Although people have always worn clothes handed down by others, second-hand clothing has now become a part of the fashion circuit. Once considered a sign of poverty and of a lack of choice as to what to wear, it has become a sign of the rejection of consumerism. The passion for the used has also been driven by a desire to recycle discarded clothing, and to give new life to unused clothes in a way that respects the environment and contributes to a balanced use of resources in line with the principles of a circular economy.
The reuse of used clothes, from the Sixties onwards, gives rise to a real fashion, spread across people and very different social groups. The reasons for this success are varied. One can distinguish between the countercultural values of the used in the period of the young and feminist protest, in which the rejection of bourgeois culture was also expressed through the adoption of deliberately poor, out-of-fashion, worn styles. It is therefore a phenomenon that dates to the Seventies when hippies and young protesters begin to scour thrift shops and flea markets in search of old military uniforms, Edwardian petticoats, work clothes, etc, combining these unmarked garments as an expression of their imagination (Steele 2002). Within a few years, second-hand clothing becomes almost an ideological outfit with which young people express their distance from the bourgeois culture of adults and consumerism. The codes of fashion are redefined by this very unconventional youth culture, which, moving outside the bureaucratic system of institutional fashion, reveals extraordinary creativity. Groups such as hippies, babas, punks, new wave, rasta, and skinheads with their lifestyles and clothing, signal a resumption of personal initiative in the world of appearance, supporting a complete autonomy in the way of presenting itself concerning the dictates of official fashion (McRobbie 1989).
Like other trends born spontaneously, even the used is soon swallowed by the fashion system, which on the one hand seeks inspiration from the past to find new sources of creativity and on the other enhances the rediscovery of collections and vintage items as in the case of the vintage phenomenon (Steele 2002; DeLong, Heinemann, Reily 2005; Ryding, Wang, Fox, Xu 2017) or as, in non-western contexts, in the forms of creative re-appropriation of western clothes and accessories (Palmer - Clark 2005; Tranberg Hansen 2000). The used garment, ultimately, from certain points of view allows new cultural and stylistic operations because second-hand clothes do not travel with ready-made meanings, attached to them like a label, but change in the various stages of their distribution circuit (Roux & Korchia 2006; Tranberg Hansen 2000).
Today second-hand fashion is also considered a form of responsible consumption inspired by a strong ecological sensitivity in a perspective of respect and balanced use of environmental resources (Bovone - Mora 2007; Clark 2008; Lunghi - Montagnini 2007). There is therefore a desire to put discarded products back into circulation, to give new life to out-of-use clothes with a view to revitalization and reuse. This new perspective is called circular economy: it can create «a system that works, delivering long-term benefits – a new textiles economy based on the principles of a circular economy. It offers a direction of travel on which the industry can agree and focus its efforts. In a new textile economy, clothes, textiles, and fibres are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy afterwards, never-ending up as waste. This vision is distinct from, and complements, ongoing efforts to make the textiles system more sustainable by minimizing its negative impacts» (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).
Furthermore, in Western society, during and after the economic crisis between 2008 and 2011, second-hand clothing has represented an opportunity to save money and, especially for migrants and refugees, a resource and an important help (Bovone - Lunghi 2009; Lunghi - Transforini 2010 and 2012). In many cases, this circuit is activated by donations from external institutions (such as charitable, secular, or religious associations), sometimes from individuals (more affluent friends, employers, etc.), from the same people in difficulty when, occasionally, they may have some, albeit limited, a surplus of resources. In such cases, then, clothes are accepted not only for themselves but also for friends or relatives, further supporting a parallel movement of goods to that of the formal market.
The used clothing market is therefore marked by this multiplicity of meanings, which is also reflected in the spaces and methods of sales. Gregson and Crew (2003), for example, observe how the second-hand circuit is divided between retro or vintage shops - visited by a refined clientele in search of sophisticated objects, that cannot be found elsewhere - and charity shops, born with a strong social inspiration, where, on the contrary, are offered for sale goods less refined but at much lower prices, frequented both by people with limited budgets but also and especially by people socially and ecologically engaged.
Lastly it is important to underline how different was the situation in Western and Central and Eastern Europe. For instance, in Poland informal second-hand circuit was a norm (especially clothes for kids, but not only), later second-hand shops were popular in 90s (times of post-socialist transformation) and 2000 and it was an element of social class indicator. A huge amount of clothes (counted in tons, not in pieces) came from Germany, Sweden, GB (sometimes you can recognize the country by a coin discovered in a pocket or a name or the owner's name in a label), designed specific economic geographies of fashion. There is also an informal profession of women who buy clothes by weight, refresh them and re-sell at higher price online or at sweep market). Additionally, several women can sew (or they learn to sew as their mothers could sew) so there is a group of young women who buy the clothes in second-hand shops and modify them.