Poverty and Power: Secondhand Clothes as Protest

Later this week I will be giving an extended lecture on the secondhand fashion market and countercultures that adopted thrifted clothes as political statements — focusing on Yippies, but touching upon the Beats — at this year’s Pop Culture Association symposium in Boston, MA. My panel will be on Thursday at 4:45pm, and there will be a robust line-up of other fashion panels on topics covering Fashion, Style, Appearance, Consumption + Design. Drop a line if you’ll be there — or just look out for me, I’d love to meet you!

old clothes market in Richmond, VA, 1870

As early as the 17th century, servants and slaves sold their wealthy employers’ castoff garments at secondhand depots to other impoverished people. You can see from the depiction above (click for larger image) that secondhand markets were frequented by shabbily dressed people: the poor and/or racial minorities, who would not have the money for expensive new fabrics, nor the leisure time to sew anything but mending. Used clothes accordingly carried a heavy stigma of poverty and desperation — written accounts sometimes refer to the silence at these markets, no person wanting to draw attention to him or herself. But during WWII, when most people — even in wealthy countries — were struggling to make ends meet and to clothe their families, the American and British governments actually encouraged their citizens to “Make Do and Mend.” Magazines and newspapers like the following would actually dispense advice on how to reduce spending and recycle what you had:

Make Do and Mend advice: "Grand Ways to Eke Out Dated or Worn Clothes" c 1943

It was only when the economics of Americans leveled out a bit in the economic boom of the ’50s and ’60s that castoff garments acquired an entirely new significance: that of protest against the societies that perpetuated this kind of wealth disparity.

In the mid-20th century, American and European youth subcultures adopted secondhand clothes as aesthetic protest against the excessive consumerism of older generations who spent their new-found leisure time in the first controlled environment shopping malls, and populating the idealized new homogenous suburbs like Levittown, Long Island:

Levittown, NY, first suburb in 1948

Family in Front of Cape Cod suburban home, 1948

Often galvanized by a rejection of their respective contemporary political systems and social mores, beatniks, hippies, and punks all rejected elitist designer fashions for ideological reasons. Embracing the very stigma of used clothes, secondhand style enabled wearers to confront the mainstream public by advertising allegiances to anti-consumerist lifestyles and radical socio-political philosophies. Existentialist beatniks adopted an understated, muted uniform with references to French existentialism (stripes, berets, etc.) and peasant blouses, in contrast to popular exuberant ‘50s colors, patterns, and flamboyant silhouettes:

Beat couple in the Gaslight Cafe, Greenwich Village, late 1950s


Donna Reed

Similarly, Marxist-leaning hippies and Yippies revived outmoded styles with flowing layers in contrast to distinctly futuristic space-race minimalist ‘60s designs

Jerry Rubin during Chicago Eight Trial, 1968

Rudi Gernreich visor ensemble, 1965

This tradition continued with the anarchist punks who sported visibly ragged, sloppily mended clothes in contrast to ‘80s polished business chic:

Johnny Rotten

Wall Street film still, 1987

In all these instances, secondhand fashion enabled radical groups to sidestep a major consumerist cycle, and to publicize the implied politics of the rejection of wealth accumulation. By wearing clothes worn and donated by middle-class and wealthy “straights,” beatniks, hippies, and punks were able to imbue those garments with new radical symbolism. There is clearly much more to the story of the secondhand clothes — not least of which is the contemporary practice of outsourcing the manual labor and bottom-of-the-barrel “rag” pickings to developing countries like Hati — but sidestepping the fast fashion whirlwind with responsibly acquired used clothes seems like a step in the right direction.

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  • Sharon April 14, 2012 03.42 pm

    Interesting. Could you please list your photo sources?

  • Michelle April 17, 2012 02.15 pm

    It’s great to read about this specific expression of oppositional style. Are there any sources you would recommend for further reading on used clothing as a political statement? For those of us who can’t make it to Boston 🙁

  • Tove Hermanson April 18, 2012 08.16 am

    Re Michell: I have cast a wide net to distill information about politics and revolution, including non-fashion-specific history books (“Takin’ it to the streets: A Sixties Reader,” “The Rolling Stone book of the Beats”), art and graphic books (“50s & ’60s style,” Robert Frank’s documentary photos in “The Americans”); books about secondhand culture (“The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, and Globalization,” Gregson’s “Second-hand cultures,” Wilson’s “Bohemian Dress and the Heroism of Everyday Life”); and more general political fashion books (“The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy,” “Fashion at the Edge,” “Fashion and its Social Agendas”). Films like “Pull My Daisy” have also been helpful. As you might have gleaned, there is not too much out there specifically addressing political outrage and fashion: I myself am working on a book that intends to correct that!

  • Sailaja Neel Joshi April 18, 2012 08.59 am

    Hey Tove-

    I saw your presentation at PCA, I was the Indian girl with the bangs in a vintage dress. Loved your presentation and would love to contribute to the blog! This place is great, such a wonderful collection of awesome many of the things happening in the fashion world.



  • Michelle April 25, 2012 01.50 pm

    Thanks Tove! I look forward to your book, there definitely is a lack of literature in that area as I have found while researching Riot Grrrl fashion!

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  • Janna Stern April 11, 2016 09.45 pm

    Those of us who love to shop for these kind of clothes say we do it because we love vintage. I found them very comfortable. I chose to buy things like pj type clothing for my kids because the toxic material used to prevent death from fires was not in the older clothes kids had outgrown. I was just very sure that I had eliminated things in the house that could produce fires. i also found designers and stores began to change styles that did not fit like there older production. for instance Banna Republic had a boot and shoe maker in early days and I did not need to try on the shoes if I liked them. Now they have moved on to other styles and almost totally moved away for the old safari stuff.
    I liked this article and wish I was in Boston Yesterday.


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