Today we welcome another 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, 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 the following post, Le Zotte explores the long history of musicians’ advocacy of secondhand shopping, from Fanny Brice to Janis Joplin to Macklemore.
Poppin’ Tags: How Musicians Helped Make Used Clothes FashionableIn the 2013 number-one Billboard song “Thrift Shop,” Seattle duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis boast about their fashionably unfashionable thrift. Performing amidst a global economic recession, Macklemore goes “poppin’ tags” at Goodwill with only twenty dollars in his pocket. He also touts the thrift-shopping value of originality—calling having the same shirt as someone else at a club a “hella don’t.” The oft-watched music video is a kitschy panoply of outrageously dated outfits and Goodwill shopping carts, celebrating the established subcultural pastime of thrift shopping.
Original though Macklemore’s shirt may be, the song itself draws from a nearly century-long tradition—the musical advocacy of secondhand shopping. In the early 1920s, Broadway star Fanny Brice’s hits “Rose of Washington Square” and “Second-Hand Rose” acknowledged secondhand clothing as tools of social mobility and possibly even modern cultural cachet. The latter, more popular tune ties Greenwich Village bohemian style to the association of secondhand exchange with Jewish immigrants, and by way of humor, packages both for mainstream consumption.
Brice was the perfect performer for this task. As a headliner for the premier Broadway extravaganza of the time, the Zeigfeld Follies, Brice played a slightly off-brand, comedic Ziegfeld Girl, the standard bearer of which was a regal, Anglo-Saxon showgirl. Brice’s half-assimilated presence among these hyper-American beauties—she Anglicized her Jewish surname and later trimmed her prominent nose, yet leveraged Yiddish inflections and knowing references for comic effect—demonstrated the migrating role of Jewish women in culture and society. The popularity of her Victor Records recording of “Second Hand Rose,” which reached number three in national sales in 1922, likewise indicated (or precipitated) a shift in the perception of used clothing. True, “Rose” is publicly outed as a societal imposter in her used pearls and fur, but the audience chuckles good naturedly at her deviance—a clear departure from the severe finger-wagging of decades past, when stories about buying used clothing ended in plagues of contagious disease and social alienation.
After World War II, the cultural significance of secondhand clothing accelerated. Trans-Atlantic musicians, whose images and public comportment swiftly became inextricable from their sound in an era of television, helped make pre-owned apparel cool. In 1966, Rolling Stones lead man Mick Jagger left London’s I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet (IWLKV), a shop specializing in Victorian military uniforms, with a red Grenadier guardsman drummer’s jacket—and soon catapulted the boutique and its wares into sartorial prominence. Other contemporary rockers embraced the ironic Victorian military styling, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, whose famous Sgt Peppers’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover was inspired by an IWLKV window display. Such dress underscored the rebelliousness of rock n’ roll by mocking bygone authority.
Soon thereafter, American performers infused secondhand styles with a glittering queer sensibility. Members of the San Francisco-based psychedelic drag troupe the Cockettes costumed their wild gender-bending musical parodies with an eclectic mélange of found materials. Central to nearly every contemporary description of the troupe’s outrageous style was their patched-together thrift-store look. Though the troupe itself was short-lived, the Cockettes’ use of thrift-store goods and their resultant trash-glamour aesthetic profoundly shaped American style; Allen Ginsberg claimed it “affected the entire suburban culture” of the 1970s. Members of the Cockettes went on to have their own musical careers—Sylvester’s 1978 disco hit You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) earned him distinction as the first openly gay top-selling artist—and to style other popular musicians, including members of the New York Dolls, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith, creating the signature camp elements of glam.
Women also contributed to the star-power of secondhand cross-dressing. Many credit poet, songwriter, “Godmother of punk,” and fashion icon Patti Smith with establishing modern female androgynous style, as a kind of postwar, thrift-store Marlene Dietrich, fashionably fey and carelessly stylish. Feminists tried to claim Smith, reading her rough-hewn music and adaptation of men’s clothing from the Bowery’s Salvation Army as an edict of feminine liberation. Smith repeatedly dismissed such associations, instead imagining contiguity to masculine style as key to a membership to a sort of all-boys’ creative genius club in the male Romantic tradition. In her college days, she “searched for greatcoats in thrift stores like those worn by Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire,” and later honed her style following the lead of famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Perhaps the most iconic photograph of Smith, taken by Mapplethorpe and used on the cover of her 1975 debut album Horses, was a gleaned-goods homage to her many male role models, from Rimbaud and Baudrillard to Frank Sinatra and Roger Vadim. By her own admission, Smith was like a punk, goy Yentl, dressing in her father’s clothes in order to get a desired education.
Musicians’ motives were myriad and the politics muddled, but by the end of the 1970s, a queer, “trash” self-presentation had entered the country’s visual lexicon in association with music. Post-punk and New Wave stars, from Cyndi Lauper to the B-52’s, riffed on decades-old sounds and styles. Androgyny persisted, particularly for male rockers. When R.E.M.’s singer Michael Stipe wore a dress at a 1989 performance, male rock stars in women’s hand-me-down clothing on stage had two decades of clear examples to follow. According to a writer for the Observer, “the dress has a particular significance: it marks R.E.M.’s passing from their cult rockband status to the blurred, warping world of pop stardom.”
By the late 1980s, boys in bands in thrift-store dresses signaled high-energy rock, following in the sparkling footsteps of glam. When grunge icon Kurt Cobain mounted a stage in dirty hiking boots, a vintage floral dress, and a well-pilled cardigan, he knowingly performed a jaded variation on the Cockettes’ thrift-store-styled gender fuck, adding a distinctly working-class edge to the by-then established pop habit of drag. Grunge dress, with its widespread accessibility, gender-role deviance, cross-class identification, and ironic inflections, referenced a century of secondhand exchange and its cultural promotion.
Macklemore’s 2013 tribute to thrift shops articulates the enduring association of creative output with secondhand commerce. Voluntary secondhand dress persists precisely because it suggests both cultural and economic distinction. It satisfies a desire to be seen as different than the average consumer dupe, as willing to invest time in the cultivation of originality without utilizing class and wealth privilege. In reality, however, secondhand economies and styles throughout the twentieth century are much more complicated; studying them reveals the futility of pursuing an effective anti-consumer consumption. But whatever the continuing or resurgent stigmas and social critiques of secondhand products may be, many creative dressers continue to agree with Macklemore’s concise assessment: “This is fucking awesome.”
Jennifer Le Zotte is lecturer of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of From Goodwill to Grunge: A History of Secondhand Styles and Alternative Economies. Follow her on Twitter @JennyLeZotte.