Not long ago, I was working in Harlesden. It is an area of northwest London that one could describe as ‘mixed’. Many of the people living in the area come from low socio-economic backgrounds. Culturally, it is very diverse and although, down at heel, it was a vibrant and friendly place to work. The local shops were varied and sadly, would come as quickly as they would go.
Almost over night, a shop opened, offering ‘Cash For Clothes’. The shop was basic, just bolted down plastic chairs and a counter. No clothes were on display. It wasn’t a retail unit. This was something I had never seen before. The response that it generated in me was surprising. I was shocked, angry and appalled. The opening of this shop brought home the stark reality of our current economic climate. Apparently, the shops had been opening up in the north of England for some time and had now moved south. For one kilo of clothing, the seller would receive 50p. Clothing would only be purchased if it were in good condition, no rips, holes, or stains. It also must be clean and dry. Dry? Of course, wet clothing weighs more.
Image 1: Clean and Dry Clothes, photography by Matilda Aspinall
After my initial reaction, I began to digest and assimilate these new businesses into my understanding and came to conclusion that maybe they were OK. They are businesses and purchase the clothing solely to generate profit. It’s not ideal and personally, I would rather the clothing went to charity but it is possible that more clothes may get recycled this way. It is definitely better than the clothes going into methane producing landfill sites or sent to incineration. We live in a demand driven economy and ‘Cash For Clothing’ stores are obviously meeting a need and who can blame anyone for wanting to make some money when times are hard.
The purchased clothing is stored, sorted and then is bulked into 50kg bales. Buyers from overseas export the bales mainly to Africa and Eastern Europe. It is a very lucrative and profitable trade. Every single piece of textile can, for the most part be salvaged.
In Zambia, this trade is a valuable asset to the community creating much-needed jobs as well as providing cheap clothes. In Lusaka, the country’s capital city, the clothing is sold to vendors who then go on to distribute or sell the clothes in the small urban and rural markets. The clothing has become an important part of their consumer culture and is known as ‘saluala’. The definition being, ‘to select from a bale in a rummaging manner’. Clothing straight from the bale, preferably at the market stall flat and still creased is considered the most desirable. That way it is known to be totally exclusive and the buyer knows that no other Zambian has worn it. Saluala is fresh, new and different. From an anthropological perspective (Kopytoff, 1986) the process suggests that at each stage of their journey, the clothes are being re-commoditized and move into a different phase of their biography.
This trading of used clothing could be described as a contentious issue. As with everything, there are pros and cons for both sides of the argument. It could be easy to think that Africa is the dumping ground for all our disused clothing. Critics say that the billion-dollar trade swamps Africa’s already fragile domestic textile industry but for many, the trade allows clothes to be bought and sold cheaply and provides desperately needed employment.
Both arguments are valid and important and led me to thinking about the sale and resale of the equivalent type of clothing in 19th century London as cited in, ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. Originally a journalist, Henry Mayhew wrote and compiled the book that consists of a succession of interviews and descriptions detailing the state of London’s poor in the early to mid 1800s. The articles were first published in the newspaper, the Morning Chronicle.
Mayhew gives a detailed account of the ‘head quarters’ of the second hand clothes trade, Petticoat Lane, Rosemary Lane and their adjacent streets:
‘The effect sometimes is striking. Gowns of eerie shades and every pattern are hanging up, but none perhaps look either bright or white; a vista of dinginess, but a many coloured dinginess’.
Image 2: Petticoat Lane, 1938. Stills shot from short film in BFI
Situated in this area were Simmons and Levy’s Clothes Exchange. The commerce that took place here was the wholesale selling of old clothes. To contrast this business with 21st century wholesale equivalent, it appears that not much has changed. The only notable difference being that the 19th century buyers were sending their wares to Ireland. Mayhew comments on how professional the Irish merchants appeared, employing porters to ‘literately build them [the clothing bales] up square and compact’. The bales were worth somewhere between 300 livres and 500 livres.
Apparently, every kind of attire from the highest to the very lowest was sent to Ireland and the most coveted item amongst the poor of Dublin was the leather ‘breecher’. At the time of writing, Mayhew remarks that these garments had not been worn in England for ‘some fifty years’ yet in Ireland according to the sellers, they ‘would wear for ever, and would look illigent after that’. The next most saleable item, much to Mayhew’s surprise, was the wig! It had been a long time since a man wearing a wig was fashionable in England.
What is worth commenting on and applies both to the past and the present, is that the value of the clothing, both economically and emotionally is entirely dependent on the culture of the society that purchases it. The ‘new’ value is created through this process of re-commoditization. The transactions between the suppliers, the overseas merchants, and the local vendors initiate the process through which the decommissioned but wearable clothing is re-activated and given a new life.
On so many levels, our lives and life styles have changed beyond all measure since Mayhew wrote his pieces for the Morning Chronicle, yet the human need to eat, be warm and clothed remains the same. We still will sell and purchase clothing regardless and it doesn’t matter how technologically sophisticated our modern lives have become; our basic needs will find a way of being met.
Image 3: Women selling their wares, London 1877. Courtesy of the Museum of London
Kopytoff, I. (1986). ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process’. In A. Apparadurai (ed)The Social Life of Things: Commodities in a Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press
Mayhew, H . (1851). Mayhew’s London; being selections from 'London labour and the London poor’, p.210.
(Accessed April 2013) http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106010335773;view=1up;seq=219
Transberg Hansen, K. (2000). ‘Crafting Appearances: The Second Hand Clothing Trade and Dress Practices in Zambia’. In Palmer, A and Clark, H.Old Clothes, New Looks, Second Hand Fashion’.