09 Apr What, this old thing?
First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 12.4.21
Around the time my high school friends were spending their pocket money on Levis and Bata Bullets, I was scouring our town’s first “Opportunity Shop” for old ladies’ castoffs. There was an orange tweed blazer and pleated camel skirt, and a pair of extremely nana-shoes (so nana, my actual nana had some just like it) which I took to with shoe paint and turned bright pink.
Desperation had started it. Wages from my weekend job at the local dairy didn’t stretch to store-bought jeans so I was stuck with the perfectly serviceable but also uncool “elastic-waist denim trouser” scenario my mother whipped up on the Singer at home.
Immediately, my op-shop budget unleashed op-shop tastes. I couldn’t say if there even was a rack of pre-loved jeans to rifle through – too distracted was I by polyester blouses with pussycat bows (wish I still had those) and Silverdale twinsets in pastel shades (same).
It gave me a sense of independence and power that, even with very little in my wallet, I could probably buy one thing that took my eye. Low-risk spending which meant I could also afford to experiment, make mistakes, and donate the yellowed petticoat or felt hat back to the store if it turned out this wasn’t my thing.
Later, there was an elderly fur coat that doubled as a bedspread for Aro Valley winters as well as frivolous ensembles like the yellow polka dot two-piece with peplum waist I was still wearing in photographs taken ten years later. Once, I found a dollar note in the pocket of something I’d brought home which essentially (good housekeeping) made the whole purchase free.
I have favourite towns and cities to visit based not only on access to cheese rolls but because of their charity shops or their fancy sister, the vintage store. You can justify something a bit spendy on the basis that, in its first go-round of retail, that designer-you’ve-heard-of jacket would have cost six times more.
An avid handwasher and mender, I suspect on some level I’ve occasionally bought a nana-cardigan because I am convinced I can get that stain out, replace those buttons from the jar I keep, freshen it and soften it and reshape it the way it deserves to be presented to the world. I’ve also been known to audibly catch my breath when finding The Perfect Thing waiting patiently just for me on a crowded rack – the way a hunter might feel about spotting a stag in dense bush, but heaps kinder and no-one dies.
Buying second-hand because you’re on a budget is something you will never stop doing while you’re on that budget, but there are other vital reasons for supporting recycled clothing stores. Since the tariffs came off imported manufacturing in the 1980s, we’ve been able to buy cheaper clothes – which means we’ve bought more by volume, and then kept them half as long. And then we chuck 75 per cent of it pretty quickly into our landfills. Textiles sent to Wellington’s Southern Landfill doubled in the last 10 years, and it’s estimated that 25 per cent of them were perfectly fine clothes that could have been recycled or reused.
Even earlier in the process, according to the United Nations the fashion industry creates about ten per cent of the global CO2 emissions – that’s more than aviation and shipping combined.
So I’m delighted when I hear about savvy young women setting goals for themselves to not buy anything “new” for a year or more, instead hunting down cool stuff in stores that fund charities, or swapping amongst their circle of friends, or developing relationships with the delightful people – kind volunteers as well as passionate professionals – who make recycled clothing their business.
I love it that finding new-to-you clothes that make you feel good can be done with an eye to caring for the planet by being conscious about what you bring into your home – less stuff, and of the best quality you can afford, then wearing it for as long as it lasts – or gifting it to someone who will get fresh joy out of it. Plus doing what you can to support ethical manufacturers who source sustainable textiles and pay their workers properly.
The other part of this story is to take care with what goes out of your house, too. Charity stores report spending thousands of dollars on sending torn, dirty, unsellable clothing to landfill – which isn’t helping anyone, let alone our carbon emissions. There’s a woman I admire who packages up her pre-loved clothes like gifts – reused gift bags or wrapping paper – so that the people they end up with feel like they’re getting a present, and that they deserve good things.
Eventually, we might get to a point where someone admires our outfit and we say, “What, this old thing? I’ve had it for years!” and that’s something we genuinely feel proud of.