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Where used clothing is about germs and dead people

There are repair shops so specialized in Barcelona that you’d think no one would ever trash anything. Besides clocks, clothes, bikes and furniture, you can find restoration experts for broken umbrellas, picture frames, lamps, cameras, mobile phones, electric appliances and even dolls.

But as it becomes cheaper and cheaper to buy new, I’m afraid some of these places may become relics of the past.

My husband’s favorite cobbler, like most in the industry, must be about 60 and his shop looks several centuries older. As we entered his tiny store last Friday- ducking to avoid hitting our heads on the doorframe-, my husband explained that this type of place was probably headed toward semi-extinction as their proprietors aged and no one filled their proverbial “shoes”.

After squeezing into the cramped shop- maybe 5 feet wide and 10 feet deep- and peering behind a countertop stacked with worn shoes, I located “el zapatero” and asked if he could fix the broken zipper on my daughter’s jacket. He sent me across the street to the seamstress, which seemed logical and had been my original destination until my husband had suggested with pride that his shoe man could do it all.

I showed the jacket to the seamstress, who looked surprised I’d even brought the thing in and explained that for the 14 euros it would cost her to replace the zipper, I could buy two or three new ones at the discount stores down the street.

I started to explain that I wasn’t as concerned about the money as about the wasted resources, but she couldn’t seem to lose sight of the disparity between those 14 euros and the 5 or so euros it would cost to buy another cheap jacket. I must admit the coat I was trying to repair was a low quality thing from Zara that had been handed down to us by my husband’s cousin and for our downshifted, and unemployed. family, 14 euros was a big expense.

Though we had one more resource for repair: my mother-in-law.

Never buy used shoes or underwear

Yesterday, we brought the coat along for our weekly Sunday lunch. As my
father-in-law drove us to his home from the train station, we passed
the “mercadillo”, the weekly combined farmer’s market and cheap
clothing sale, in the local village, I noticed prices of 3 euros for
“all clothing” and felt overwhelmed by the significance of this
onslaught of cheap clothing. Without an investment in quality, why
would anyone ever bother to have anything fixed?

As my husband explained the needed coat repairs to his mother, I felt
badly we were even asking her do such a time-consuming task and once
again, tried to make it clear that we weren’t trying to be cheap, but
just not to waste. I didn’t get the feeling I’d made my point so a bit
later as I, and my sister-in-law Marta, kept her company in the kitchen
as she cooked a seafood paella, I brought up the point of trying not to
buy any new clothes, especially for Inés, and to just use hand-me-downs
or buy used.

When I mentioned second hand shops, she made a face and said, “me dan
asco”. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a Spaniard express their
disgust at used clothing. While looking online for a place to buy used
kids clothes here in Barcelona, I came across a comment from a Spanish
mother, “I would never put second hand clothes on my son from someone
that I didn’t know, even if they were disinfected, dis-insecticided (my
crude translation to keep the “dis”) and dis-all of that.”

Not all her countryfolk are as negative about wearing other people’s
clothes, especially in the hip, alternative parts of Barcelona, but the
lack of a good second hand clothing market was a frequent topic of
conversation for us anglo-saxon expats used to the ubiquitous
garage/boot sales and thrift/charity shops in our home countries.

Britain’s philathropists and Spain’s church take on used clothes

In a recent issue of one of Barcelona’s English language magazines,
the-who-I’m-guessing-is-a-British-expat writer Natasha Young wrote an
article dedicated to the “alarming lack of charity shops” in this city.
After a bit of history on how charity shops started in the UK in 1948
with Oxfam’s small Oxford store aimed at helping Greek civilian victims
of World War II, she quotes David Moir from the Association of Charity
Shops,: “The culture of charitable giving in the UK was really
established by 19th-century philanthropists, and the creation of bodies
such as the Salvation Army. In other societies such as Spain, such
altruism and charitable activities were more generally provided via the
Church and its communities.”

So it seems it’s the church’s fault that here in Spain the
charity/thrift shop culture never took off, or that it was ghettoized
to what my mother-in-law described as “sales of dead people’s clothes”
(estate sales, I’m guessing).

In Spain, there have never been any big names, like Kate Moss and
Sienna Miller, to buy second hand stylings for their personal wardrobes
and make used clothing chic. Nor are there Visa sponsored clothing swaps
for which the likes of Lindsay Lohan, after being paid a lot of money
to front the campaign, proclaim that “The concept of swapping clothes,
getting something for nothing and refreshing your wardrobe appeals to
everyone” (Mischa Barton, who Karl Lagerfield called a “fashion role
model”, was spokesperson in 2007).

Dead people’s duds

My mother-in-law has none of these more glamorous references. For her,
used clothing has been marginalized to the duds of the deceased or what
she was beginning to explain as the used section of the mercadillo. I
asked if many people shopped there and she told me that “no one wants
to be seen there” except immigrants who buy bags of clothing for 1

Never one to just let someone criticize for too long, my sister-in-law
Marta jumped into the conversation to announce that she had bought the
shoes she was wearing at a Barcelona thrift store years ago and loved
them. This caused her mother to wrinkle her nose and tell her that,
“you should never wear someone else’s shoes… nor underwear.”

Marta just smiled and nodded in agreement. But then added for my
benefit, “but these were first edition adidas” for some style from the
70s. And that’s when I got it. For Marta, and much of her generation,
used clothing didn’t have to be smelly cast-offs, but instead, it could
be a way to dress distinctively, to find one-of-a-kind items. At some
point in the past 30 years, second hand clothing had acquired the more
respectable title of vintage.

It’s understandable that my mother-in-law who had spent much of her
life living in poverty during Franco’s regime would want to escape any
vestiges of that lifestyle. But Marta, who was born a year after
democracy was established in Spain, has nothing to flee.

Poles are now confident enough to buy used

Spain’s not the only nation whose growing wealth seems to coincide with
acceptance of used clothing. A recent New York Times article documented
the growing popularity of thrift stores in Poland,
which entered the European Union 5 years ago and has had one of the
fastest growing economies in Central Europe. “Young Poles here in the
capital are now confident enough in their ability to buy new clothes
that they at last have taken to wearing old ones.”

It seems to be a generational trend in this newer EU country as well as
in Iberia. Or as one 21-year-old vintage shopper explained, “I think
the elderly people connect this with the past in Poland, in the ’80s,
the queues.”

Like Poland, as the memory of harsh poverty here in Spain fades so does
the stigma of second hand clothing. In Barcelona, while I can’t find
the thrift shopping options I had while living in San Francisco (a
couple years ago I filmed one of the Haight Street stores that I used
to frequent), there are options for buying used.

Last year, desperate for a few basic maternity clothes I visited one of the city’s 12 Humana stores
(though the Swiss-based organization’s non-charity status is
controversial, I can’t fault their environmental record for selling a
lot of cheap used clothing) and found a maternity nightgown and a wool
sweater for a few euros each.

My friend, Carolyn, swears by the periodic swap meets held
in different neighborhoods. Since her local market works on barter, on
her last visit she traded a head of lettuce for a baby backpack.

And my sister-in-law likes to find those small 2nd hand shops hidden
throughout the city that you can only stumble upon. I found one the
other day just a few blocks from my home that I have passed unknowingly
for a couple years now, mistaking the old stone interior and stylish
mannequins as markings of a new clothing store.

Even my mother-in-law finally admitted that once, years ago, she did buy used apparel: used fur coats for her kids at Barcelona’s extensive, nearly daily flea market (Mercat Dels Encants). She admitted it while making it clear that coats are not underwear.

Used vs hand-me-downs

It’s funny because while my mother-in-law draws a very clear line at
buying used clothes (except perhaps for those coats), she doesn’t have
the same problem with hand-me-downs. In fact, my daughter’s coat with
the broken zipper was something she had collected from her niece, along
with some other kids clothes, and passed along to us.

And she never throws clothes away, instead she fills her kids bedrooms
with clothes that they have gotten rid of; in much the same way my own
mother collects our discarded items and stores them until they come
back into fashion and we re-find them or until she finds someone
outside the family who could use them.

Perhaps my mother-in-law’s system of keeping everything and passing
things within the family could function as a nearly closed-loop system
if things hadn’t changed. But now with the arrival of fast fashion and
3 euro clothing, relatives are less likely to accept hand-me-downs and
simply to pick up what they need when they need it at very little

While she might not change, her kids are part of a new reality that
understands the specialness of buying vintage or simply of getting
higher quality stuff at a better deal. Though our generation is also
less likely to mend items when they start to wear out.

And right now, my mother-in-law’s tradition is working on that
zipper… hopefully, we’ll have it this weekend as Inés is popping out
of her other hand-me-down jacket.