A story of second-hand clothes

by on December 14, 2017

“Nice jacket, Dylan,” I said to my first-year-university-student grandson as he picked me up in the first week of summer at Canberra Airport where the outside temperature was a sizzling 12.5 degrees. “How much was it?’

Dylan: I got it for five bucks at the Salvos.

Me: Well done.

Dylan: Mum is so jealous she is going there to see what she can find.

And then I recalled my own impoverished university days 47 years ago and needing a dinner suit to go to an up-coming ball.

As the son of an Anglican clergyman, I could not contemplate even hiring one, let alone buying. So I went to the Salvos and bought a dinner suit for 50 cents (about $5 in today’s money).

Better than that, it was excellently tailored and in a middle-of-the-ground style, so as the lapels of new fashionable dinner suits got narrower and then double-breasted and then wider, mine never looked much out of place, so I kept wearing it for more than 30 years. What a bargain!

The charities do a splendid job recycling clothes. A lot are sent overseas, particularly to Third World countries which do not have their own textile industries, such a Papua New Guinea.

I recalled being in Mount Hagen in the New Guinea Highlands once and overhearing an Australian say to a local who was wearing, from memory, the T-shirt of a Sydney bowls club, “Good on you, mate, I’m a member there. It’s a good club, isn’t it?”

He clearly did not realise that the T-shirt had been imported by a charity second-hand and that the local had never been to Australia, let alone his bowls club.

That was 2003, Later I went to the very remote Kosomary River, a tributary of Sepik River, where I asked if I could have a paddle on a dugout canoe. “Only if you give us your T-shirt if you fall out,” I was told.

Me: Okay.

(It was a Canberra Times Fun Run T-shirt, as it happens)

Now, a dugout with a wooden paddle is a very different proposition from my light-weight plastic kayak and carbon-fibre paddle in Australia. But never mind. I’ll never know how I got the thing out into the current and safely back to shore. But I got some loud cheers from the locals, so and I gave the canoe owner the Canberra Times T-shirt anyway.

I hope no visiting Australian finds him and says something like, “The Canberra Times event is a good fun run, isn’t it? What was your time?”

While I was recalling this, it suddenly dawned on me, about eight weeks too late. And I should have realised it at the time.

I am talking about the time in late September when Immigration Minister Peter Dutton berated the first group of refugees to leave Australia’s offshore detention centres for resettlement in the United States, labelling them “economic refugees”.

“They’re economic refugees, they got on a boat, paid a people smuggler a lot of money, and somebody once said to me that we’ve got the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart,” Dutton said, telling a 2GB shock jock exactly what the shock jock and his prejudiced audience wanted to hear.

See the exploitation of hearsay to create a distorted impression. Masterful propaganda. Armani conjours up images of people with plentiful amounts of money to spend unnecessarily on expensive clothes.

Guess what? People with plentiful amounts of money to spend on clothes want to be at the cutting edge of fashion. So they discard their designer Armani garments very quickly. The clothes are likely to appear quickly in the secondhand clothes markets of the Third World because the First World designer owners certainly do not keep them, like me, for 30 years.

Australia is the eighth-highest exporter of secondhand clothes in the world at nearly $55 million a year, and is about fifth highest in the world when adjusted for the size of its economy. PNG, on the other hand, ranks among the highest importers of secondhand clothes when adjusted for national income.

So when refuges leave PNG you are very likely to see them wearing or carrying some designer labels or, depending on your political viewpoint, some very cheap secondhand discards. Just as we saw women on sinking refugee boats desperately holding up their children to show their vulnerability or, depending on your political motive, threatening to throw them overboard,.

Pardon the digression, but I have some first-hand experience here. A while ago I was chair of a national charity which like most charities was in the rag trade. Every year, this charity collected the discards from all over Sydney, including from some very wealthy women who only wore their designer clothes once or twice – a bit like the Queen.

Well, for fairly well-heeled, but not extravagantly wealthy women, an early-bird ticket to my charity’s annual clothing sale was a bonanza and they were willing to pay a premium to get ahead of the hoi polloi to have first bite at the mega-wealthy’s discards, from Armani labels to the specially tailored.

The propensity of the very wealthy to discard quickly gave me my dinner suit and Dylan his splendid jacket. It no doubt, too, gave the Nauru refugees their jeans and handbags, bought secondhand for next to nothing.

I am only sorry that I did not connect the dots eight weeks ago.

The instructive thing here is either the total disconnect of a conservative politician from people who at one stage in their lives bought secondhand clothes or, if he connected with it, chose to ignore it to gain a cheap political point.

The incident reminded me of the time Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister courageously clamped down on family-trust income-splitting by imposing the top marginal rate on the income of all children. He imagined that the only income that could possibly obtained by children was a distribution from a family trust.

The world of 12-year-old paperboys and 15-year-old-holiday cherry pickers was under his radar. Fraser’s radar, of course, improved in later years.

But the mentality then was the same as the possibility that the Armani jeans proudly displayed by the Nauru refugees were bought for a trivial sum through the secondhand clothes market was not on the radar of a wealthy 2GB shock jock or his ministerial interlocutor.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 16 Decembers 2017.

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