How I Fell in Love With Pre-Loved Clothes

Giving a new lease on life to forgotten fashion.

woman with shawl blowing out behind her in front of sea

Prabu Jayabal / EyeEm / Getty Images

My first piece of secondhand clothing was a pair of boyfriend jeans passed on to me from my cousin's brother nearly three decades ago. They went through many hands before finding their way to my teen self and skinny hips. I would truss them up with a tight belt so they wouldn’t slip down my waist and strut around in them wearing tight T-shirts. The denim was faded across the thighs and slightly frayed at the hem. Otherwise, they were in perfect condition and lasted me for years, till I found them slightly snug across my belly.

The reality of secondhand clothes today, especially poor quality fast-fashion, is that only a small portion of discarded clothing finds a second lease on life. In fact, the U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter of used clothing, with over $712 million exported in 2020. Dumped clothes are landing up thousands of miles across the world; for instance, a majority of Britain’s secondhand clothes have washed up on the beaches of Accra, in Ghana.

Things are looking up, though. According to online thrift store ThredUP’s resale report 2022, secondhand clothing is becoming a global phenomenon, expected to grow 127% by 2026. It goes on to say that the global secondhand apparel market will grow three times faster than the global apparel market overall. While this bodes well, falling in love with someone else's clothes takes time. This is how I embraced them.

Raid Closets of Friends and Family

If you're beginning to explore the world of secondhand clothes and feel hesitant about where to begin, start with picking the closets of friends and family. Being one of the youngest family members, and also relatively the tiniest, has kept me in good stead. Over the years I’ve benefited from all those who outgrew their clothes. When my sisters come to visit me and vice-versa, half the suitcase is filled with pre-loved clothes that they are giving me or that I am carrying for my nieces. I've taken clothes from friends and I've given clothes to friends. If a relative offers you clothes, you can be reassured of their quality and try them on to ensure that they fit.

Dust Off Family Heirlooms

With beautiful pashmina shawls, lovely handloom saris, and traditional costumes, the Indian family home is a treasure trove of fashionable heirlooms passed on from one generation to another. While most of us have a tendency to pickle these timeless classics in closets and dust covers, I choose to mix and match them with modern clothes, making them relevant beyond the big fat Indian wedding, festivals, and occasions.

saris hanging against a blue wall in India

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Repurpose Secondhand Clothing for You

Many times, you may hesitate to pick out pre-loved clothes because they are the wrong size, slightly damaged, or just don't fit your style. But I've found that you can adapt everything. On numerous occasions I've had to wade through my sister's ankle-length dresses, as I am a couple of inches shorter than her, but it's nothing that our family tailor cannot fix. A little wear and tear can always be gently patched up.

Embrace Different Styles

The best thing about secondhand clothing is that, for a fraction of the cost (or for no cost), you can experiment with styles from a different generation, a different community, and a different ethos altogether. With so many thrift stores popping up, I'm always excited to browse through different silhouettes, cuts, drapes, patterns, and textiles. Even if I don't end up buying, I have discovered a world of fashion so far removed from my earth-colored linen and organic cotton-dominated one.  

Be Your Own Designer

My grandfather had bought a beautiful Benarasi silk dupatta, or shawl, in black and gold for my mother, which I inherited. Quite in disrepair, I left the damaged zari (brocade) work untouched, and instead got a shawl sewn behind it, fashioning it into a stylish heirloom wrap. I've travelled the world with it, receiving compliments whenever I draped it around my shoulders, keeping me snug and dressy.

Secondhand fashion has definitely made me more creative when it comes to how I dress up, adding extra joy to my life, while I try to do the right thing.