Words: Lucy Adair (She/Her)
Last week I went for coffee with my friend; she stood in her faded mustard Gazelles clutching a thick-knit navy cardigan covering a cream lace cami. It was an outfit which had a perfect combination of delicate femininity and boyish charm. It was also the most carelessly beautiful ensemble I’d ever seen. Already knowing what her offhand response would be, I asked where each item was from. ‘Oh, it’s all my mum’s old stuff.’
In a world which (slowly) attempts to be more eco-conscious, the consumption of clothes has seen a resurrection of all things old and worn. The revival of second-hand fashion is materialising from shoppers choosing to turn not only to charity-shops, but to the vintage wardrobes of family members.
As children we are blindly brought up to be guided by the style of our parents. From a young age my mum tailored me in ditsy-print tunics, thick black tights, and a particularly memorable purple crochet waistcoat. At the time my eldest sister, in my eyes, was the epitome of fashion and defined what it meant to be stylish. I was in awe of her ensembles: Topshop handbags, bejewelled belts, striped micro scarves, and a baby-tee branded with the slogan made in the gorgeous factory. Subsequently, I wore an eclectic mix of outfits which appealed to the practical styles of my mum, and the 2000’s aesthetic of my sister; a carefully embroidered top under a baby-pink velour tracksuit, a 90’s-esque indigo dress paired with bright blue crocs. However there comes a point in our teens where we want to escape the influence that defined our younger years and establish our own style. This inevitably leads to some questionable outfits. Thankfully this teen styling resistance fades, but what follows is a surprising nostalgia for the fashion of the past.
During the pandemic, like many others, I became reflective and introspective. In a state of reminiscence for a pre-covid past, I was strangely sentimental for the juxtaposing eras of my childhood and post-school independence, and the sense of freedom they both provided. This made me re-evaluate how I defined myself internally, and how I projected this externally through the clothes I chose to wear. I specifically questioned the femininity of the fashion I was confining myself to. What began as an innocent borrow from my dad’s side of the wardrobe, manifested into afternoons spent rummaging through the same items I once ignored and now admired: retro converse, baggy tops, and moth-bitten knits – all pieces which have mostly worn the test of time. Although there’s no 90’s Vivienne Westwood lurking at the back of my parents’ wardrobe, hand-me-downs are habitual in our family.
Swap designer garments haphazardly arranged in a glossy store for a balled-up heap of clothes atop a chipped kitchen table, and for me, you have the same spectacle. When my parents do a clothes clean-out, chaos unfolds between me and my two sisters at the sight of their make-shift pop-up shop. The three of us barter and bargain our way through each item as if we’re bidding at an auction house. Sometimes I question why I’m arguing over a thread-bare black jumper which has sat at the back of my dad’s wardrobe for twenty plus years. The chaos could be a scene straight out of Confessions of a Shopaholic. These jumble sales of frenzied rage have become a family ritual. For me at least, it satiates my childhood curiosity to leaf through my mum’s jewellery box, and the temptation to try on her dresses.
Like clockwork, my dad will produce the familiar photo albums of his youth which contextualise the places and people each item has seen. 1984: my dad sat in the university library at 2am writing his essay. His outfit consists of an outrageously oversized coat and cardigan with battered doc-martens. It’s 80’s aesthetic at its finest, but it’s also the same coat I’ll wear for a walk around the braids. On the next page, we recognise my sister’s oversized graphic t-shirt, now bleached, soft and worn. In the photo my mum is in Berlin, pregnant and smiling with the same t-shirt covering her rounded belly. The true jewel and current contestation of my parents’ collection is my dad’s brown cord fleece-lined jacket. It’s a piece which has seen me learn to ride a bike, watched my sister graduate, and witnessed The Smiths play live. It’s a token of sentimentality which we all share allegorically, and every time one of us puts it on.
The second-hand clothes we wear create an overlap of different centuries, ages, and phases; layers of memories that become stitched into the seams. When my days at university become a blur of essays and caffeine, there’s a comfort in knowing 40 years ago my dad was sitting in the same sweater, experiencing a similar sense of stress. Whilst returning to the roots of our families’ past clothes may seem derivative and unoriginal, they provide a fluctuating space to experiment with a collection of decades and designs. How can an outfit not be intrinsically unique when a personal paradox is formed every time an item of clothing is passed down a generation, and worn by a new one.