• The process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.
  • The process of making someone or something more refined, polite, or respectable.

How are gentrification and thrift shopping related? Well, for a long time there was a stigma attached to wearing clothes that once belonged to a stranger. It was seen as unsanitary and displayed a lack of wealth. These beliefs stemmed from antisemitism and xenophobia. 

In the late 19th century, Jewish immigrants first started selling used clothes from pushcarts on the street. These immigrants often didn’t have many other employment options due to antisemitism. 

Discrimination impacted their ability to sell clothes outside of their own communities. A May 1884 issue of the Saturday Evening Post included a satirical story about a girl who bought a dress from a Jewish-owned resale shop and was later humiliated at a party when one of the other guests recognized it. The girl would even end up contracting smallpox from the garment and spreading it to her family, perpetuating the belief that thrifted clothing was somehow unsanitary.

Regardless of how it has been viewed by society, the buying and selling of second-hand clothing has always existed. However, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution — when clothing became mass-produced and thus seen as more disposable by its owners — that thrift stores really came into existence as they are today. 

Thrift store chains, like Goodwill or Salvation Army, were created with the intent of providing clothing and giving back to those in poverty. These thrift stores often make it easier for immigrants to find clothes and assimilate into American culture. They also provide other social services like job training and employment placement services. Unfortunately, people who buy used clothes out of necessity are still too often associated with poverty and treated poorly as a result.

Scenes from Island Thrift in Centereach. Photos by Josh Joseph and Keating Zelenke.

Avid thrift shopper Salimata Toure, 20, dealt with this stigma growing up, before thrifting became the popular trend it is today.

“I mainly felt judged as a kid because I got made fun of when I went to school,” she said. “I’d show up with thrifted clothes or my Sketchers and get the shit bullied out of me in 2008 just for those same girls to wear them now in 2021 because it’s trendy.”

Toure said she was glad that thrifting is growing in popularity because of its environmental benefits. But she was annoyed by the appropriation of an industry that provides a lifeline for lower income people like herself.

“At the same time, a lot of these people can afford more expensive clothing and they just want the cute thrifted look for an aesthetic. That frustrates me because it feels like [they’re] making poverty a trend.” 

Toure also expressed her frustration at finding clothing in her size due to shoppers purposely buying larger clothing in order to achieve an “oversized” look. 

“I literally just have trouble buying clothes in other places because a) they’re expensive, or b) not in my size. So when I go to thrift stores hoping for cheap plus-size clothes, a lot of them are already gone.”

Now, in the age of influencer culture, thrift shopping has become fashionable — especially among young people. This is mostly due to the influence of social media platforms like YouTube. Some thrift haul videos garner millions of views. There’s also been a rise in popular resale apps like Depop, where thrifted clothes are often resold again at much higher profit margins. About 90% of Depop’s active users are under the age of 26. These factors play a large role in the destigmatization — and gentrification — of second-hand clothing.

While it’s great that thrifting is no longer something to be looked down upon, its popularity has significant drawbacks for the people who rely on thrift stores’ affordability. Sellers on Depop tend to “clear out” thrift stores of all their high quality, trendy clothing, leaving nothing but lower quality clothing left for the people who shop there because they can’t afford anything else. These sellers then mark up their items to unaffordable prices. They may have bought a pair of jeans at the thrift store for $7, but then go on to sell them for $200 on Depop. 

Consignment shop worker Karen Velaquez, 20, has watched Depop sellers come into her store and completely change the industry in recent years. She said she’s noticed many resellers come into the store and search for certain branded items due to their popularity. As someone who thrifts herself, she said it has been harder to find quality items because thrift stores have become aware of these trends, increasing their prices.

“When you do [find things,] they’re usually $12 to $16 plus, which isn’t a lot, but compared to back then when I would find Harley t-shirts for five dollars, it’s a big difference,” she said, “especially for the people that go to thrift stores because they genuinely can’t afford to shop anywhere else.”

Velaquez’s workplace is located in Commack, “which is in no way a poor town” according to her. She’s noticed people from upper-middle class communities like Smithtown and Dix Hills coming into thrift stores and making purchases ranging from $30 to $100, or even more.

“By no means are the people that shop at my store depending solely on thrift stores for clothing items. These are the kind of people that can spend $50 on a pair of jeans or even a t-shirt and not bat an eye.” 

Velaquez said that growing up, thrifting was looked down upon and something to be ashamed of. She’s happy to see the destigmatization of buying clothing second hand. However, she still has some reservations.

“The issue is that these people who can easily afford higher-end goods are going in and capitalizing on the cheaper items for profit because it’s just making it harder for the families that depend on thrifts to be able to buy the items they need.”

Since thrift stores have caught on and begun to hike up the prices of trendy items, many low-income customers have been forced to turn away from thrift stores and towards fast fashion. Even if the quality of these items is lower, at least they can afford the trendy clothing that is otherwise being bought up by middle- and upper-class shoppers. And when these clothes eventually either wear out or fall out of style, they have nowhere to go but the landfill. Because of virtual thrift apps like Poshmark, Thredup and Depop, the act of thrifting has been appropriated by the middle class.

This gentrification goes completely against the original intention of providing clothing to low-income individuals. The clothing resale industry has become exploitative and unethical, as stores turn their backs on the people who created them and need them the most.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying thrift shopping — it is more environmentally sustainable to reuse and repurpose clothing. It also helps curtail fast fashion and the exploitation of garment workers around the world. However, the needs of people who need thrift stores the most can’t be overlooked. Low-income people deserve to wear quality, trendy clothing as much as anyone else. Middle- and upper-class people must address their economic privilege and how their consumerism may be impacting people with fewer resources.

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