hand-me-downs and what they say about those who wear them
by Amy Whiting
I have this rusty orange t-shirt that looks like it’s been run over by a street cleaner in the middle of an ancient apocalypse, thrown up on, and then worn by a small buffalo. It’s torn and stitched up in this really weird place by my stomach and in addition to its discoloration and strange splotches of neon orange, it’s bleached at the neck from my acne medication. And it’s so stretched out that it’s almost triangle-y shaped. It droops like it’s seen one too many Thursdays. The shirt has four small letters stitched into it above where a chest pocket would be: MOAB. As a fashion nerd, I’m in love with peeling apart what people say by what they wear, but this shirt says “I need a new shirt.” Why do I love it so much? What could I possibly want from a shirt that is the sartorial equivalent of an ancient brick? The answer is just as complex as the shirt itself – it was a hand-me-down.
Why do we (or don’t we) wear hand-me-downs? And what are the messages we’re sending when we do? (Am I the only one who has such passionate emotions connected to old t-shirts?) Basically: are hand me downs even affecting us at all, or are they just another piece of fabric to cover our otherwise naked bodies?
Hand-me-downs are emotional objects. These emotions can be positive or negative. However, those feelings are strikingly personal and individual. At a larger scale, hand-me-downs send social messages to those around us. Clothing says a lot about characters in a film – so if we’re all characters, what are our clothes saying?
I grew up wearing my older brothers’ clothes. In the dark ages of elementary school I remember feeling intensely bitter about people who were “fashionable.” But I grew to prefer wearing Sam’s baggy t-shirts and Bryan’s old basketball shorts, and after a while these became the only clothes I was comfortable in. Even when my mom would take me shopping and I’d pick out a stiff new pair of jeans or a lace blouse, I’d go to school the next day, to no surprise of my classmates, wearing my brothers’ old t-shirts and the oldest, most comfortably baggy pants possible. I was made fun of for dressing like a boy, so I usually stayed in at recess to organize the class library in peace. Then, one day, I wore a new shirt to school – forest green, nothing special but also definitely not my brothers’. I wore it with a flowery skirt (which I actually borrowed from a girl I went to church with – so still a hand-me-down). My mom curled my hair because it was the 6th grade dance and I was hoping to dance with Tyler, my crush, and I knew every other girl would be wearing dresses their moms bought them. When I walked in the room, the whole class turned their heads. I was energized by their attention, and suddenly felt like I didn’t have to hide behind a bookshelf. I ran over to my friends and started making loud jokes with newfound confidence and charisma. And so it was that, at the ripe old age of 11 years, I discovered the power of clothing.
An article from Psychology Today in 2014 revealed two interesting studies that explored the relationships women have to what they’re wearing. Professor Karen Pine explained a psychological experiment that took place in her classroom in which women wearing Superman t-shirts behaved more confidently and rated themselves superior to and stronger than classmates who weren’t wearing them. And in a 1990s study Barbara Fredrickson found that women performed worse during an academic test while wearing a swimsuit, while men in a similar situation had no significant correlation between their wardrobe and performance. The women’s scores were associated to their self-confidence, and while wearing a swimsuit the women were especially worried about self-objectification and therefore unable to concentrate on the test. It would seem, then, that emotional attachments to clothing can be strong enough to significantly affect not only how you view others, but how you view yourself.
Xadi Hancock-Taylor is an 8-year-old who can command an impromptu conversation with all the charisma of a talk show host, if talk show hosts wore more leggings from the children’s section of Target and colorful flowers in their hair. She recently moved out of the house she grew up in, leaving all the comfort of childhood best friends behind. On her first day at her new school, she wore an outfit that her old friend Eliza gave to her, and confidently reported back to her mom that it felt like she was getting a giant hug from Eliza despite being in an unfamiliar building with strange classmates she’d never met. But that’s just one story along a long line of positive emotions that are attached to hand-me-downs, and the comfort that they bring.
Emotional attachment and sentimentality is a huge aspect of wearing hand-me-downs. According to an interview for Mother, Baby, and Child from 2013 with psychiatrist and licensed counselor Carey Kirk, “If siblings have a healthy relationship with one another, the use of hand-me-downs may facilitate more positive interaction and appreciation for each other. Since the younger child is accustomed to seeing the older child use the item handed down to him/her, the younger child may view his/her older sibling as a role model and seek guidance and support from them.”
Page Checketts has eight kids and she collects all of the girls’ clothes at the end of each season into red Home Depot boxes neatly labeled with their names and the time of year in which they were worn. “Emma, Winter.” “Olivia, Spring.” “Merideth, Summer.” “Cynthia, Fall.” At the end of each season the red boxes are taken out and ceremoniously opened to reveal the hand-me-downs in all their glory. Most of the clothes have lived a decade and are covered in so many flowers that you have to wonder why they call it a flower meadow instead of a “flower ocean.” Some of the clothes are surprises; others are accompanied by stories. Page says that this tradition is so special that going into a store and buying their own clothes grays in comparison.
Why would kids choose old clothes over new? The youngest of the Checketts sisters, Vivian, says that by wearing her older sisters’ clothes, she can be “stylish like them,” even if the clothes are a completely different style than what everyone else has on. The sister only a few years older than Vivian, Merideth (11 years old), says that if she didn’t have such a strong connection to her sisters she wouldn’t want to wear their clothes. In fact, when Meredith and Vivian are angry at each other, they won’t share their clothes at all.
In all the stories explored in this article, comfort becomes a keyword in explaining the appeal of wearing older clothes. Merideth has grown up with these clothes, and by the time that one Oilily dress filters down to her, wearing it feels natural because she saw it so much growing up. Cynthia explained that she hates the itchy new clothes feel, because they’re never as comfy as the well-worn pants of years past. She deliberately chooses to wear these comfortable hand-me-down outfits because she admires the women she grew up with, and besides that, she still hates shopping.
Each season, the girls all crowd around excitedly to pick out the clothes they’ll wear for the next few months, often begging their mom to let them wear a shirt a few sizes too big or small because they’ve looked forward to it for so long. Sometimes the sentimentality of a garment causes someone to want to wear it even if it doesn’t fit them. Emma, who grew up admiring her older sister Olivia, says, “She was the coolest person ever. Why wouldn’t I want her clothes?”
But as more and more years pass and red boxes are opened and closed, Emma and Olivia grow to be different shapes and sizes, and Emma really struggles with not being able to share shirts with her older sister. As a result, the emotions attached to these hand-me-downs suddenly became negative. If she couldn’t wear her clothes, would she ever be able to be as great as her sister? But that’s not how clothes work, or people either. You can’t just put on socks and suddenly become George Clooney or Michelle Obama. People are different, and clothes aren’t DNA. While clothing does change your self-esteem and thus affect the way you act around others, it doesn’t instantly give you the body of those who wore the outfit last. Now 18, Emma has learned to use hand-me-downs to her advantage. She has a mental map of everyone’s closet and can collect various items from all of her siblings and her mom and somehow become a person entirely of her own, but still attached to those she loves by fabric and threads. She still takes Olivia shopping with her because she values her opinion but in the end Emma wears outfits of her own making, and to suit her own unique body. “One size fits all” is a myth, and often kids who wear hand-me-downs through puberty struggle as they realize this.
So emotional attachments to clothing aren’t necessarily a good thing– it can exclude a child from the bonding experience of sharing clothes if clothes don’t fit. Ann Davies has had similar concerns with her children. One daughter in particular, she says, had a hard time wearing clothes of her siblings because she was a different size than they. It came at a time when her daughter began questioning her identity and her relationships with her family. She questioned if her parents really cared about her – would they really be giving her old clothes if they loved her? She felt excluded from her siblings because she never fit their clothes that they could share. And because she wasn’t interested in fashion it was difficult for her to put together outfits she would feel comfortable in without a shopping mall to combine outfits nicely for her. Ann is always careful to check that the clothes are never too old-fashioned and that they are in good shape, and she also stresses the importance of giving kids new things of their own, but it took time for her daughter to untie her relationship with her parents and siblings from the clothes that they gave her. She eventually realized that hand-me-downs simply didn’t work for her, and grew past the negative associations she had with them and those that gave them to her. She discovered her own identity after she stopped wearing the relics of other people’s lives.
Hand-me-downs aren’t just shaping personal emotions. Unfortunately, they’re also sending social messages to those around us. Licensed social worker and child therapist Holly Willard says that in order for hand-me-downs to be tokens of positivity rather than shame, the child “must have input and feel heard.” And in order for the child to not be breaking Western social norms related to clothing, three things must be in order: 1. The clothing items must be in good condition. 2. They must be age appropriate. 3. They must align with the gender that the child identifies with. In cases where any of these three basics aren’t present, the child can be a victim of bullying. But these social messages can change across cultures and borders.
“Hand-me-down” has an entirely different meaning if you take it out of middle-class American context. Sasha Hicks grew up in a Ghana orphanage, where she and her classmates would wear second-hand clothing every day, like an enormous hand-me-downs service. The clothes arrived in huge donation bags and all the kids, teachers, and community members would gather around as they were handed out, taking whatever they could get their hands on. “Nobody judged what you wore or how you looked… if you saw something another person had that you liked you would share it, no big deal… It was take what you can find.” They were given uniforms a few sizes too large so that they wouldn’t grow out of them for a few years. One day Sasha tore hers and had to wear her friend’s uniform. She had to walk around for an entire year wearing a uniform two sizes too small and nobody cared. “It didn’t really matter, it was just what I had to deal with. Nobody treated [me] differently.” Hand-me-downs were a way of life, and because they didn’t have a relationship with the previous owners there was no sentimental value attached to the clothes.
When Sasha moved to America, she was given 100 dollars by her school and took the cash to Walmart. She was shocked at how cheap everything was, but even now “I’ve never had a pair of pants that fit.” In gym class girls laughed at her because her pants were too big. It’s interesting to note the changing role of clothing between the two different cultures– while Ghana viewed them as essentials, America viewed them as a choice to be criticized. As she moved from one culture to another, the social messages her clothes were sending changed too.
Meanwhile, Morgan was born in America and grew up feeling jipped because her older sister got all the new clothes and she was forced to wear them after, despite them being entirely different from her personal preference. And she began to feel as though she would never get new clothes for herself. Sometimes the hand-me-downs would just sit in the closet for months and eventually be thrown away. In middle school she began to resent them even more because people would recognize that they were her older sister’s clothes before they were hers. She felt like people treated differently as a result. But now that she has to buy more of her own clothes, she chooses to wear hand-me-downs again. They’re not as bad anymore.
And this is because hand-me-down clothes are simply cheaper. So cheap, in fact, that they’re essentially free. Page Checketts says that by buying high quality clothes and letting them last for years and be passed down, she saves so much more money than if she bought cheap new outfits every year. By the time the children are 12, though, she thinks that it gets more difficult. Bodies begin to become diverse in size and shape and it’s difficult to have a communal closet, which brings us back to the emotional conflicts and relationships we associate with wearing another person’s clothes.
Now, as a 20-year-old who is interested in the fashion industry, I still find myself dressing in a style influenced by that of my brothers. But I no longer associate my favorite t-shirts with shame or ostracization. In fact, I met my best friend from college before a lecture while we discussed our secondhand sweaters. As our friendship grew throughout the year, we would trade our favorite t-shirts, hand-me-downs becoming their own language of friendship. Bekah says this gives clothes more value, when you know that someone you loved wore it. And despite the fact that she and I identify as a girls, we feel most comfortable in the shirts of our dads and brothers, often then traded between her and me like some underground code made of skinny jeans and oversized sweaters. (She also mentions that maybe we’re just huge cheapskates, which is not only possible but deeply true.)
It’s been a decade since I stayed in from recess to avoid bullies. I’m on an entirely different side of things now, in a group I once negatively associated with “fashionistas.” But my brothers’ oversized t-shirts have remained a part of my personal style and attract me to certain designs. And I still like to wear that old orange t-shirt my mom gave me because it reminds me of her.
Hand-me-downs can be an enormous source of either emotional positivity or negativity. These outfits can either ostracize you or celebrate your relationships with others. Hand-me-downs are heirlooms. They’re not just leftovers, they’re grass stains and fringed edges and wrinkled sleeves that say things that we might not realize to ourselves and to others. So no, it’s not just an orange t-shirt. It’s a story.
SIDEBAR: Vintage vs Hand-me-Downs
There’s a considerable difference between the emotional phenomenon of hand-me-downs and the recent rising trend of vintage clothing. Page estimated that while hand-me-downs are simply “last year’s model,” vintage clothing is a trendy new outfit of its own species. She estimated that there has to be a 20-year difference for something to be considered “vintage” rather than hand-me-down, and she was right. According to Wikipedia, 20 years is the average amount of time that creates the “vintage” appeal. Wikipedia correlates vintage shops’ increased popularity (vintage shops have been on the rise since 1990) with three main things – media exposure (celebrities wearing vintage clothing and the idolization of film and tv shows from years past that contain the very outfits you can now buy in a “vintage shop”), the convenience and accessibility of online sites (ebay, craigslist, etsy), and environmental consciousness. According to the book Naked Fashion by Safia Minney, Britain alone contributes 3.38 billion pounds yearly of unwanted clothing and textiles to landfills.