Consuming Second-Hand Clothing

The recently demolished Tejuosho Market in Lagos, Nigeria, had a part that was devoted almost entirely to the trade in second-hand clothing. In the mid-nineties, I lived somewhere close to the market, and each time I left the house to take a bus at the Yaba central motor park I walked past stalls filled with second-hand clothes. Traders who hawked their wares on the road would usually call on passers-by to patronise them. The range of items in the market ranged from Armani suits to brassiere, from neck ties to blue jeans, from Hugo Boss long sleeve shirts to Gap T-shirts, from men’s underpants to ladies’ slips, and from jackboots to office shoes. There were even the odd winter jackets.

I was about 16 years old then, and it was about the first time that I really thought about second-hand clothing. I had been wearing second-hand clothes before then, but it was a particular episode that made me realise how much it was sewn into the imagination of many everyday Nigerians. A boy who was about eight years old walked into the living room of their house and said:

‘I can smell something new! Did mummy buy some new clothes?’

Everybody is probably familiar with the smell of new textile fabric; used-clothes too have their own peculiar odour. People said that it was the smell of the chemical that was used in washing them before they were packed up and shipped to Nigeria. That was the smell the boy perceived, and that was the smell he thought was the smell of new fabric. Of course, now, thinking about it, it was certainly new, only that it was a different type of new. For the boy, and for so many other people, it was simply new clothes; clothes that started a whole new life with them. One could of course start a whole discussion about values and commodities and what is new and what is not, but what my 16 year-old self found disturbing was that the boy was so used to new cloth smelling like second-hand cloths that it was what was new to him. I think I found it disturbing because most often, using second-hand clothes was linked to poverty. I learnt better some years later.

The general name for second-hand clothing in Nigeria is okrika. The name was derived from the name of a small port town close to the more famous Port-Harcourt, in the now infamous Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. According to old-time second-hand clothes traders, that was the port through which used clothing was first imported into Nigeria, and the people of Okrika were the first to start consuming second-hand clothing, largely because that was where it was first imported. So, the name okrika stuck, and it is still the general name used to refer to second-hand clothes in Nigeria.

But there are other names too. One of them – bo si corner – is a mixture of Yoruba and English, which means, ‘go to a corner’. Buying used clothing was supposed to be a shameful thing so one only bought it in a ‘corner’, where nobody could see one. Another popular Yoruba word is wo o wo, which means ‘try it on’. Normally, shops that sold new items of clothing are reluctant to permit potential buyers to try them on; second-hand clothes traders actually encouraged their customers to try them on, while they continued haggling on the price. Another term that is used in describing second-hand clothing is ‘bend-down boutique’. Many of the traders in the market had the pieces of clothing on a huge pile through which one could rummage, looking for a piece of clothing that might catch ones attention. Once an item is picked up the haggling process starts. (The Zambians call them Salaula, the Bemba term that means ‘to rummage through a pile’ – Karen Tranberg Hansen

In some cases, one does not need to bend down to check them out because some traders ‘add value’ to the items they sell by taking time to launder them, starch them, iron them and display them on hangers at their stalls. The prices of those are higher, but they are also easier to inspect so the potential buyer does not have to take the time to rummage through a pile on the ground.

Big boys
In university I realised that many of the campus ‘big boys’ got their Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Versace etc. attires from some students who would go to the used clothing market to make special selections. The student-traders would pay a certain amount of money for the privilege of being the ones who make the first pick from freshly opened bales. (The clothes are packed in bales of about 55kg for exportation in the source countries). They would then take the clothes home to wash in order to get rid of some of the distinctive second-hand clothing smell, before they are sold to the ‘big boys’. Most of those who consume the higher-end products know that the items are ‘okrika’, but a popular way they justified using them was by saying that most of the new brand-names that are available in the market are in fact fake. They would fall apart after just a few washes. But one could be sure that the okrika brand-names are in fact the real deal because one was sure that they were ‘imported’ from Europe. That is actually a reason many people give for buying second-hand clothing. They are the authentic ones, not the China-made that are of much lower quality, and that are sometimes even cheaper than the second-hand ones.

All this happen in a country that bans the importation of second-hand clothing. Most people have no idea that second-hand clothing is actually not allowed into Nigeria. One of the main things I am trying to do in my dissertation is to show how second-hand clothes get to Nigeria from the source countries in Europe and North America.

8 thoughts on “Consuming Second-Hand Clothing

  1. Interesting post. I often heard the second-hand clothing part of Tejuosho (and other markets selling second-hand clothes for that matter) referred to as “California.” Which seemed to me to be used in both a humorous or ironic manner as well as for acknowledging the foreign origin and potential prestige value attached to the closed the clothes. This was between 2001-2004.

    I was shocked to discover that Tejuosho was gone when I visited Lagos last summer! What happened to the vendors? Is there any movement to rebuild the market? Or have the vendors all disbursed to other Lagos markets?

  2. Hi Vicky,

    A major part of the market got burnt in December 2007. The rest was torn down. The vendors have moved to other locations and the Lagos state government said they would not allow the market to return to the state it was before it got burnt, which means that they would try to keep vendors out of the New Tejuosho Market. The re-construction is ongoing.

  3. The answer to that question depends on who one asks. A general answer is that it is for the protection of the local textile industry. But one really interesting thing is that it is more common to hear people – mostly government officials – say that used clothing was banned for health reasons, mainly because second-hand clothes are supposed to be dirty clothes picked up on the streets of European and North American countries.

    I will discuss these and some of the other reasons people give – including the traders themselves – in a section of a chapter. That section will also include a discussion of how difficult it is to trace the history of the ban.

  4. Thanks for the fascinating piece. I’m interested in how your subject relates to the meaning of second-hand clothing in more developed Western countries. In the United States there is stigma surrounding second-hand clothes, and you might find that a lower-quality “new” product is considered to hold more value than a higher quality lightly-used item, just because of its provenance. A poorly made shirt from Ross or TJ Maxx costs much more than an excellent quality shirt from Goodwill or the Salvation Army, and many people will opt for the former.

    Also, there is an interesting sidenote to the question of how provenance relates to value. Some people use the fact of a clothing item being used to justify its purchase and use in contradiction to their own established ethics (or more accurately, as a loophole through them). For example: an anti-leather vegetarian might wear a leather belt purchased from a thrift store. Or a person who is boycotting a certain brand because of the company’s labor practices might still purchase their products second-hand. The second-hand status of an item removes the consumer from original structures of production and distribution, at least through some ethical gymnastics. This is an active debate in animal rights circles.

    Also, some people actively seek out second-hand clothes as a validation (or application) of their ethical stance on consumption and production relations. This can be seen as a protest against or opting-out from the wastefulness of overproduction of clothing for (contestably) superficial purposes (i.e. fashion). In fact, the existence of donated clothing is symptomatic of overproduction, at least relative to the countries which consume and then export (or donate) these clothes second-hand.

    I would be interested to see if any of these issues factor into consumption patterns of second-hand clothing in Nigeria. I would guess that the ethical concerns might be a function of 1st-world privilege, and similar justifications would be hard to find in a marketplace where there is less latitude for consumption decisions that are not based on simple cost-benefit pragmatism (not arguing at all here that poor people don’t make ethical decisions… I hope it doesn’t sound like that). However, I don’t know enough about Lagos and its level of class disparity or social makeup to make such assumptions, so hopefully I’m not overreaching. Either way, I think there is an interesting comparison to be made between the behavior of consumers of second-hand clothes in, say, Nigeria vs. the U.S. It seems the stigma is similar, but the navigation through the social meaning of “used” is likely quite different.

  5. Thank you for these really fascinating examples. I have not done done/not currently doing much work on the consumption of second-hand clothing. My focus right now is on the trade and how it works. To understand this, I have taken a look at what I might call the ‘generation’ of second-hand clothes in the UK, but not exactly on the consumption. I hope to do that sometime soon, once I am done with my dissertation. I will definitely keep the issues you have raised in mind.

  6. second hand clothes are not so good, but there are some that can pass for new.In Nigeria, H&M or T M goes for 7-9k and u can get a second hand of those for N800 to N1000 which would be clean and neat. So would it not be best to go for a second hand, get dressed in them, mix with the elite class and be confident.

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