other people's clothes

I am the third daughter in my family. As a consequence, a large percentage of my clothes were "pre- worn", handed down from my sisters. For many people, handed down clothing are a source of shame or embarrassment. I never felt that way.

First of all, my mother who grew up poor, took beautiful care of our clothes. Dresses that my older sisters had out grown were laundered, starched and ironed and laid out in large coat boxes. So when the dresses were taken out of the box, they looked beautiful. The boxes, marked by size were all on shelves in the basement. There were dresses that I anticipated wearing ( The deep turquoise Polly Flinders with lots of smocking and black velvet ribbons trimming the sleeves was one I remember visiting before it fit me, by peeking into the box. It had looked so pretty on my sister and I looked forward to wearing it myself. )

My sisters were born 13 months apart. In those days, it was popular to dress one's children thematically. My sisters were often dressed, despite their very different coloring and builds identically. That meant that I would often own the same garment in succeeding sizes.

My sisters too, got hand me downs. Some of them were from girls just a few years older than they were. Some were clothes from ten years or more before. When I was in high school ,in the late 1970's, I was wearing Israeli embroidered blouses from the late 1950's, complete with nifty period details like a metal zipper in the side seam that opened from the hem. One of the iconic dresses from our childhood was a light blue velvet dress embroidered with carousel horses. I'm guessing that it was from 1952. I wore it in the late 1960's. The fabulousness of the dress made it more than wearable when my friends were wearing vinyl jumpers with giant industrial zippers.

Another reason that wearing hand me downs wasn't at all painful came from my mother's attitude that some things needed to be saved for "good". So while most of your t-shirts or jeans were for every day wear, one or more garments was saved for "good". I sometimes inherited garments from my sisters, that while they were purchased for my oldest sister, she passed then down to my other sister , unworn, and then the garment was passed on to me, still unworn. I do have to admit that some of those "for good" garments weren't worn by me either, and some other girl inherited those garments that had passed through three girls but never touched their skin.

The odd result of my mother's practice is that when my sisters or I ever get ( or in my case , make) a new garment, we wear it immediately, lest we say get hit by a truck the next day and lose our opportunity to wear that new garment.

I realize that wearing so much handed down clothing in my formative years has had a pretty strong impact on me. I have been shopping second hand stores since I was in college. Wearing pre-worn clothing is what I am used to. The fact that I don't know who wore the clothes first, doesn't bother me in the least.

I also realize that wearing clothes a decade or more old gave me an early introduction to vintage clothing. All through my childhood, I was wearing clothing that spanned twenty years and had to make it work , not in a costume-y way but in a way that worked with the contemporary aesthetic.

My kids too have grown up wearing handed down clothing. My nephew is five years older than my oldest. Many of his clothes have been worn by all of the members of my family. ( I had worn his outgrown hip hip jeans for a couple of years). I love going through family albums, my kids will see a photo of my nephew in a shirt that is being worn by my youngest. The shirt is now soft and faded. My kids will see my nephew wearing that shirt in a photo, and say " Hey!! there's the Yankee shirt new!!"

My youngest grew up wearing many hand me downs almost exclusively. When he was four, I bought him a couple of new sets of pajamas. He was so excited to have new clothing purchased just for him, that he wore them to day care for a week.

We live in an apartment building with six apartments on a floor. We are, very much a community. Part of that sense of community involves those of us with kids passing clothing from child to child, from family to family. Nicky lived across the hall from us from the time he was two until he was 13 or so. My boys both received wonderful winter jackets from Nicky. My youngest is one of those boys who is short and really skinny until they suddenly shoot up. He is now 13 and has begun sprouting up this year. There are jackets that he began wearing when he was six that fit him through last winter.

Two years ago, a family with kids much younger than mine moved it. My youngest's winter jackets ( from Nicky) were too small. So I brought the jackets across the hall. Nicky's jackets are now back in the apartment where they came from. I also passed along a jacket that has lived in three different apartments on the floor.

For years, my daughter and I delighted in the bags of clothes we got from Maia down the hall. Maia loves wearing a retro '80's look. My daughter who is a few years older than Maia, feels no nostalgia for that fashion decade. Just before Maia left for college, I brought her a garbage bag filled with oversized sweaters from the '80's that I was not going to wear. She was delighted by the haul of new- to -her sweaters.

I now own sweaters that belong to my grandmother, my husbands aunt, Nicky's grandmother and my sister's mother in law. I put on those sweaters,and I feel deeply connected to them. I might not have chosen a pink mohair cardigan, or a seafoam green cashmere shell with swags of pearls and sequins or an oatmeal colored cashmere with 3/4 sleeves, or a white boucle with Chanel like trim, but when I put those sweaters on I think about the women who wore them and their connection to my life.


  1. Wonderful story. I thought we were the only family that looked at the progression of garments through the family! The only difference it that ours were passed amongst cousins as well, and show up on many holiday movies. My daughter is still wearing a woolen "basketball sweater" made by her great-great aunt when she worked in a sports uniform factory in the 1950's. I wear her mouton lamb coat (3 times refashioned) to church on holidays.
    We also thrift-shop - my favorite camel hair coat was a $10 purchase at least 10 years ago - and the lining is just beginning to show wear.
    Of course, my house is also filled with pre-owned furnishings - from family heirlooms to itmes picked up on trash day.
    Sue in MN

  2. This is such a lovely post! I have no problem with pre-worn garments either but as the only girl and the oldest child in our extended family, I didn't get many as a youngster.

    I do remember wearing those vinyl jumpers in the 70's. I wore my hair parted in the middle with the first forth of the front pulled over my ears and rubber banded under my hair in back. LOL You must have been much cooler than I was. (You also must have been in Jr High in the late 70's as you're far too young to have been any older)

  3. Sue --
    A friend describes her decorating style as "dead relative". Our apartment as well has evolved into "early dead relative".

    Cindy Ann - I graduated high school in 1978...I wasn't cool enough for a vinyl jumper, but I did had a seer-sucker jumpsuit with a giant vinyl flower attached to the zipper pull- a case of mod meets New England.I think I wore that jumpsuit in 1968..soon after I had aquired my first pair of (pink ) bellbottoms.

  4. My older sister reminded me that one of the reasons that wearing hand me downs was painless, was that we were free to reject garments that we didn't like.

    My mother would also reject any garments that she felt too worn out ot pilled. Those went right to the synagogue rummage sale, or into the trash.


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