(quick) fashion question(s): would you wear garbage?

wearing "garbage"

i saved this article from an old issue of bust magazine entitled “beautiful garbage, beautiful dresses” (shown above) because it really got me thinking about the subjective nature of value when it comes to clothing, where our clothing comes from, and how perception plays into what we choose to buy and where we choose to buy the things we wear/consume.

lauri apple, the woman featured in the article, is (was?) a NYC-based law student who made a habit of wearing things she found on the streets of new york. when i was living in san francisco, i used to see a LOT of piles of discarded clothes on the streets. not just now and again, but with a startling regularity…just piles and piles of clothing, everywhere.

discarded clothing

every single time i saw those piles of abandoned clothing, i would think back to the article above.


i think the idea of wearing found clothing (i.e., clothes that may be now considered “garbage,” clothing found on the street, clothing not purchased in an approved manner (new, from a retail store, etc.) is somewhat of a subversive act. i’d postulate that most folks would find the act of wearing found (“garbage”) clothing abhorrent.

i feel as if thrifting clothing is one step up from this trash level, to some degree, for some people. or at least it was, up until it became more acceptable in recent years. example: my dear mother really doesn’t like shopping at thrift stores, but she will buy used things from garage sales. i wonder if this is because the past of the item is unknown, and could be something unsavory? am i right, mom? but when you know whom you are buying from, perhaps it’s somehow “different”? is the anonymity of the item, the mystery of it’s former life, too much to bear, too much of a risk? what if it’s been used/abused in a really nasty way? what if it’s all germy?? eeek, you say?!

does knowing the source of an item make it easier to adopt it and use it, for some folks? is the provenance of an item important, or does it really matter? is it all in our minds?

i believe that that there is a perception amongst many, real or not, that “new” things are somehow cleaner and have no history. which may or may not be true, if you think about it…it’s likely that even a “new” item passed through many hands, and travelled many miles, through what some may consider less savory locales, before reaching you. for starters.

i think the real issue here, with wearing found or used clothing, is perception, and also, value, concepts which are, to a great degree, inherently subjective. one person may rabidly champion wearing “garbage”, eschewing any culturally entrenched negative associations with such a practice, claiming that after a thorough cleaning, such items, in general, are in fact no different than items bought “clean” but secondhand, or even items that have been purchased brand “new”. conversely, others might have a real, visceral distaste for even the very idea of wearing found or even secondhand clothing (from thrifts, garage sales, or even or friends and relatives), believing it’s past or current state to have tainted that object, haunting it forever, and making it unsuitable for continued use.

thing is, these ideas about the savory or unsavory source of our clothing, or any clothing, or really, any object, are merely perceptions. they are subjective notions. in truth, not many other people would, in most cases, be able to discern whether another individual is wearing found clothing, secondhand clothing, or new clothing, at first glance/without further information from and/or questioning of the wearer.

in the article, lauri apple claims that she only rescues things she needs, or really likes, and that she won’t in fact just take and wear any old thing she wrests from the gutter. she has her own set of rules, things she won’t even bother resucing (severely damaged items, as well as underwear and socks are absolute no-go’s for her, too intimate). designer items in good condition are her favored finds. and when she gets her found items home, she washes them thoroughly using a process that sort of “sanitizes” the items, cleaning them to a level that she feels is sufficient for wear (said process involves a prolonged soak in steaming hot water, for starters).


and then there’s the idea of value: most clothing has a real, but often subjective value. a designer good, something made of a fine fiber, might convince a passer-by to pick up a piece of clothing that has found it’s way into the trash or that has accidentally found a fate that made it fall into the street or on to the sidewalk, but something cheap and ubiquitous might continue to founder where it lie. so much the better if it fits and launders nicely. additionally, value can be applied to what one actually, factually needs: if something is laying there and it has value in that it can clothe a body, keep it warm and protected from the elements, then it may have some real value.

this is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussions of the intersection of value and (wearable) product…


question time, feel free to elaborate!:

-how do you feel about “used” clothing? how do you feel about “new” clothing? is “new” preferable to “used”?

-would you, could you, or have you worn clothing or other items you found, items that might be “garbage” in the eyes of others?

-where do you draw the line when it comes to clothing? are there certain categories of used clothing that you cannot bear to buy or wear? things like underwear or shoes? what bothers you about these items, specifically?

-do you know or care where your clothing comes from? does it bother you to know someone has worn something before you, or that your clothing has had another life, or even lives, with other people? or is that a selling point for you, when it comes to clothing?

-are you more likely to pick something up if it seems “expensive”? or if it suits your aesthetic?


further reading:

what’s that label? why, it’s a mongo: a 2006 article from the NYT about lauri apple

look what she found: a wardrobe — if these clothes look familiar, maybe you abandoned them: another article, this one from 2007, about ms. apple and others like her, from the chicago tribune

foundclothing: a (now) abandoned flickr group started by apple, for others to add photos of their found finds…

foundclothing.typepad.com: according to it’s author, it is “a web site dedicated to all of the clothing items and accessories originally abandoned to the waste stream, but saved from the landfills by me and other finders”…to which YOU could contribute…

current TV: haiti’s ‘pepe’ (aka secondhand clothing) market: a post i did a while back about “pepe” in haiti — how secondhand goods are used and percieved in that island nation…


  1. karen

    weird, i remember the girl in the article from when she lived in austin.

    this doesn’t come up often for me – around here i seldom see clothes on the street unless they are falling-apart rags (maybe other people are picking them up quicker?). but in college i did pick a shirt up off the street. it was totally clean and looked fine which certainly helped, and i washed it before i wore it, but beyond that it didn’t worry me at all. i kept it and wore it for a couple of years and then gave it to my sister who wore it for several more.

    i can see why it would bother people in general, though – there’s a boundary there. it’s a bit arbitrary, but so are plenty of other lines we draw. i’ll always remember a class exercise a professor once described (only described) to a class i was in, in which the teacher would instruct students to spit in a cup until they had a certain amount. once they were done they were told to drink it. apparently some students were so disgusted they were sick. meanwhile, we swallow our own saliva all day and night, every day. once it’s left our bodies we think it’s unclean.

  2. Sal

    Value is SO subjective.

    I enjoy new and used clothing equally, but wouldn’t buy used bras, undies, or tights. Slips, for some reason, aren’t as scary and shoes I’ve got no problems with at all.

    I’m not a big germ-o-phobe, but will say that I’m not sure any personally-devised cleaning process could convince me to wear discarded “garbage” clothing. I feel like secondhand shops generally clean their wares, and then I clean them again … and also that most of those goods come from willing donators. Something lying on the street may have been urinated on, been discarded by someone who is ill, or have any number of untold icky backgrounds. Just don’t think I could do it.

    I am more likely to pick up something that looks expensive or well-made because if a garment has already had a life with someone else, the sturdier it is, the longer it’ll last with me.

  3. Jocelyne

    As a SF resident I have found many beautiful items on the street. I have traded some of them at buffalo exchange or crossroads if they didn’t fit or just weren’t me. That list contains things like 7for all mankind jeans that looked new, beaded skirts and so on. This city is a gold mine for clothing on the streets. I have never seen anything like it in previous cities I have lived in (Pdx, Sea).

    I buy most of my clothing at thrift stores, and have been a thrift shopper since I was a young girl. Back then it was more of a price issue and now I just find it more fun and a adventure. Not knowing what you will find makes thrifting much more fun that shopping new. Here in SF there is a plethora of amazing clothing (new and vintage) that people give away. Most people here have plenty of money and they are generous with their donations. I have found some amazing vintage and new items with brands that I would never buy new because of the overpriced nature of the “designer” brand. I feel really lucky to be able to do so much shopping via thrift and have a amazing wardrobe too. If i shop new it’s usually at discount stores like Marshals, TJ Maxx. These type of stores tend to have the same adventure feel to me because their stock is really random.

  4. Erin

    I totally do “groundscore” clothing. I live in Berkeley, and there are always bags of clothing. I don’t generally dig through bags, but I have gotten a some awesome scarves and a couple nice pairs of shoes to name a few. I don’t think that, based on the smell, thrift stores clean their clothing. I could be wrong, but we all know that Goodwill smell!

  5. Casey

    I’ve been wearing second hand clothing since I was a child, but I have to admit that picking up garments off the street never occurred to me. Mostly for the reasons of the “unknown” that Sal mentioned in her comment. I think when one thinks about it, there aren’t too many differences between the thrift shop clothes and street-found garments, but I think the possible “ick” factor bars me from doing that. Fascinating article though!

  6. Isleen

    I live in a wealthy neighborhood in Southern California, where there is NO trash on the streets — clothes or otherwise. However, I’ve shopped in downtown LA and there isn’t any there either. Perhaps it gets picked up too quickly? I don’t have any issue with used clothing, but there are definite limits to what I will wear used. Denim and other washable materials, and jackets/pants/skirts only. I have as much of an issue with armpit contact as with any other kind of intimate contact.

    That being said, I can’t buy anything good in thrift stores or garage sales here. Everything is picked over, fast fashion rejects from Old Navy and Forever 21, and highly marked up. It’s actually cheaper for me to buy new. I have no idea about what that says as far as the economy in this area. My best used stuff has come from friends or clothing swaps, and even then it’s all cheap jeans.

  7. Franca

    I’ve never seen clothing in the street in Edinburgh. Ocassionally I have found things that were obviously ‘lost’, which I have kept (a bracelet and a hat is what I can think of). I would have no problem wearing ‘garbage’ clothes though, as long as they were in good condition and salvageable. I have a lot of trust in the power of washing machines.

    I would never buy secondhand underwear though, and I’m not sure why really. I have happily worn my friends’ underwear on occassion, but I guess that’s different because I know who they are.

    I buy most of my clothes from charity shops, and somebody once asked me if it didn’t bother me that the person whose clohes I was wearing could have been a murderer. Apart from this being surpremely unlikely, the answer is no, not really. I don’t really think about where the clothes have been at all. Converesely, I also don’t think about a garnment’s history as a positive thing, as many thrifters do, unless its a history I know about, like if something belonged to a family member in the past.

    On a somewhat unrelated point, Karen’s spit story is interesting, I would find it revolting too! I think there’s a social theory around this (abjection?) – bodily fluids are a social taboo because they threaten the boundary between what is ‘us’ and ‘not us’, one minute they’re inside our bodies and the next we want to get as far away from them as possible.

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  9. Becky

    I’m very picky with my wardrobe. If I found a random shirt on the street, I wouldn’t wear it myself unless I loved the style/design. Though I do adore shopping for good value secondhand items on Ebay and from charity shops; I adore the concept that every piece of clothing has a history and you’re adding the latest chapter.

    I think the concept of clothing “abandoned” is very strange! Clothing should never be thrown away, it should always be recycled, sold or charity shopped if it’s no longer wanted. (I recently wrote an entry on my site blog about this) I’ve had experience with people leaving clothing (even designer!) upon leaving a rented flat or living space. My parents found it awful that I’d even want to touch their cast-offs myself, but it’s so much better if it can go to someone who’ll love it, after a thorough wash, of course.

  10. ingrid

    I remember once finding a great >label< beanie hat with ear flaps, in the gutter. I took it home and gave it a good ol’ wash and it came out brand new. Because I don’t wear baby pink, i gifted it to my sister – who is still using it 4 years later.
    This ‘new is better’ idea is flawed, in that so many hands touch the ‘new’ item you buy from the store. I was thinking about this theory when i saw how toothbrushes are made on TV the other night (sounds lame, i know..) but was heartened to discover that its an entirely mechanized process and no human hands touch the toothbrush at all. I think its important with sanitary things like this, but clothing is a different story all together, and a subject on which an entire PHD could be written.

  11. caroline

    I actually really love the idea of wearing discarded clothing. I would think of someone who finds and wears clothing from the street as clever and interesting. I certainly wouldn’t mind wearing something that I found on the street, but I would be too embarrassed to pick it up in the first place (if anyone was around, that is). I also would probably think it odd if I saw someone else picking up clothing off the street. Again, though, I wouldn’t have a problem with it being worn after the fact. I’m not sure where that disconnect comes from.

  12. E

    The squeamishness thing is a bit contrary when you think about it. A fair percentage of brand new stock has been tried on by other shoppers. Often you can find some strange smear of foundation, a catch of lipstick or a random jewellery pluck. And more intimate garments will be tried on with just a strip of sticky tape over a gusset for sanitary purposes. Some folks will go for a hot wash, whilst other people will make do with Febreeze and some are dry clean only all the way. All of this factors into whether someone would wear discarded clothing – and I suppose a label/name might otherwise pursuade someone to take/wear a discarded item.

    I’d be more bothered by moth-infestation 🙂

  13. lillian

    Even as a lifelong thrift shopper, I still would have a deep feeling of aversion towards picking up used clothing off of the street. Maybe it’s not just the used-ness of the clothing, or the potential that someone disgusting could have touched/worn it, (after all, I’ve seen some disgusting things on new clothes in ‘nice’ department stores), but that the found clothing is somehow out of place, conceptually down with the fast food wrappers, gum, and cigarette butts that have been intimately related to a stranger’s body and then thrown on the street. Clothes on the street suggest some kind of rupture with the usual ways of getting rid of or recycling old clothes, like there was some kind of sudden accident or incident, crapped pants or a stolen suitcase.
    My friends and I tease each other when we see street clothes, but then again it’s not very common here.
    “You need some socks?”
    “There’s your dress from last night”

    That said, I just bought a cardigan at the university’s lost property sale for a dollar. If I had found it myself, I might have felt I was stealing, or debated whether or not to pick it up, but because it went through the structures of lost-and-found, then a charity sale, it somehow seems restored to being a normal, predictable used garment?

  14. eyeliah

    I am all about secondhand and thrifted clothing. No socks or underwear ever of course! and items must be clean and in very good condition, I would have trouble picking up any dirty items on the street as I imagine most of them would be. Kudos to her for rescuing these pieces!

  15. Kendra

    I’d say probably 85% of my clothing was found or thrifted somewhere, be it on the street, in a free-box or lost-and-found box, or at a thrift store or garage sale. This is pretty common among my family and friends; partly due to economic factors, partly to the above-mentioned excitement of a surprise find or a good treasure hunt. Unlike my friends and family, I will and have happily worn bras I found on top of a garbage can in Berkeley, and one abandoned at a laundromat, and I’ve even worn some underwear I found in a free-box. Like someone said above, I have deep trust in the power of the washing machine.
    I also have no shame in rooting through bags of trashed clothes. Once my sister and I found a garbage bag full of costume dresses in a dumpster in Berkeley (I concur, that city is a goldmine of abandoned everything–the curbs are constantly blooming with free everything).
    I guess I have to admit, I also have sat on the pavement in most cities I’ve gone to, I’ve eaten out of dumpsters, and if I see candy on the street, I’m sorely tempted to eat it. For the readers of this blog maybe that’s unusual but not for a large portion of Americans and an even larger portion of humans who don’t have the luxury of fooling themselves into our arbitrary version of hygiene.
    The spit thing grosses me out too though. I’m not that postmodern.
    One more bit: my boyfriend once refused to buy a used sleeping bag at the Army-Navy store “because someone might have died in it.” I don’t worry about the past lives, or deaths, of my stuff.

  16. Nadia Lewis

    Me? I like to play the full range of fashion — well, at least the range I can afford. My trusty winter coat is nine years old and cost $325; it was a well-calculated investment piece (especially considering I was 17 and making minimum wage when I bought it!). But I play the other end too. I’ve taken a lot from Vancouver alleys: pillows, furniture, clothes. I’ll wear anything that resonates with my personal style, with the exception of used underwear for health reasons (though I did reline the crotch of a really cute vintage bathing suit I got at a garage sale).

    I really don’t care about clothes as symbols for wealth. I come from the lower-middle class and am currently living in the middle class with absolutely no aspirations to climb higher. I value clothes through their usefulness and aesthetics above everything else: I want to live and I want to express myself. Any clothes I encounter that do either or both of those two things are cool by me.