In an advanced capitalist society, such as the United States, individuals express their identities through the items they purchase, how they present themselves to others. For those with a lot of money, this often means conspicuous consumption, or buying items with the express purpose of being able to show them off to others (e.g. a waterfront mansion, a yacht, a Maserati). But expressing one’s personality through clothing, jewelry, make up, and other grooming practices is not just reserved to the rich. We are all taught to be conscious of our appearance. We know that we are being judged based on the choices we make, and our ability to conform to fashion norms and trends. In this way, fashion is a performance in which we all engage.

This is problematic on a number of levels. First, there is the problem of stratification. If you cannot or do not purchase the right goods, you are stigmatized. You might remember this from high school. When I was growing up, everyone just had to have Adidas sneakers; wearing knock-offs meant you couldn’t sit at the cool table. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to grow out of this way of sorting people. We even have evidence that appearance factors into really important decisions, like which person to hire for a position. Second, this pressure to look right and express yourself in clothing choices (or cars, or where you go to eat, etc.) increases the rate at which we all consume, which in turn increases the waste we produce. Need to make room for this season’s trends? Start by throwing out the last batch of disposable shirts and shoes. We make things that will fall apart quickly because we know we won’t keep them very long to begin with. Third, we expand the reach and strength of global consumer capitalism, and contribute to worker abuses worldwide.

In the wake of recent factory tragedies in Bangladesh—a fire in November 2012 and a building collapse in April 2013, together resulting in over 1200 deaths—some consumers are looking for alternatives to Wal-Mart and other mainstream, cheap/affordable sources of material goods. And the idea of being “green” in your consuming is also gaining some traction. For example, rapper Macklemore devotes a song to shopping at thrift stores and hipsters everywhere are making it trendy to wear old, vintage, worn, and trashed clothing. The idea of shopping at thrift stores has some potential—be reusing and repurposing old clothes, we can reduce waste, and by recycling from thrift stores, we opt out (at least in that moment) of the production-consumption cycle that leads to workplace abuses. But, as Aleit Veenstra and Giselinde Kuipers (2013) explain, vintage shopping in a capitalist society is a complex endeavor.

Ironically, as they challenge mainstream capitalist values (buying new, buying often), vintage shoppers fulfill the underlying capitalist demand to express one’s inner identity through purchases. One of the main desires of vintage shoppers is to express individuality and authenticity through their clothing choices—by rejecting mass produced, contemporary items, these consumers believe that they represent their own uniqueness. Like any fashion choice, wearing vintage or secondhand clothing acts as a kind of cultural capital, allowing the wearer to send a message about themselves to others, to fit in a desired peer group. Because thrift and vintage stores may sell goods at reduced prices, this type of shopping may violate some of the typical class boundaries associate with high fashion; but, thrifting does not opt out of stratification entirely. For example, there are rules among those who “know” vintage fashion—rules about fit, what to combine and how, how to tailor old pieces, how to recognize “vintage” from just “old” and so on. These rules establish new hierarchies, probably recreating some of the class lines, establishing new insiders and outsiders. But even more fundamentally, thrift and vintage shopping perpetuates our emphasis on identity expression through clothing (or other consumables).

I think that, because they address some of the other major concerns associated with modern consumption, vintage, thrift, and antique stores are good options. In fact, they may be a wonderful short term strategy, especially family-owned stores, since purchases support local economies. And because, for many, the emphasis on thrifting has gone hand in hand with a desire to try to do it yourself (DIY), to take things you already own or find and remake them, it teaches some people that they don’t have to shop for everything.  But insofar as this type of shopping maintains our never-fulfilled desire for more stuff, we should be careful. We should try to live more simply, which means buying less, no matter where it comes from.


Further Reading

Anderson, Tammy L., Catherine Grunert, Arielle Katz, and Samantha Lovascio. 2010. Aesthetic Capital: A Research Review on Beauty Perks and Penalties. Sociology Compass 4(8): 564-575.

Rief, Silvia. 2008. Outlines of a Critical Sociology of Consumption: Beyond Moralism and Celebration. Sociology Compass 2(2): 560-576.

Veenstra, Aleit and Giselinde Kuipers. 2013. It Is Not Old-Fashioned, It Is Vintage, Vintage Fashion and The Complexities of 21st Century Consumption Practices. Sociology Compass 7(5): 355-365.