Wearing vintage clothes is recycling at its most stylish

13 May 2018 - 00:01 By Jackie May
To truely be considered vintage, clothing must be more than 20 years old.
To truely be considered vintage, clothing must be more than 20 years old.
Image: 123RF/agcreativelab

Wearing vintage, like recycling, is uber cool right now. There are several reasons for this.

Worn in the right way, vintage clothes are exceptionally stylish. Wearing something unexpected can give your look an edge.

And, as we become increasingly concerned with sustainability and the effect of fast fashion on the environment, buying pre-worn clothes keeps them out of landfill and reduces our footprint.

Vintage also offers everyone the opportunity to buy and wear designer labels that might otherwise be too expensive.

Actress and creative Sthandiwe Kgoroge has always loved vintage clothes and believes the trend reflects a style revolution. "Being unique is no longer perceived as awkward or weird. People all over the world are owning their individuality through style, art or any other way they can express themselves," she says.

We've come to refer to most well-cared for and carefully sourced second-hand clothes as vintage. Strictly speaking, though, vintage clothes are older than 20 years and must be higher quality than the tatty T-shirts your partner bought when he or she was a student, and the stores selling them are more curated than the thrift shop at the end of the street. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't hunt for bargains or thrill at finding a lost treasure in a second-hand store.

Most thrift stores, especially in downtown Joburg, have no idea what they're holding. You need a lot of energy to sift through the junk, but the gems are there
Stylist Bee Diamondhead

Thrifting is one of the reasons that stylist Bee Diamondhead has become the style icon she is. She's been at it for years, saying that the most exciting part is "when you find a special piece at a great price."

But, she says: "Most thrift stores, especially in downtown Joburg, have no idea what they're holding. You need a lot of energy to sift through the junk, but the gems are there."

Another South African stylist Marieke Merts, who is based in Munich, started her second-hand love affair when she was a fashion design student at Stellenbosch. "We would go to the hospice shop every Friday and buy items that cost R2, then quickly customise them and go out for a night on the town," she says. "There used to be a fancy vintage boutique called Greensleeves, but we had to save a lot before we could buy anything there."


Emma Jones-Phillipson, head of operations at Greenpop, cautions that we have to be aware of the impact of what are referred to in Nigeria as akafa ulaya (the clothes of the dead whites) and roupa da calamidade (clothing of the calamity) in Mozambique.

Many of these clothes are second hand or unsold clothes dumped by the global North into the global South which can undermine local clothing production, create artificial brand dependence and awareness, and have potential dignity-harming implications, says Jones-Phillipson. Why should second-hand underwear and unsellable clothes from the West be dumped into Africa?

On the other hand, the selling of second-hand clothes can empower women traders and make otherwise unavailable clothes accessible. It opens up a market of previously used materials, styles, and workmanship to a new audience.

Jones-Phillipson's biggest concern, though, is that getting rid of unwanted clothes absolves the guilt of fast-fashion consumers. By giving away unwanted clothes to charity organisations, they wash their hands of the consequences of filling their closets with new items every few months.

She advises us to be cautious of this. "We are still responsible for the items we buy and wear. Don't buy things that won't last just to toss them on to a second-hand store," she says. "Buy well, wear well and mend clothes to make them last."

Looking after clothes also gives them a chance to be worn by a new owner when you no longer want them. What you no longer love will be someone else's treasure.


  • Bee Diamondhead, stylist: "Don’t be afraid to mix it up. If you have a rule book, throw it away. Mix your new and old."
  • Emma Jones-Phillipson, development expert: "Don’t settle for an item that’s too big or too small unless you have the ability (or you know a good seamstress) to fix it. Rather leave it to the next person, who may love it as it is." 
  • Marieke Merts, stylist: "Be patient. Finding gold requires some digging."


Vintage with Love, founded six years ago by Leigh Ord and Jacquie Myburgh Chemaly, has raised close to R4-million for literacy programmes. They will be holding a charity sale of “gently worn fashion” over three days from June 1-3 at Wanderers Building, 57
Sloane Street, Bryanston, Johannesburg. Details at vintagewithlove.co.za