Monday, October 06, 2008

It's not called Sidewalk Zeitgeist

Lately I've been noticing Australian fashion bloggers (especially Foreva Young Vintage and Fashion Hayley) describing the process of second-hand shopping as "thrifting". This isn't a dig at these blogs - I enjoy reading them - but this "thrifting" bizzo really grates on me, because "thrift stores" are what they call op-shops in the United States. (In the United Kingdom they're mostly called "charity shops".) We are not Americans, so why do we have to use their words?

It might seem like a petty complaint, but it seems to evoke a certain cultural cringe: that Australians inevitably take their fashion cues from overseas. But perhaps I'm just hypersensitive to (and more than a little sick of) the studied curatorship that goes into buying clothes second-hand, given that I've just written a post about the way that the fashion press uses "vintage" as a synonym for "personal creativity", and because I recently wrote up a vintage clothing market for ThreeThousand.

I have the unsettling feeling that when they're op-shopping, some fashionable chicks see themselves as part of a global aesthetic culture of "thrifting" rather than a local affective culture of "op-shopping". There seems to be very little thinking about how garments have histories, often local histories, and how the garment resonates with the buyer's own history. Instead the op-shop is treated as a resource for cheaply acquiring (and even on-selling via eBay) on-trend clothing that is emptied of its previous history so it becomes 'new' to the buyer.

By way of contrast, I've really been enjoying reading the collaborative op-shopping blog I Op, Therefore I Am. I found out about it when I was invited to blog there, but I figured that since I already blog in three regular places, none of which is specifically about op-shopping, I'd be over-committing myself. What I enjoy most about this blog is that it isn't just about the 'vintage' logic that seems to dominate the thinking of the fashion blogosphere.

Instead, the bloggers - and there are heaps of them - visit op-shops around Melbourne and Victoria and report excitedly on their finds - not just clothing. Some things I get excited about too, and some leave me cold. Some I think are embarrassingly daggy. But the striking part is how these purchases go on to enrich the lives of their new owners. These objects have meaning aside from their aesthetic meaning. It's the amateur still life painting that sits in the buyer's bathroom for her to enjoy as she brushes her teeth, wishing she could tell the anonymous painter how much she likes it.

So when I think of "thrifting", I think of the hipster's pursuit of a distinctive look, but when I think of "op-shopping", I think of shopping practices that recognise the ways that an object's history creates affect, or feeling, in the buyer. I know I was recently overjoyed to discover the twin of my favourite coffee mug for $1 in the Don Bosco op shop in Brunswick - it seems so serendipitous that for so little money, you can find something that's already special to you.


Sarah said...

Hello! I actually found this article through my live feed link list. Is it wrong that I feel slightly excited that I got my first article link? Probably...

Anyway, I definitely agree with some of your points and I also get frustrated at the way Australians adopt American traditions for no reason - eg. halloween/ tipping etc. I guess without meaning to I've picked up the term "thrifting" from reading all the american vintage blogs out there... personally I used it in place of "op shopping" just because it required less effort to write the term (laziness). I don't view them to be any different from each other in meaning but I guess if you delve deeper there is the question of why that word seems to be more appealing than simple "op shopping".

I agree that there is a huge market at the moment for vintage fashion which I guess you could say I'm exploiting. I do ask though, is it really that important one should be fully aware of garment history if purchasing vintage clothing? That sounds a bit elitist. I feel that regardless of whether somone buys vintage for aesthetic reasons or for historical value, it's still conserves a great economical balance and is a enviroment-friendly thing to do.

end mega comment!

Mel said...

Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment. I think the striking thing is that op-shops are different to vintage shops, yet many shoppers treat them the same. Op-shops are still mostly community-run enterprises that rely on donated merchandise and volunteer staff. Whereas vintage shops are much more like ordinary clothes shops: the merchandise is carefully selected, sold for profit, and the prices are more like retail prices.

Possibly it is elitist to expect customers in vintage shops to be aware of the garment's history, because the store goes to great trouble to erase that history, or at the other extreme, to romanticise it (like, even badly made nylon dresses from Katies can be 'retro'). That's why it really gets my goat to see op shops, which to be are about much more than aesthetics, mined as a resource for 'vintage' things.

However I totally agree about the economic and ethical good sense of second-hand shopping - re-using available resources is a true definition of 'thrift', and I freely admit that I like op-shops because I'm a tightwad of the highest order.

kiki said...

too true

i've always believed that 'thrifting' was being careful with your money... not throwing it at anything in an op-shop.

but hey, that's just the definition and all...

Vanessa Berry said...

I think that for anyone who has been op shopping for a long time (in my case, about 15 years), its flip into the fashionable is going to grate. I remember feeling angry when it, and vintage clothes (I actually avoid using the word vintage, because it's an empty word that just means $$$ to me) became fashionable, like the thing that I loved was being taken from me.
But I guess that's what happens whenever a culture you are a part of enters the mainstream, no matter what it be. Change happens, but it can be a shock. I wrote a zine in 1999 where I went to all the St Vinnies op shops in Sydney, and when I look at it now, it seems like I was in a wonderland - oh, that fabulous 70s dress is $5, nah, too much.
As my interest in op shopping is a personal/historical/imaginative one, it does make me feel sad when people do it in order to make a profit out of the objects there. I want them to be imagination factories, where people can come and look for things they didn't even know what they were looking for. When I worked in an op shop though, I saw just how many different types of people shopped there, all for different reasons, and it seemed a healthier ecology than is perhaps reflected when you read about op shopping in a fashion context.
I wonder in particular about the relationship between individualism and globalisation, how it's reflected in fashion. I remind myself that once, not so long ago, wearing dead people's clothes was seen as a very strange thing to do. As some highly fashionable girl was looking down her nose at me in 1995, would I have ever thought they would be bumping elbows with me in the future, in the salvos?

(Thanks for this post and the previous one.)

Amelia said...

delighted that you are enjoying i op therefore i am. thanks for the mention!

regards, Amelia

Fashion Hayley said...

Hey, I just found this post through my feed link list like Sarah. I just want to say that I lived over in Japan and became friends with heaps of Americans and just kinda picked up the word thrifting because it was easy for everyone to understand what I was talking about. Then I started reading fashion blogs and I noticed the word being used by UK and USA people. It's a global world, language changes and evolves and that is happening at a faster past now because of the internet. I still say op shop in person to other Aussies, but online I use thrifting/ed because that way everyone can understand what I'm talking about, and I learnt that is the most important thing after living o/s for a while, making sure everyone understands. Also I've been op shopping since I was a kid with my mum, I'm not interested in true vintage as much as I am in a bargain, I hardly ever visit "vintage" stores just because I know I can find similar for less at a local op shop where my money goes to charity. I always donate my old clothes to charity (always! I never throw anything out that can be used by someone else) and I have always done so thanks to my Mum's teachings. Anyway just letting you know why I say thrifted...its like saying lol, its global.