is, the same being from birth to death) but we are also identical with others. That is, we share common identities (…) At the same time, however, there is another aspect of identity, which suggests people’s uniqueness, their difference from others. Western notions of identity rely on these two modes of understanding, so that people are understood as being simultaneously the same and different. (p. 2)

It makes sense, then, that the respondents have an ambivalent relationship towards the uniqueness of clothing and their own style because what really is expressed through second hand clothing could actually be said to be sameness and difference at the same time. Lawler (2008) also states that it is very important for the own identity to reach a balance between sameness and difference, and maybe that is where second hand clothing becomes attractive, because it accomplishes these things at the same time. The reason for shopping second hand could be the belief of expressing something special, while at the same time also being about, as Lisa put it, “something that people can have in common.

The conscious consumer

The reasons for shopping second hand could also be described as the desire of being a conscious consumer in different ways. One aspect that my respondents discussed was the quality of the clothing. As Alice said:

[Vintage] clothes are, they’re so much better quality than the clothes that are produced now because they were made in different ways, and it’s just different to what you see on the high street, and that’s kind of unique.

Maria told me this:

Maybe you can buy the same thing… buy the same kind of thing from another store [high street shop], but it’s with a shit material, it’s nothing special or breaks after two weeks or something like that. (…) Then maybe it’s worth it to pay the same amount for something that is second hand but at least you know that it’s good material and it will last.

As seen in these quotes, labelling vintage as being good quality simultaneously labels the high street shops as being all about quantity, at the expense of quality. This is just the tip of an iceberg of how the respondents view the values of second hand shopping versus high street shopping. Daniel said this:

I strongly disagree with the whole consumer consumption culture, I’m very against it and I also feel like we’ve been kind of brain washed that we have to buy because our whole society is set up this way, the kind of capitalist is just everywhere and yeah I don’t see why we need to buy new clothes all the time when there’s so much, if you go to second hand shops there are so many nice things that it makes me wonder why do we even need all of those new clothes.

What Daniel refers to is the capitalist way of society, and furthermore it is intrinsically connected with what Zygmunt Bauman (2007) defines as consumerist culture. Bauman (2007) claims that the consumer culture is the dominant condition by which the present post-modern society is structured: “The ‘society of consumers’ (…) stand for the kind of society that promotes, encourages or enforces the choice of a consumerist lifestyle and life strategy and dislikes all alternative cultural options” (p. 53). What Bauman describes is what Daniel disagrees with, the emphasis on buying, and on buying new, all the time. However, vintage shopping could be considered as not being an exception to this consumerist life. It has been argued that vintage shopping is just another consuming practice – only a different type of consumption (Veenstra & Kuipers, 2013). Daniel reached this conclusion as well: “The more I think about it the more I think that second hand clothing is totally part of the fashion system.” Everyone laughs when he says this since it opposes what he said earlier. “It’s completely also a trend that I’m following.

Veenstra and Kuipers (2013) claim that “while vintage distances itself from mainstream consumption culture, it does not ‘rebel’ against society,” rather, “an alternative to consumption is sought, signifying an awareness of, and strong grasp of contemporary consumer culture” (p. 363-364). They also argue that at this time we need to have a more nuanced understanding for consumer practices and means of identity and self-expression, which I agree with after having done the interviews. The way in which the respondents explain second hand shopping and how it is motivated – how it is a style but a different style and a consumer practice at the same time – indicate that it is not a consumer practice in the ordinary sense but is indeed complicated and contradictory and needs to be understood outside of dichotomies (Veenstra & Kuipers, 2013). In “the consumers’ modernity, the brute unquestionable fact is that one needs to be a consumer first, before one can think of becoming anything in particular” (Beilharz, 2001, p. 315). Considering this, it is no wonder that people feel the need to consume, and that it becomes hard to not take part in consumerist culture, because as Daniel said: it is everywhere.

I would argue that shopping second hand is a way to negotiate consumption practice and to distance oneself from the ‘worst’ consumption. The fact that shopping second hand is at least better than shopping new could be one reason as to why young people are attracted to second hand shopping. For Alice it is a way to not contribute to the power that corporations have over consumers:

I also like that I am not giving my money to a big global business and a big corporation, I’m giving my money to smaller local businesses, and investing in the local area.

And also that she’s “less responsible for producing new clothes and sweatshops in China and all that kind of stuff.” Marieke said this about the sustainability aspect of shopping second hand:

You just know that it [clothing at high street shops] comes from a place where people had to work really hard to make that one t-shirt. So I made a statement to myself that I won’t buy it there anymore so then if I need clothes I’ll go to a second hand shop or the shops where, they’re very expensive usually, where I know where the clothes come from.

Sofie also thinks about sustainability in the way that she believed reusing is important:

I never, yeah if I ever throw clothes away it’s because they’re really really broken and full of holes. If I really don’t want it I make sure I give it to someone who wants it.

By doing these kinds of things, although being too ‘soft’ expressions to be considered a rebellion in a classical subcultural sense (Clark, Hall, Jefferson & Roberts, 1975), it can instead be considered to be “acts of resistance in “the little territories of the everyday” (Rose, 1999, p. 280, quoted in Lawler, 2008). Something that was brought up by several of the respondents was that sustainable thinking is not the first reason for shopping second hand, as Alice stated:

It’s not about a broader political statement or a concern about the environment. Our average customer is just there because it looks cool.

And Maria:

It’s not that the environmental thing… it’s not that no one thinks about it I just don’t think that’s the first thing that someone thinks about, you know, it’s something that comes after.

It became clear to me during the interviews that while there might not be a strong and explicit engagement and rebellion happening in second hand shopping, this does not mean that nothing is going on at all and that good things for change are still happening – albeit not explicitly. Harris, Wyn and Younes (2010) consider the dichotomy of young people as being engaged in activism or completely apathetic, and argue that practices “take the form of informal, individualized and everyday activities” (p. 10).  I would like to believe that everyday practices do make a difference. So does Lisa:

I think I really believe that that we’re kind of in this, well yeah I mean people it’s also very cliché to become, to go eat bio and become vegetarian and start wearing vintage, but it’s also I think sometimes something that we need to feel, I don’t know yeah, that there’s change, and that we’re doing something. And I also believe that vintage clothing, apart from the fact that it’s style and it’s fashion, I do also believe that it comes from there.

We might not do everything, but as Lisa says, we’re doing something. Lisa also said this:

I think it’s also kind of a rebellion against everybody wanting new stuff and fancy stuff and some people just say no I’m not gonna go in this direction with the rest of a crowd. (…) Like you have these guys now that are actually very rich but they look like they live on the street you know this is kind of… it’s a style, it’s a statement that you make to wear those clothes and to be like that. And I also find that kind of fascinating, like that you decide to, yeah exactly, rebellion against what’s expected, or how you should look.

Bucholtz (2002) describes this as ”a very different kind of oppositionality than is implied by the concept of resistance, for it is based not on a rejection of a powerless structural position but rather on a rejection of an undiscerning mainstream culture” (p. 541). As Lisa’s and the others’ stories about their everyday practices show, it is an oppositionality to reject the mainstream and the norm, to go against consumerist culture and a capitalist society. This is implicitly done through the shopping of second hand clothing, regardless of who is doing it. As Marieke said, it is “also a nice feeling when you wear those clothes it’s like okay I did a little bit.”

Conclusion

As my research demonstrates, there is a lot to be said about the reasons why young people shop second hand clothing in Amsterdam. At the observations I got my first feeling for what these reasons were and from the interviews I gained a deeper knowledge of the issues involved. The ways in which the respondents thought about their own individuality and identity as connected to style was complicated to understand. I hope to have shed some light over how the theme of identity and style was thought of as being unique and different at the same time as it was thought of as being mainstream and ‘sameness’. The same goes for the theme of the conscious consumer, the way in which things discussed in the theme such as quality, consumption and sustainability was reflected upon was complex and quite often contradictory. This made it difficult to show a uniform picture  of what the respondents conveyed to me. I struggled to feel like I did not misrepresent the respondents’ stories. But then again, my belief is that the complexity of life is what is sought to show within social science academia, and I hope that this paper is one such contribution.

The concept of the uniqueness and the different style of second hand clothing was discussed as the main reason for shopping second hand, even though the respondents questioned the uniqueness of their own style when paying it an extra thought. But even if the ‘second hand style’ can be considered to be mainstream or to eventually become such, and thus not very unique, the respondents still felt that they could express themselves in the way they decided to dress, their identity and their personality – whether that look turns out to be unique or not.

During the research process and when writing the paper, I found it very interesting how people think about style and self-expression and how this relates to the concept of being conscious. My belief is that these concepts interact. Marieke said that while second hand is a trend, it is a good trend because of the sustainability it represents. Even if sustainability is not the main reason for shopping second hand, like all the respondents thought, this does not mean that there is nothing more to it. As my research shows, the oppositionality of everyday practices is still there, even if the main reason for shopping second hand is for the style, or just to look cool. Considering the dominant consumerist culture, it might be hard to stop consuming altogether, but second hand shopping is a way to negotiate these practices and it gives the opportunity to express oneself through style at the same time as opposing the mainstream culture. Shopping second hand can in this way be considered to be a way to unite style and consciousness.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

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