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Stigma, Sharing & Cultural Resourcefulness

Overcoming the stigma around sharing and circulating clothes within the family and community means embracing cultural resourcefulness. It requires a shift towards acceptance instead of shame.

Credit: Ella Citron-Thompkins

In her article ‘From My Mother’s Wardrobe: Why Wearing Hand-Me-Downs Is Better Than Buying Something Brand New,’ London-based fashion writer Ella Citron-Thompkins (photo credit) poignantly reflects on the profound memories held by pre-loved garments through every crease, hole, and stain.

‘There really is something so sentimental about wearing the exact same dress today that my mum wore in the 90s, and automatically I feel connected to her and the experiences she had while wearing it.’

This perspective is not unique to Ella; globally, the tradition of passing down clothing often brings with it a personal connection that is undeniably strong.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, garments gracefully move through generations as “hand-me-downs” or, alternatively, as uplifting “hand-me-ups.” In Australia, there’s a shared appreciation for “hand-me-overs.”

In the vibrant streets of India and South Africa, clothing embraces new life as “pass-me-downs,” while the Philippines adds a touch of flair with “ukay-ukay,” referring to thrifting adventures. Japan embodies the spirit of ‘Mottainai,’ urging against waste and encouraging the reuse of clothing.

 

Credit: Narumi by Utagawa Kunisada, 1845

From the quaint friperies of France to Germany’s ‘gebrauchtkleidung’ and Italy’s ‘abiti di seconda mano,’ the world over echoes the sentiment of cherishing pre-loved garments.

In China, it’s simply ‘二手衣物’ (Èrshǒu yīwù), and in Mexico, garments find a second home as ‘ropa de segunda mano.’

The hand-me-down culture, with deep historical roots, extends globally, reflecting economic, social, and cultural dynamics. In medieval Japan, the practice of passing down kimonos and other garments was commonplace, emphasising the value of textiles and craftsmanship.

In India, the tradition of handing down clothing within extended families has been prevalent for centuries, driven by both economic prudence and a sense of familial connection.

During times of economic hardship, such as the Great Depression in the 1930s, hand-me-downs became a necessity for many families, fostering a culture of resourcefulness and frugality.

Credit: Fox Photos

In the 19th century, as industrialization advanced, the concept of passing down clothing became more prevalent among both affluent and working-class families. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the term “hand-me-down” gained popularity, coinciding with a post-World War II era when rationing and economic constraints persisted.

The 1960s and 1970s countercultural movement embraced thrift store shopping and hand-me-downs, rebelling against mainstream consumerism and celebrating the uniqueness of pre-owned items and DIY.

Credit: Butterick dress pattern

This shift persists, influencing today’s renewed interest in reusing clothing, driven by environmental concerns and the drawbacks of fast fashion. The historical and cultural roots of this practice shape contemporary attitudes toward sharing and sustainability.

In ‘My Mother’s Sari’ by Sandhya Rao and Nina Sabnani, a young girl finds magic in her mother’s saris, describing them as ‘long like a train’ and ‘filling the air with color’ during her playful moments. Each sari becomes a unique entity – a blue one transforms into a ‘river,’ a patterned one into a secret hiding spot.

The child’s most cherished ritual is wrapping herself in the vibrant fabric, igniting her dreams. With enchanting illustrations, the book captures the colors, textures, and the child’s deep admiration for her mother’s attire.

Credit: ‘In My Mother’s Sari,’ Meera Ganapathi

Meera Ganapathi’s The Soup Magazine explores the enduring connection between women and their mothers’ saris, highlighting these cultural symbols as cherished heirlooms that bridge generations.

“This is a 23-year-old pure chiffon sari from Mysore that my father gifted my mother. I love how it’s so simple yet so striking. Since it was a gift from my father, I never had the nerve to ask my mother to give it to me. On her 60th birthday, in a fit of motherly love, she finally gave me this sari.” – Shagun Seda Sengupta, 34, Creative Director

Credit: ‘In My Mother’s Sari,’ Meera Ganapathi

The stigma of second-hand has permeated various cultures. Yet, sharing clothes or wearing pre-loved clothes is inherently linked to resourcefulness and a lack of waste. Part of cultural sustainability’s power is in destigmatizing practices that serve us all socially and environmentally. Can society shift towards a time where hand-me-down culture can be seen as already iconic? Stretching things to the fullest of their potential?

Full Potential

When it comes to stretching textiles to the fullest of their potential, look no further than West African cultures and the process of making bespoke fashion. Kitenge fabric, often bought in 12-yard pieces or ‘half’ 6-yard sections, measures 45 to 48 inches in width. Surplus fabric is repurposed.

Credit: Kofi Ansah

This versatile material serves as a body drape, cooking apron, headwrap, or wraparound for mothers carrying babies on their backs. Far from unworthy, it is seen as logical, coordinated, or by design. Its philosophy has translated into contemporary designs.

Conclusion

These diverse terms and expressions of sharing reflect not just linguistic nuances but a shared understanding of the beauty in giving garments and textiles not only a new chapter but a full chapter. In the face of an industry that produced a startling 97 million tons of waste annually, of which 18 million were leftover textiles, there is space to lean on the stories the world is already telling us, to find a little love for the things in existence, and to stretch our materials to the fullest of their potential.

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