top of page
  • CSF

The Cultural Value of Second-Hand Clothes


Second-hand clothing is somewhat contentious. Buying used clothing, quite obviously, is one of the easiest ways to improve your fashion sustainability, however, clothing brands will never encourage it, as their business model revolves around consumers buying more and more, at an ever increasing pace, new clothes.

Used clothes are often imbued with a poetic sense of loss, a reminder of the body that once inhabited them. My MA History of Dress teacher, for example, admitted that she couldn’t bring herself to wear second-hand clothes because they felt like ghosts of the previous owners, still marked and affected by the body that used to wear them. She is an amazing teacher, but, I fundamentally disagree with her stance on second-hand clothes. I remember sitting in class, listening to these views wearing a blue and white striped jumper that was handed down to me, second-hand, by a sixty-something-year-old, yoga-doing, campervan-driving hippie from the town I grew up in in America. It’s one of my favourites, and I’m quite sure it’s a woman’s jumper anyway. I love second-hand clothes, which maybe stems from my childhood in hand-me-downs and handing things down. I like thinking about the life it had before me, and adapting it and making it my own.

The idea that worn clothing somehow bears the memory of its former wearer is not a concept unique to my MA teacher. Artist Christian Boltanski creates eerie installations in which piles of old clothes stand for the disappearance of a huge group of people during the Holocaust. In a 2010 interview, Boltanski explained ‘I see a garment as the equivalent of a body. It is like a photograph of someone, their heartbeat. It is an object that reminds you of a subject who is not there and highlights their absence.’ For him, clothing serves as a memorial to lost lives, however, it also can be read as a poignant statement on sustainability, and something that Boltanski himself isn’t unaware of. In a different 2010 interview, he states, ‘Do you want to know something funny? There are too many clothes now. The man who lent the clothes is working with one hundred tons of clothes per day, and there’s the big problem of how to destroy them. Now people don’t keep their clothes; clothes are less expensive and are not good quality, and after three months, they just throw them away.’ He’s right, of course, except that it’s not funny.

At the far end of his installation a huge mechanical arm- that Boltanski aligns with the hand of God- plucks further pieces of clothing off a 50-tonne mound, lifts them towards the sky, then releasing them, letting them flutter back down onto the pile. His work comments on the lack of life in these once loved garments, and the fairly bleak ending they face.

Photographer Yuki Onodera put life back into these otherwise lifeless garments in her series of photographs entitled ‘Second-hand Clothes.’ After attending a different exhibition by Boltanski in Paris, in which visitors were invited to take home used clothes from a huge mound for the fee of ten francs, she photographed fifty pieces of clothing in front of her Montmartre window. In doing so, she restored to life what was so symbolic of death in Boltanski’s work, and captured the clothing as bodiless portraits.

We need to move away from Boltanski’s concept that the only value of used clothing resides in their ability to conjure up a sense of loss and towards Onodera’s that it can be given a new lease of life under new ownership. I’m not suggesting that we all take photographs of clothes we find in charity shops, of course, but the idea that garments still have a value after being worn is crucial to reducing the amount of clothing waste we produce.

Of course, the best option is always to wear your clothes for longer, and buy fewer. Takeback schemes are, until the technology to actually reuse a significant proportion of fibres, are as futile as a giant mechanical arm repeatedly lifting and dropping garments onto a pile.

However, the conception that second-clothes are valueless to the consumer needs to change. While we may still be a way off clothing recycling, clothing reuse is entirely possible. Instead of discarding things that no longer fit your body or your taste, pass them on! And maybe next time you’re in need of a little retail therapy, think second hand.


Laura Cumming, ‘Christian Boltanski: Personnes’ The Guardian, 17 January 2010,

Adrian Searle, ‘Christian Boltanski: It’s a Jumble Out There’ The Guardian, 13 January 2010,

Elena Sommariva, ‘Christian Boltanski: A Sentimental Minimalist’ Domus 24 June 2010

‘Portraits of Second-hand Clothes’ ‘Works’ Yuki Onodera,

Please note this is an archive blog.


bottom of page