Today we welcome a guest post by Jennifer Le Zotte, author of From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies. In this surprising new look at how clothing, style, and commerce came together to change American culture, Jennifer Le Zotte examines how secondhand goods sold at thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales came to be both profitable and culturally influential. Initially, selling used goods in the United States was seen as a questionable enterprise focused largely on the poor. But as the twentieth century progressed, multimillion-dollar businesses like Goodwill Industries developed, catering not only to the needy but increasingly to well-off customers looking to make a statement. Le Zotte traces the origins and meanings of “secondhand style” and explores how buying pre-owned goods went from a signifier of poverty to a declaration of rebellion.
In today’s post, Le Zotte writes about the history of thrift stores as sites of commercial support of queer communities.
In this divisive political season, American public bathrooms and changing rooms are spaces of contention. For example, in March 2016 North Carolina legislature passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, better known as HB2, in reaction to a Charlotte City ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in various settings. North Carolina’s HB2, one of a string of recent “bathroom bills,” specifies that in government buildings, individuals must use restrooms and changing facilities corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. In a swift and somewhat contentious response, discount retailer Target formally welcomed transgender shoppers, inviting them to use whichever bathroom corresponds with their gender identity.
In recent years, corporate support of LGBTQ rights is not unusual, but in the 1950s and 1960s, major retailers were often complicit in the systematic anti-homosexual campaigns known as the Lavender Scare, firing gay employees and alienating or even arresting cross-dressing patrons attempting to try on clothing. In most states, wearing clothing “intended for the opposite sex”—even briefly in dressing rooms—meant risking a rap sheet. Commercial support of queer communities came instead from alternative retail sites— such as thrift stores. Goodwill Industries, Salvation Army, and the hundreds of small, locally owned secondhand shops multiplying in the postwar years, became queer shopping havens. Such places did not issue public responses of solidarity with non-normative dressers, but most did extend a sort of benevolent neglect to all customers. With no clerks angling for a commission, and a staff untrained in suggestive retailing, thrift stores were much safer places than Weinstein’s for cross-dressing men and women to try and buy the clothing of their choice.
This relative permissiveness was only one way a nascent gay liberation movement used secondhand sales as a tool for reform. The ways in which one prominent early gay rights activist, José Sarria, utilized pre-owned commerce shows how the thrift-store model offered both shopping opportunities and political action for those claiming non-normative gender identities. At a time when homosexuals were deemed potentially treasonous security risks by the government, and the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a mental illness, Sarria was unapologetically “out,” both socially and politically. Despite the laws in his hometown San Francisco, Sarria persisted in his chosen career as a female impersonator, a title in which he took professional pride.* For his transformation into Carmen, he relied in part on the city’s many thrift stores and flea markets. At least by 1960, Sarria was buying women’s clothing from the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, and the Purple Heart Thrift Store. Handwritten accounts also reflected a budget for—and an income from—flea market sales. Sarria supplemented both his wardrobe and his personal income through used goods exchange. The task of constructing Carmen and his other female personas would have been more difficult without the inexpensive wares and relative permissiveness of secondhand venues.
Sarria’s reliance on secondhand clothing went beyond his personal wardrobe. The sale of used goods also supported his political endeavors on behalf of the gay community. Sarria helped form some of the most successful homophile organizations of the era, serving as secretary for The League for Civil Education (LCE) in 1961, and helping start the San Francisco Tavern Guild (1962-1995) and the Society for Individual Rights (SIR, 1964-1976). All of these organizations used auctions and secondhand trade for financial and community support. SIR quickly became the largest grassroots homophile group of the era. The group modeled new trends in gay activism by demanding fair legal treatment while openly and noisily protesting police oppression. By 1965, the SIRporium, SIR’s own thrift store, was one of the group’s biggest sources of income. As a tool for both personal expression and activist fundraising, secondhand goods were an intrinsic part of the growing gay liberation movement of the 1960s.
Early in the twentieth century, the creation of Christian-run thrift stores permanently altered the dynamics between charity, labor, activism, and profit. They also became a vast resource for generations of sartorial experimentalists upsetting assumptions about gender, sexuality, race, and class.
*The pronouns used reflect those José Sarria most often applied to himself.
Jennifer Le Zotte is lecturer of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her book From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies is now available. Follow her on Twitter @jennylezotte and visit her website, jenniferlezotte.com.