The Used Clothing Trade

Trade in secondhand clothing has been important for many centuries. Once wealthy and high-ranking people gave their unwanted clothing to servants. Usually, servants sold the garments—they had no use for them and needed the money. Patrons of theatres such as Shakespeare's Globe donated clothing to actors who could not otherwise afford credible costumes when playing high-ranking characters. Used clothing, including stolen items, was sold by peddlers alongside crude, early ready-to-wear. In the nineteenth century, the first factory-made garments were sometimes introduced by secondhand clothing retailers. Stores selling both used and new clothing (including military surplus) existed until after World War II. Postwar, "yard" and "garage" sales became common, apparently inspired by such sales on military bases, especially when officers' families had to move to totally different climate zones. Consignment shops, operated by charitable organizations or private entrepreneurs, multiplied.

As the quantity of discarded clothing in Europe and North America exceeded the capacity of welfare agencies to distribute it to the poor, large quantities of used clothing have been shipped to developing nations. In Africa, inexpensive used clothing can displace traditional apparel and compete with local industries. At the other extreme, "vintage" clothing—used couture or high-fashion women's clothing—has become so popular and acceptable that leading Hollywood actresses may wear old designer gowns to the Academy Awards ceremonies. Exclusive auction houses sell vintage designer clothing for high prices; retail stores in New York and Los Angeles specialize in such clothing.

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