With their colourful, eccentric racks of clothing, secondhand shops have historically encouraged a gender-fluid shopping experience. Often, clothes are organized by fabric, colour, style or decade (rather than the exclusionary limitations of just "men’s" and "women’s"). Dressing rooms are gender-neutral, and tags simply list the item type and price. It’s a refreshing exception in a consumer-based society rigidly built around gender binaries.
When done right, secondhand shopping has the power to liberate us in many ways – a concept I learned through my first job as a buyer at a secondhand store in Manhattan. When I moved to the city, I was coming from a small, heteronormative suburb of Boston, where often, homophobia was more acceptable than queerness. Although my gratitude for my childhood and the people within it is boundless, the norms of where I am from led me to be highly self-conscious about expressing my sexuality as a queer woman.
I spent years of my life vehemently denying the things I knew to be true about myself, so I carried on performing in the only role I knew how: as a straight, feminine girl. When I moved to New York, after some intensively introspective years, I knew that in order to live a fruitful and authentic life, I had to unlearn what I had been taught about my identity. Yet, fear of rejection and confusion about how I wanted my queerness to manifest in my life continued to plague me.
On the first day at the new job at the secondhand store, I had no expectations outside of what I knew about working retail. But immediately, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered the queerness that seemed to naturally radiate from within the store. Even more, I was captivated by my coworkers, who all confidently rejected the limitations of gendered style. They instead celebrated themselves and their bodies through experimental fashion and unique takes on dress. It was beautiful. Through the self-expression and the styling the environment facilitated, I was able to slowly break free of the constraints I put on myself.
At a thrift store, the items and ambience won’t tell you no... If you get the desire to wear a dress or heels or a suit, throw it on and wear it out.
Embodying this gender-fluid freedom, my co-worker at the store Dru Acosta (they/she/he) regularly donned, in their own words, “larger-than-life style moments on the brink of extravagant insanity,” often in the form of vintage gowns. “As a little kid, I always wanted to wear dresses. At a thrift store, the items and ambience won’t tell you no. It is an adventure,” they say. “If you get the desire to wear a dress or heels or a suit, throw it on and wear it out. Even if it doesn’t match up with your sex at birth. As long as you live your authentic self, that's the coolest style. Fashion is freedom of expression.”
The lax, down-to-earth nature of the vintage stores has long allowed for shoppers to experiment with fashion as a conveyor of queer and gender identity, without the pressure of the gendered agendas retail stores drive. According to costume designer Elias Matso, unlike its retail counterparts, there is an unparalleled element of time travel when buying secondhand that adds to the destabilising of gender norms. “The fact that gender in fashion is constructed is made very apparent in the history lesson you get while looking through thrift racks,” he says. “You’re looking at items from different time periods when men’s trends have become women’s trends and vice versa.” This also normalises a gender-fluid shopping experience for generations to come.
A study by Depop revealed that young shoppers are driven by the idea of having individual style, with more than 55% saying they buy secondhand to find one-of-a-kind pieces. A staggering 45% use secondhand fashion to tap into trends, and 75% buy secondhand garments to reduce consumption. There’s no doubt that people are becoming increasingly skeptical of fast fashion, with its detrimental effects on the environment, exclusion of minorities and capitalistic pursuits. Forbes recently found that “some 86% of consumers recently surveyed said a company’s credentials regarding climate change, DEI and ethical business practices were a key factor in their purchase decisions." Not to mention we are living through a recession and cost of living crisis that is squeezing people’s pockets, and true vintage can be more durable than its fast fashion component. All of this is reflected in the figures: participation in secondhand shopping is growing rapidly, and expected to be 2X bigger than fast fashion by 2030.
That gender in fashion is constructed is made very apparent while looking at items from different time periods when men’s trends have become women’s trends and vice versa.
Additionally, thanks to the powerful and independent nature of Gen Z – a generation with one in six members identifying as queer or transgender – fashion is more revolutionary than ever as a medium to express the beliefs of the generation. As they courageously reject the limitations of traditional masculinity and femininity, instead embracing fluidity, we are seeing lines once drawn in the fashion industry starting to blur.
With Gen Z’s lead and the greater population’s move toward more ethical consumption, shopping separated by gender has the potential to be obsolete. If secondhand shopping is really set to outgrow retail, it begs the question: Is the future of fashion genderless?
The movement has already begun outside of secondhand spaces, as we are slowly seeing a rise in “genderless” brands and collections. Independent boutique brands such as WILDFANG, One DNA and JACQNY are spearheading the way. Luxury brands are jumping on the bandwagon as well to keep in step with growing concerns of lack of representation of the gender and queer spectrum. However, these efforts often don't reach the sustainability goals that are driving consumer behavior. The thrift store checks both boxes by nature, with secondhand widely accepted as more eco-friendly.
As well as secondhand stores catering to the LGBTQIA+ community in ways that are baked into the experience (the aforementioned lack of distinct gendering of items and gender-neutral dressing rooms), now, we see stores actively engaging with the community.
Decorated with rainbow accessories throughout, 3rd & B’zaar - a queer women-owned secondhand store - devotes specific initiatives for the LGBTQIA+ community with events throughout the year such as their 2021 Spring Into Pride that they hosted in collaboration with queer theatre group The Wild Project, Drag Bingo nights and participation in East Village Queer Market in 2022. “We are becoming more conscious of what fast fashion does to the environment. Younger generations, especially, are not interested in it anymore. So instead, people are turning to thrifting, which queer people have been doing to express themselves and have found community in for decades," co-founder Sara Ann Rutherford tells Refinery29. "The queer community has always been at the forefront of fashion.”
Co-founder Maegan Hayward, who also owns the un-gendered East Village Collective, added, “We want people to feel comfortable to wear something out of their gendered norm at the store [3rd & B’zaar]. It doesn't matter how you identify or what you were born as. If you like it and feel good, that's what's most important.”
The queer community has always been at the forefront of fashion.
Sara Ann Rutherford
On the door to Vintage Reserve, located in the East Village, hangs a pride flag in the shape of a heart and on the checkout desk are rainbow stickers with assorted pronouns. When I asked native New Yorker and store founder Elizabeth Caprio what motivated this, she says when she opened her store in 2020, she noticed the high percentage of queer clientele that came through her door and was inspired to embrace this.
“I want to provide a space where [members of the LGBTQIA+] community are comfortable and can express themselves. I do not look at an item as being a certain gender. I always tell the rare people that do come in looking for sections that everything in here is for everyone," Caprio says. "It is about finding an item that resonates with you and makes you feel confident, regardless of who it was originally intended for.”
Mindsets like these from brick-and-mortar store owners, combined with increasing numbers of consumers gravitating toward secondhand shopping, have the power to continue driving this genderless shopping movement for decades to come.
Having a space to shop and proudly explore identity through style is essential. Gylanni Carrington, a non-binary artist from Brooklyn, NY, is someone whose entire wardrobe is nearly entirely thrifted. For them, fashion and their queerness are inextricable. “Fashion influences my queer identity constantly. I am constantly telling the world I am gay in how I dress," they say. "As a non-binary person, there is something about clothing that not only expresses who I am but shapes who I am. There is a message I am trying to communicate to you when I wear six-inch heels and a floor-length dress.”
In the beginning of my journey with my sexuality, I struggled to find the confidence to verbally come out to people. I found it to be easier to instead communicate my queerness through varying forms of dress, whether it be through men’s shirts and pants or varying graphic tees that support queer politics and artists. Thrift stores are where I found and continue to find all of these pieces, as I have always felt a sense of comfort within their walls.
Secondhand stores have consistently acted as a unifier of people from all walks of life, especially attracting a demographic of LGBTQIA+ people. When we embrace fashion as a means to communicate our desires, we are liberated in the process. Without the limitations of gender in fashion, infinite creative possibilities are unlocked.
As we continue to reckon with the destructive nature of retail fashion and simultaneously embody gender fluidity, thrift stores provide the community with environmentally conscious and welcoming physical spaces in an ever-growing digital world. With their lead, gendered fashion has the potential to be obsolete and I – along with the many people I have spoken to on the topic – embrace this future.