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Generation Depop: What Can Second-Hand Clothes Tell Us About Social Class?

By Megan Byrom - HSPS Student @ Queens' College, Cambridge


The high street, by most factors, is in decline. Fast fashion is now met with disdain and increasing unsustainable microtrends have left many consumers apathetic. Yet, Depop and the rise of second hand ‘thrifting’ has bucked the trend. With Gen z flocking towards the site, in 2020 alone its sales increased 300%, with usage up 163%. Amongst an environment in which traditional fashion retail is in decline, these second-hand sites have instead met increasing success.

Depop has generated a culture of exclusivity by conjuring a specific culture capital. Based on ‘vintage’ and second-hand clothing, the sub-culture has emerged across social media, identifiable by second-hand finds and new throwback trends to the late 90s and early 2000s. Such tactics have been used by brands for decades. Notably, retailer Jack Wills promoted its ‘preppy’ and ‘varsity-style 'by projecting its image onto the most privileged of students of elite universities. Soon it became synonymous with these groups, as well as their wealth and lifestyles; something the general consumer in the UK wished to emulate. This cultural capital, whether conscious or not, has similarly attached itself to Depop and other second-hand sites, promoted across social media by these middle-class groups.

With Pierre Bourdieu's ideas of ‘cultural capital’ in mind and the ways in which social groups can attribute value to different forms and media, second-hand shopping has also become a social currency of its own.

Unlike brands that have used exclusivity as a marketing tool before, thrifting in itself is an exclusive mode of shopping. Whilst fast fashion brands can mass produce items, making them easily accessible both online and in-store, with second-hand thrifting, items are uniquely positioned as one-offs, unable to be rebought or replicated. The hours it takes to scroll through sites like Depop, or travel between second-hand stores is a privilege in itself, that further resigns the consumers of vintage fashion to restricted groups. Together, this group becomes identifiable not only by the garments they wear but the material conditions that allow them the accessibility and funds to shop in this way.

In a market in which ‘fast fashion’ is the main source of the general public's wardrobes, sites like Depop stand in stark opposition to the rise of unethical but affordable clothing stores. However, second-hand thrifting has become a signal of class as much as shopping at affordable retail stores. The cultural capital attached to Gen Z's new love of Depop is one that is increasingly middle class, and as this becomes more transparent, the prices on these second-hand sites similarly rise to the budgets of such consumers. As Depop becomes gentrified and more inaccessible, a divide in fashion consumption is not just about what we like to wear but is firmly shaped around our own perceptions of social class and where we see ourselves within that.

Further reading:

  1. 'The Jack Wills crowd: Towards a sociology of an elite subculture' by Anthony King and Daniel Smith

  2. 2) 'Depop Economics: Social Media, Social currency, and the resale revolution’ by Digi Digest

  3. 3) 'Millions sign up for a bit of Depop culture’ by Ashley Armstrong


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