Vintage clothes: The secondhand stitch-up

Liam Donohoe problematises those jeans you got from the Glebe markets.

Vintage clothes are somewhat of a university uniform. Whether worn by the spacey ket-head that shows up to the occasional tute, the flower-crowned doofer at the vegan BBQ, or a jaded, third-year private school alumni, universities have the critical mass of subcultures and ethically self-conscious people to make vintage clothing a vogue in themselves. In fact, so captive is the USyd market that every second wednesday, Eastern Avenue becomes an agora of the antique; a wardrobe of the worn. But while these supply and demand functions may be motivated by good intentions, vintage clothes are often sourced through processes that are far from innocuous.

Now I must confess that I am certainly not immune to the charms of the enterprising garb hawker—who could possibly say no to a bootlegged commemoration of Rage Against the Machine 2008 Australasian tour for just $5? And it’s certainly true that buying vintage clothing is often preferable to entering the fast fashion market, ever-so-slightly reducing the demand that commissions inexpensive, disposable clothes made in slave labour conditions, while instead recycling those otherwise headed to landfill. Suffice to say, there’s nothing inherently wrong with vintage clothing; it’s often comparatively virtuous. But despite this general truth, there is one particular genre of vintage cloth vendor that concerns me and this article: the sartor exploitus.

The sartor exploitus is one of those pesky parasites that thrives in areas with a mid-to-late Capitalist climate. Though often hipster in appearance, they have been known to mutate into full-bridled anti-consumerist, irony-insensitive hippies, especially as festivals draw nigh. Their survival mechanism is simple: raid op-shops, purchase clothes most likely to fetch a higher price amongst the wealthy hipsters, accumulate profit.

The sartor exploitus comes in many forms. Sometimes they sneak about as retail outlets. But more often, they materialize at communal markets, the type ostensibly designed for cheap exchange and to give budding fashionistas a platform to sell their designs, like the Glebe and Newtown markets. Whether what the sartor does is consistent with the spirit of such exchanges is questionable.

In securing the best inventory, the sartor necessarily takes away clothing intended for the less well-off. These are people who rely on the below-market, low-margin generosity of a not-for-profit to clothe themselves, and who would otherwise have bought the sartors’ harvest. The clothes obtained by the sartor are often the most coveted and so, in a sense, the ‘best’. The sartors target the highest quality, the coolest, and the least worn among the lot, preying across a wide plane to keep their stock’s standards high. Less well-off customers are therefore not just left with less, they’re left with worse

A cruel form of double jeopardy befalls the marginalised who have a preference for these clothes. That’s because when the sartor resells these clothes they do so at an exclusionary price. Sartors need only look in the mirror to know the types of clothing their clientele desire, and so get stock with high levels of inelastic demand. From the affluent hipster’s perspective, going vintage is a tempting proposition. The buyer secures the social capital, brand recognition, and aesthetic improvements associated with the material configuration of the item cheaper than they would if the same item was bought at Urban Outfitters. As such, the items sit in an awkward superposition between the bourgeoisie exclusivity of new Ralph Lauren merchandise and the mass affordability of the fading Vinnies, in any case collapsing to a state that locks out the less well-off.

The difference between the price charged by the charity and the price charged by the sartor is roughly equal to the value of exclusion. It is also termed profit. But the sartor themselves is certainly no prophet—anyone could do what they do, and many have dismissed their business model out of moral trepidation. The sartor creates nothing of tangible value, exposes themselves to limited risk, and exploits good intentions. Though this may seem indistinguishable from many of our society’s most credible profit-generating enterprises, like finance, such a resemblance may in fact offer cause for reconsidering our intuitions on that practice, too.

But if undeserved and unfair sources of profit are necessary constituents of a late capitalist Ponzi scheme, then so too is appropriation. When wealthy people buy vintage clothing, they mute one of the most visible markers of their advantage—their physical presentation. They obscure themselves in the mass, fading into commonality just as their new (or, newish) Levis do ‘round the knee creases. When the less well-off can’t access these clothes, while the wealthy can, their tastes have not only been stolen, but repackaged into a bourgeois sensibility; moderated, alienated, gentrified.

Of course, sartors’ predation is underscored by the same capitalist pressures as anyone else. As such, their activities do not definitively prove a flawed moral character. But while a boycott alone is unlikely to do anything to help, asking the same questions of vintage clothes and their origins as you would fast fashion may help expose the sartors’ camouflage. Only then, can we return them to the zoo from whence they came.