The Psychology of Hand-me-downs

national-thrift-store-day-featureI received an interesting question over on my personal website this week, about how to avoid causing insult when you are the recipient of unwanted hand-me-downs.   There’s a lot to unpack about our emotions surrounding clothing – so let’s give this a go.

  1. Clothing is considered intrinsically valuable:  Until the last twenty to thirty years, clothing was expensive to produce, and worn clothing retained value.   In 1950, the average family spent 12% of its income on clothing – now we spend 4% of our income on clothing, and our closets are overflowing.  Those of us who were raised before the turn of the millennium haven’t gotten it into our heads… but now the problem is that we produce so much clothing that the second-hand stores don’t want it!  Clothing has gone from a valuable resource to a waste issue.
  2. We imbue our clothing with some part of ourselves – we are emotionally attached to it.  In the same way clothing speaks about you, it starts to be your friend, so now that red shirt is the shirt that “always makes you feel happy” – well, what happens when it no longer fits?  You want to send that good emotion on to someone else, right?    And that dress that made you feel like the queen of the universe?  Well… it just felt like you.  You want to find it a good home… you want to see it continue its life.  It IS just like sharing a tiny part of yourself.
  3. Receiving a gift of used clothing is a status-reducer – it is the disadvantaged to whom you give your castoffs.  So, you don’t give your boss your old jacket, right?  No.  You give your old jacket to either a friend or someone you know needs a bit of help.  When you were a kid, you gave your castoffs to the kids who didn’t have enough to go ’round.   Accepting clothing is accepting a gift which you aren’t expected to reciprocate, and an unreciprocated gift is something that someone down the ladder accepts.  (This is not necessarily bad, and it’s certainly not from bad motives).  Why?  Because….
  4. Exchange of clothing is a bonding ritual.   “Adam came over to talk to me for the first time when I wore Mary’s green dress… ” You’re sending your energy along with the cloth, and your good wishes go along with it.  Young women often exchange clothing amongst themselves.  And even those who give gifts of hand-me-downs rarely give them to strangers or people they don’t like.  No, a gift of clothing is a bonding thing.  Which is where it can get psychologically tricky, if you don’t want to bond, or if you just hate florescent orange.
  5. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Marie Kondo) has a good bit to say about moving one’s psychic burden by gifting others with one’s discards. Items for which you’ve developed a fondness are hard to get rid of.  We don’t like to give away things that still have some use – somehow we understand that clothing has intrinsic value, even if it doesn’t (see #1) have much extrinsic value.  “Well, someone could do something with it…”  She doesn’t think much of passing along your guilty feelings along with your t-shirt pile, and neither do I.  (Though I’ve been guilty of doing it, more than once).

So… what do you do, if you don’t want Aunt Suzie’s best winter coat?

Be kind.   The person who is giving you the clothing (or trying to) is doing a good thing in their minds, even if it’s not practically very useful.  This may be the personification of the term, “it’s the thought that counts”.

If you can avoid taking the clothing in the first place, do that.  Maybe it doesn’t fit, maybe it doesn’t go with what you already have, maybe you just don’t have room for it.

If you’ve accepted the clothing and they won’t know, pass it along to the thrift store.

If you’ve accepted the clothing and they’ll see, wear it once and then let it drift away.

In any case, we have so much too much stuff in our current world that we all have to deal with this issue.  Will that psychological conundrum resolve before our society readjusts and clothing becomes valuable once again?  No telling.   But you’re not alone in your problem.

Hope this helped.



(Sources:  The Atlantic – how much do we spend on clothing:

Newsweek:  Fast fashion creating an environmental crisis

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Fascinating!
    We’re big on hand-me-downs in our church, and my kids are dressed in almost entirely hand-me-downs. Although, here people very clearly ask if you want the stuff first, and then add the disclaimer to just pass on whatever you don’t want.

    I can remember being thought of as daggy when I had hand-me-downs and op shop clothes as a kid (but we were financially struggling), but now I see it as a badge of honour if someone compliments an item of clothing that I found second-hand!

    1. hearthie says:

      Shopping at thrift shops is a different critter, especially now – the ’90s made that cool. And there IS such a bond with hand-me-downs, it can be a very good thing, especially in a church body.

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