Thursday, 18 June 2009

Retro Chic

I've always been fascinated by Africa's thriving second-hand clothing market. In the West, people mostly buy new clothes. Sometimes, people used clothing at consignment shops or Salvation Army-type places, but even then, the clothing is usually hanging on the rack. In places like Tanzania, many people buy their clothes from piles in massive used-apparel stalls in the markets.

It works like this: bulk apparel traders in North America and Europe buy all the leftover clothes from consignment shops, charity drives and fire sales for a couple of cents per pound. They compress them into palettes and ship them in
containers to African ports, where they unpack the clothing and sell it to bulk apparel wholesalers, who then ship it to market stalls around Africa. There, it sits in big piles of shirts, pants and undergarments until someone buys the items super-cheap. The price here is about $0.30 per article. The first time I came across the stalls (in Senegal) I was really amazed. Some of my favorite (and ratty) shirts are from a stand in the fishermen's quarter in St. Louis.

There's no telling what sorts of things show up here. Because many Tanzanians don't speak English, I've seen a lot of people wearing clothes that seem out of place and/or hysterical. For instance: a tough-looking taxi driver wearing a teal-and-pink Hello Kitty backpack, a farmer wearing a high school shirt ("working harder than Prep since 1890"), someone wearing a Brown University hoodie, and guys wearing women's soccer team shirts. I see a lot of people wearing red or black D.A.R.E shirts, and in one case the wearer was drunk. Occasionally, you'll see someone wearing something designed for the opposite gender. Am I wrong, o
r does this fellow have a purse?

The best part is that people wear Western clothes in totally different ways than back home. Take the farmers I work with: they all wear long-sleeved dress shirts and dress slacks when they're in the village or the field, because that's just what grownups wear. T-shirts might seem like they make more sense, but those are for kids. People here -- especially if they have less cash -- basically wear dress shoes or flip-flops, with little in between (e.g., sneakers). They use flip-flops because they're cheap, and dress shoes make sense because you can repair them over and over (for cheap). Also, many Tanzanians have a different sense of what's appropriate for various occasions. For funerals, weddings, etc., it's easy: you wear a suit or nice traditional clothing. In a business setting, it's not so clear. I went to a meting a few weeks ago with some farmers and businesspeople. It was quite formal and we met in a company conference room. Most of the farmers showed up looking proper in dress shirt, dress pants and dress shoes. One guy, though, showed up wearing a sort of pricey-looking, rapper-esque grey tracksuit with Chinese writing on the front. And sunglasses, which he wore the entire meeting.

Not everyone likes the second-hand clothing industry. Some development types think that the availability of recycled apparel stifles the chance for local clothing manufacturers to build up a strong textile industry. In Tanzania, for instance, there is very little clothing manufacturing outside of traditional kanga and kitenge makers, probably because would-be consumers can just buy second-hand clothing for the fraction of the price.

I still think the clothing trade is a good thing. People with small incomes can still clothe themselves and their families, after all. Plus, the slogans on second-hand clothes make me laugh at least twice every day, which has gotta be worth something.

1 comment:

  1. That's awesome! I've always wanted to see the Tanzanian second-hand clothing market, ever since I read "The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy" by Pietra Rivoli. Spoiler alert: the shirt starts with cotton in Texas and ends in a Tanzanian stall (which, incidentally, is the first time the shirt sees a truly free market).