Secondhand Clothing: Mediating Aspirations and Desires

By | January 2, 2011

As donations, pieces of clothing bear imprints of the aspirations of their donors, and as purchased commodities, they are invested with the desires of their consumers. This article describes a particular configuration of the international trade in secondhand clothing. The trade links Western homes with West Africans families in an intricate web; its history also shows a relationship between West Africans who claim to be of Jewish descent and Jewish secondhand clothing merchants.

“The Jews of Africa”
One of the most remarkable things about the West African secondhand clothing trade is that it is controlled, almost in its entirety, by Igbo traders. The Igbo are a Nigerian ethnic group whose members sometimes claim to be of Jewish descent. There is probably no better person to guide one through this tradition of Igbo origin than one of the most prolific and respected Igbo historians, Adiele Afigbo, who writes[i]:

‘The claim to Hebrew origin is the one of which we have the earliest mention, and that in the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo ex-slave who wrote in 1789. Early in this century [twentieth century] the Rev. G.T. Basden saw a very close resemblance between Igbo culture and Jewish culture without quite saying the Igbo were of Jewish descent. But such was his form of words that the hasty would draw that conclusion. Then later, probably in the 1950s, one Ike Akwelumo asserted in his pamphlet The Origin of the Ibos that the Igbo were a branch of the Jews. According to him the name “Ibo,” used for the people during the colonial period, was a contraction of the word “Hebrew.” At some intermediate stage, he says, the word had been contracted to Heebo.’

Although not many Igbo historians take this too seriously – Adiele Afigbo himself seriously contests this story – it sometimes comes up in daily conversations. For instance, it is not uncommon for one to hear, during a normal conversation with everyday Igbo people, that they are the Jews of Africa because they are very famous as migrants, and because they are successful businessmen. This is particularly interesting in the case of secondhand clothing because the trade combines migration with business success; and their first regular suppliers were Jewish merchants.

Jews and secondhand clothing
In many parts of Europe, from the late Middle Ages, the trade in secondhand clothing was one of the very few economic activities in which Jews were engaged. This was primarily because then, trade and craft were tightly regulated by guilds, and owing to pervasive religious prejudice against Jews, they were excluded from guild membership. Only few marginal commercial activities were open to them. One of them was pawnbroking; the other was the trade in secondhand goods (including clothing)[ii].

In England, between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century, the trade was known as a Jewish trade. In the mornings, Jewish clothes traders would walk through the streets of middle-class and aristocratic areas of London, shouting “Old Clothes”, to attract the attention of servants who had their masters’ cast-offs to sell. After a successful morning, they would go back to a part of the city called Rag Fair, where they would sell to other Jewish secondhand clothing dealers who would repair the garments for resale in their shops. Some contemporary writers claim that in the mid-eighteenth century, there were as many as two thousand Jewish Old Clothes men in London alone[iii].

In the nineteenth century New York, immigrant Jews of Eastern European origin would walk through the streets shouting “Rags, Bones, Bottles![iv]” Some of them later introduced the trade to other parts of the United States. By the twentieth century, second generation migrants still operated some of the family businesses that were founded then. Some of these were the first regular suppliers of secondhand clothing to Igbo importers in West Africa.

The Igbo and secondhand clothing
The Igbo first became involved in the secondhand clothing trade in the 1940s, when they bought Army surplus stock during and after the Second World War. The clothing was obtained from ships that were berthed in Port Harcourt, part of the now infamous Niger Delta region. By the 1950s, many of the traders started importing secondhand clothing directly from the New York-based Jewish merchants. They would get unsorted, bundled, shipments of secondhand clothing – the finesse that now characterizes the packaging was to come later. From the importers, fellow Igbo retailers would buy collections of secondhand clothing, which they would retail in other parts of Nigeria. Later, in the early 1960s, Igbo traders started re-exporting secondhand clothing from Nigeria to other parts of West Africa. Destination countries included Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cameroon.

Today, the main secondhand clothing markets in Cotonou and Lome, the capitals of Benin Republic and Togo respectively, are dominated and controlled by Igbo traders. Some of them are importers, who have established and maintained trading connections with European and American secondhand clothing firms; others are retailers, who sell bales of secondhand clothing to other Igbo traders who would then retail pieces of secondhand clothing.  In the case of Benin Republic, which borders Nigeria, most of their customers cross the border from Nigeria into Benin. Since the 1970s, the importation of secondhand clothing has been banned in Nigeria. Therefore, almost all the pieces of secondhand clothing one would find in Nigeria is smuggled from Benin.

Western cast-offs meet West African desires
A normal day of cloth shopping for many Lagos families involves a trip to the Yaba market, one of the numerous secondhand clothing markets in the city. Stalls made of wood and corrugated iron sheets house rows and bundles of secondhand clothing. Many of the items of clothing are carefully laundered and hung on racks; others are piled on the floor of the stalls. In front of the stalls stand young men and women, with pieces of secondhand clothing hangers in hand, calling on potential customers to come and patronize their wares. Nearby, in another section of the market, there are stalls where rucksacks, small purses and all sorts of bags are sold. In still another section, shoes of varying life stages are either paired up in neat rows or are stacked together. Like the clothing, the ones that are neatly set in rows are usually of better quality than the ones in stacks. In many cases, they are designer labels: this market is one place where one can pick up a Hugo Boss shirt – ‘original’, as one is often reminded by the vendors – for less than a fraction of what it would cost in a shop in a European city. But more often than not, they are simply imported Western cast-offs.

In most cases, the pieces of clothing found in the market in Lagos start their journey in the homes of European and American families. In Germany, items of clothing that are no longer wanted by their owners are packed into bags that are then deposited into roadside boxes. From there, they are taken to warehouses where they will be cleaned and sorted. Some of them are sold in the secondhand clothing shops that dot the streets of many German cities; but a large percentage are baled and exported to developing countries.

In Britain, the competition for its trade is fierce. Quite a number of charity organizations make a lot of their running cost from donations of secondhand clothing. Some rely on walk-ins – whereby donors of secondhand clothing take their pieces of clothing into a charity store. Needless to say, not all of the clothing that is taken into a charity shop is sold there. A large percentage end up being sold off to those who are described in the textile recycling industry as “commercial textile recyclers”. These are commercial organizations that collect, sort, bale and export secondhand clothing.

Some charities actually give franchise to “charity fundraisers”. These organizations collect secondhand clothing on behalf of charities, and pay the charities a certain percentage of the value of the collection. The most sophisticated charities make collections by themselves and have their own sorting and exporting firms. They sell some of their collections – usually a relatively small quantity – in their shops. The rest is sent to their processing factories, where the pieces of clothing are packed together and baled for exportation. Commercial textile recyclers, who buy clothing that charities that do not have their own sorting firms cannot sell in their shops, also make collections at areas where English municipalities designate as recycling areas. Bales of secondhand clothing are exported to East European, South Asian and African countries.

The international trade in secondhand clothing connects Western families with their counterparts in developing countries in an intricate web of desire and aspiration. Most of the time, on the part of the Westerner, this takes the form of the desire to help people who are less fortunate. Some assume that these less fortunate people are poor people in the country of the donors. Others assume that the less fortunate people are citizens in the developing world. Most people do not know that there is an active international trade in secondhand clothing. In my view, this is a more sustainable and fruitful relationship than one of pure donation, where the consumers simple receive the clothing for free.

As it is at the moment, there is a wide network of traders that is built around donated secondhand clothing. This network includes different actors, ranging from family-owned commercial textile recycling firms to small secondhand clothing importing companies, and extending to individually-owned secondhand clothing stalls. The industry provides a livelihood for them, one that would not exist if the clothing were given for free. Besides, it is definitely more dignified to purchase what one needs than to receive it as handout.

The clothing also satisfies the clothing desires of consumers. The reasons for this are not limited to affordability. To be sure, there are a lot of people who consume secondhand clothing because they cannot afford to buy new clothing. There are however others who go to shop for secondhand clothing because they believe that this is where they can find ‘original’ designers label. In a country like Nigeria, where most of the ready-made clothing is imported from China, a lot of what is available in the market are cheap Chinese knock-offs. Many people therefore prefer to buy designer labels from secondhand clothing shops because they can be sure that what they obtain there are original and good quality clothing. One could call them slaves of fashion, in search of authenticity – much like Americans and Europeans who go to secondhand clothing stores to buy vintage clothing.

[i] A.E. Afigbo, ‘Traditions of Igbo Origins: A Comment’, History in Africa, 10 (1983), 1-11.

[ii] Werner J. Cahnman, ‘Socio-Economic Causes of Antisemitism’, Social Problems, 5 (1957), 21-29.

[iii] Todd M. Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (University of Michigan Press, 1999).

[iv] Hanna Rose Shell and Vanessa Bertozzi, Secondhand (Pepe) Documentary, 2007.

This article was originally written for the journal of the Jewish Museum in Berlin

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