Hand-Me-Downs Are Great, But Don't Kids Deserve Their Own Style?

Are you psychologically damaging your children by making an eco-friendly choice?
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When I discovered a pink dress with a lace collar in my storage, I was elated. Upon learning I was having a second child, a girl, I was excited at the opportunity to see some clothes my eldest daughter grew out of too quickly. One particular piece was this Janie and Jack dress that shows off little tiny shoulders and Michelin Man baby biceps.

My mom, the hoarder or genius that she is, saved a lot of my own baby clothes, which means my girls are walking around parks in vintage OshKosh B’gosh overalls. Opening bins of clothing I hadn’t seen in a few years was a sweet walk down memory lane. Now that my second daughter is here, it’s even sweeter to see her in clothes her big sister didn’t get dirty.

But at times, I can’t help but feel a little bit guilty. Should she have her own sartorial identity outside of Old Navy onesies her sister wore from 2021? Every time she’s in a memorable outfit we say, “We remember when your big sister wore that!” as if she has any idea what it means. Should she have the same treatment as my first child, to be adorned in new clothes specifically picked out for her and her only.

On the other hand, there’s a whole additional layer of guilt associated with buying new clothes. Buying an entirely new wardrobe for a tiny person who grows every month is financially and economically irresponsible. Fast fashion is creating waste at a catastrophic speed, “accelerating the pace of climate change” and “contributing to the rapid destruction of our planet,” according to Fast Company. So with the state of the world crumbling because of the accessibility to cheap, semi-low-quality pieces that can be purchased at a moment’s notice, recycling clothes has its own distinct advantage.

We reached out to adults who were dressed in hand-me-downs, be it from their older siblings or other older people in their lives. Additionally, we reached out to two licensed psychologists who work closely with children and young adults to explore the potential effects on hand-me-downers.

How do hand-me-downs affect our identity?

Hand-me-downs evoke a lot of memories for some. Lauren French, a school counselor in Southern California, said her hand-me-downs affected her childhood and her relationship with her sister.

“My sister and I are six years apart, which is a lot when you’re young and receiving hand-me-downs. Most of the time, [I felt] annoyed and frustrated about the fact that I was inheriting hand-me-downs because 50% of my life I was called Emily (my sister’s name), 40% of my life I was ‘Emily’s sister,’ which only left with 10% of my life being referred to by my real name. So [my] feelings surrounding hand-me-downs were less so that I was inheriting used or old clothes, but more that I was not my own person.”

As the younger sister, French thought maybe inheriting her sister’s clothes meant they could share more time together. “I thought the hand-me-downs would make my sister want to play with me more. Because we were far apart in age, she would never play with me, so if I wore her clothes I remember thinking she’d like my outfit and would then play with me.”

And hand-me-downs don’t stop at clothes, French explained. “I also never got to pick out toys/gadgets like a bike or scooter because I would inherit those from her once she grew out of it.”

But now, French is singing a different tune when it comes to previously loved pieces. “Now, I love a hand-me-down (as long as it’s in good condition). When [my sister] does a closet clean out, I am right there going through the piles. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law often do closet clean outs and they know to ask me first before donating anything.”

Katie Wiggins is a recruiter in Tennessee who grew up with an older brother. “I had an older brother — but having an older sister just seemed so cool. Plus, if I knew it came from my childhood best friend Marea’s older sister Elena, it was pre-vetted and was inherently cool. I was instantly, immediately cooler. Lots of times their parents bought them new Abercrombie from the mall. And the hand-me-downs were often cooler brands and they were ‘pre-approved’ by cool aspirational older girls, so that meant I was cool to wear them and I was cool because they gave them to me.”

When it came to inheriting from her brother, her feelings were a little different. “I was super embarrassed! Not that I wanted pink — but I had that feeling that ‘everyone knew’ that they were hand-me-downs.”

But any trauma didn’t carry over into adulthood. For Wiggins, she ended up embracing thrifting early in life and developed an aversion to buying new clothes.“Especially now, as a society we’re more environmentally conscious and I feel more aware of the amount of waste that exists in fast fashion. Aside from underwear, some leggings, socks and bras — I get almost every single thing I own secondhand. It really helps that I can do this from the comfort and convenience of my phone, but I’m no stranger to Goodwill. I’ve even convinced my husband of the merits and glory of secondhand shopping.”

Experts weigh in on the impact of hand-me-downs

Rachel McCarron is a therapist in Santa Monica, California, who specializes in working with children, adolescents and young women.

“I’ve definitely had clients who have been the recipients of hand-me-downs, and in my experience I’ve never heard kids or their parents identify this as being an area of concern or a trigger for anxiety or shame,” she shared.

McCarron suggests that thanks to the increase in popularity, hand-me-downs are now applauded in the realm of thrifting.

“My sense is that this, in part, because the proliferation of thrifting and secondhand fashion over the past few years has diminished the social stigma surrounding ‘used clothes’ and hand-me-downs.”

And thankfully, because of this, McCarron has seen less pressure on kids to have the latest and greatest, the shiny new toy or, in this case, clothes.

Dr. Shira Schuster, a licensed psychologist of Williamsburg Therapy Group, said siblings may even feel closer to one another when sharing clothing. “It can make a younger sibling feel a connection to an older sibling through wearing something the older sibling once did.”

And my worries about my youngest not having her own sense of self seems to be not an issue.

Schuster said, “Some adults who wore hand-me-down clothing as children might place more emphasis on how they dress as a way to show their individuality or as a way to feel like they ‘finally’ get to wear what they want; many people who wore hand-me-down clothing growing up probably don’t give it much thought as they get older.”

So, while I can’t directly ask my 14-month-old what trends she wants to wear, it seems I won’t traumatise her — for now.