Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

When I was a kid growing up in Iowa and money was tight, my mother would often shop for us at thrift stores, bringing home Nikes and Levis that appeared to even the most practiced eye to be new. My sister and I sighed and grumbled and curled our upper lips; only new things are good, we unironically insisted.

Twenty years later, my parents have moved up in the world and live in a fine house with two new cars in the driveway (paid for in full with cash, as they like to point out at every opportunity), a 72-inch plasma screen, etc. When my sister and I visit, we rent a car and fill it with trashbags full of thrift clothes; when we come home, bedecked in our finds, they’re puzzled and crestfallen. “But why do you wear this garbage?” they ask, also unironically, sometimes on the brink of tears.

Well, it’s hard to explain. I could tell them that shopping at thrift stores embodies some obvious virtues that are increasingly in step with our cultural moment. After all, you’re essentially recycling. Also, your money not only goes to a good cause, but just as importantly, it’s not enriching corporate fucktards and monocle-wearing shareholders. But all of this misses the larger point, which came to me slowly, over years of sidestepping along mile-long racks of shirts, wincing with early-onset carpal tunnel—that thrift stores quite literally supply the very lifeblood of American culture.

I’ve gone thrift shopping every few weeks for at least the last decade, from Laurel to Fredericksburg to Falls Church to Indian Head. One of the highlights of each trip is when I fill my cart with the corniest square-bro shit I can find—fitted cap, baggy carpenter jeans, flip flops, polo-shirt-with-white-tee-underneath combo—go into a dressing room, and don this clownsuit for the surprise amusement of whomever I’m with. The last time I did this, at the Unique Thrift right by the University of Maryland, I leaped around a corner in my date-rapist costume and started frantically doing the running man, to the delighted groans of my girlfriend and sister. But right behind them were a group of frat-types, and the jester of the group, my counterpart, had just similarly leaped out in a costume of his own—skintight pants, Cosby sweater, watch cap, and short Transylvania-style leather jacket. Our eyes met in a moment of horrified dislocation as our friends fell silent.

“Hey, check me out,” I said, waving a hand at my outfit. “I’m a tremendous douchebag!”

“No way,” said the frat guy. “You look awesome! I’m the douchebag!”

We argued this point for several minutes before our friends agreed that we were both, in fact, tremendous douchebags.

For reasons both cultural and economic, thrift stores have seen a marked increase the past few years in middle- and even upper-class customers. I can always pick them out, wandering through the aisles looking shell-shocked, hand sanitizer in pocket, the same tantalized-yet-appalled expression on their faces as you’d imagine they wore the first time they tried anal sex. They seem lost, and it’s easy to see why. From the minute you walk into a more conventional store, you’re bombarded with focus-grouped ethnically diverse displays, soft music calibrated to induce impulse buys, outsized photo murals drawing an implicit connection between that pumpkin-colored pullover you’re holding and Youth, Vitality, Sex Appeal, and Patriotism, staggered racks and shelves that force you to move circuitously, thus exposing you to the maximum amount of merchandise. Shopping for new clothes is essentially a passive experience.

But in the undereconomy, none of those rules apply. There’s little or no concern about profit in a thrift store, so everything is just packed onto racks willy-nilly, a true democracy of consumer goods: brand-less dollar store smocks next to ’90s-era A Different World cardigans, next to Brooks Brothers executive-collar dress shirts some fuckface forgot to pick up from the cleaners within 30 days. Outside of a carefully engineered context, you see the objects for what they really are. In the store, a Gap shirt seems to harken back to a simpler, purer time, a paragon of timeless simplicity; in a thrift store, you realize it’s the sartorial equivalent of Mitt Romney. There are no cues, no rules, no mannequins wearing prefabricated outfits, just an anarchic hodgepodge, and your only compass is your personal taste. If you have any.

Once you check out, they just throw all your stuff into a huge garbage bag, as if to drive home the point that, yes, it’s all just trash anyway, and oh, have you heard God is dead, too? It’s an altogether more honest consumer experience than what most respectable people are used to, which I assume is why I rarely see most of those respectable people at the thrift store ever again.

Living in D.C., it’s easy to start thinking clothes don’t matter, since no one here gives a shit how they look. Walk down the street and it becomes apparent that people here only wear clothes because they’d be arrested if they left the house naked. But clothes do matter, even more so in a culture where (like it or not) appearances precede substance. When I go off on this diatribe in mixed company, people often ask if it’s fair to judge people based on how they dress. My answer is, well, yes. Not judging a book by its cover is fine in elementary school, when the parent selecting the clothes could very well be color-blind, insane, or drunk (or all three), but in the adult world, not only can you judge the book by its cover—there is no “book” or “cover.” The external is just an extension of the internal. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, only the most superficial don’t judge by appearances.

I used to be a lot like you; I shopped in stores, buying outfits wholesale off display mannequins. On a regular basis, in the break room or an office party or a happy hour, I would see someone wearing the exact same thing as me, and it would sting a little. At first I wrote it off as us just having similar tastes, but then one day, as I made my way through the crowded mall, I found myself in J. Crew. Surveying the sheer diversity of the shoppers there—old, young, middle-aged, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, male, female—I thought, idly, that this place must have a truly universal appeal. But then in a flash, I realized that, no, something whose appeal was so broad that it appealed to everyone appealed to no one. And when I ran into people wearing the same clothes I wore, it wasn’t that we had similar tastes, it was that neither of us had any taste at all.

Taste, after all, is the ability to evaluate and select. We thought we were making informed choices that reflected our preferences, but it was like choosing between Coke and Pepsi; Exercising your critical faculty is only meaningful if you have disparate options to select from. When all your choices are equally dumbed- and watered-down, any choice you make is, by definition, arbitrary. And not having taste represents impotence on the most fundamental level. After all, to have no ability to externalize your worldview—or worse, no ability to formulate a worldview at all, aside from received conventional “wisdom”—is to be doomed to a life of passive receptivity. To have taste, even bad taste, means you’ve cultivated the intellectual agency to make choices. To have taste is to be human. To not have taste is to be, well, less than human. (Not to mention lame as fuck.)

Hence, the Aesthete’s Corollary: People who look interesting are not always interesting, but people who look boring are always boring.

Let’s face it. Clothes tell you a lot about a person. Many times, they tell you everything about a person, if you know how to look. There are values implicit in everything you wear, from the desperate status-seeking of a Rolex to the trembling invisibility of the ill-fitting gray suit to the beta-male “hey, wait up guys!” pack mentality of a sports jersey. Some people inevitably claim they don’t care how they look; they put no effort in, so their clothes don’t say anything about who they are. But no, they just look like someone who doesn’t care how they look, who puts no effort into dressing (or living), and who self-servingly insists this extremely momentous life decision should somehow not be seen as a reflection of their character—i.e., someone who either has delusions of grandeur (“I may look like every other dullard…but in my heart I know I’m a special li’l snowflake!”) or cripplingly low self esteem (seek psychiatric help, I’m tired of looking at your flip-flops-and-cargo-shorts combo).

Take tight pants on men, or skinny jeans, which originated in punk’s rejection of the excesses of the ’70s, with a little splash of establishment-rankling androgyny thrown in for good measure. Tight pants today could be read as an implicit rejection of two of the main pillars of American culture: homophobia and obesity. When people criticize skinny jeans when you’re walking down the street, they don’t pick out the perhaps inconvenient proportioning or point out their proclivity to induce ingrown thigh hair. They just call you a faggot. There’s something about baggy pants—probably the puffery involved, much like the male parakeet fluffs his feathers to look larger and thus more threatening than he actually is—that has become intimately associated with “guy culture,” making their opposite number deeply offensive to “guy culture.” (One of the pillars of guy culture being a deep-seated hostility towards gays: Observe the procession of professional athletes, the exemplars of guy culture, caught on camera calling each other faggots, the ultimate insult.) So, yeah, although it’s annoying being called a faggot while walking down 18th Street on a Saturday night, in the end, me and my pants will be on the right side of history, along with Harvey Milk, the Chik-fil-A boycotters, and Rosa Parks. See you in the civil rights museum! Hope I get the spot I asked for, in between Malcolm X and Emma Goldman, and that the sculptor in charge of my statue makes my package flattering.

Of course, not every man in baggy pants “fuckin’ hates faggots!!” Some of them are merely obese.

“Reading” clothes in this manner is like reading body language; once you understand the basics, even casual observation can give profound insight. And as with body language, intentionality doesn’t count for much; what you think you’re doing has little to do with what you’re actually doing. My sister and I recently walked through the Dupont Circle CVS “reading” the people we saw.

“Look at that woman, with her little rimless Sarah Palin glasses. They’re like non-glasses glasses. Clearly she’s terrified of being branded with the ‘nerd’ stigma. I bet she pretends to like football so the men in her office will accept her.”

“Look at this old guy in fleece and cargos. Notice how people hit late-middle-age and adopt a spartan aesthetic of pointless pockets, carabiners, etc? The ‘functional utilitarian.’ It’s almost like they’re telling the world, ‘Hey, look, I’m still good for something, don’t put me in a nursing home just yet!’”

“Look at that reg’lar Joe in his reg’lar Joe uniform. Clearly he’s terrified of being noticed, as if he’s hiding some deep dark secret. Every time I see someone in a powder blue button-up, I think, there’s a serial killer.”

We circled the store for a while until we found what we were looking for: medicated shampoo for head lice. Since trying on two dozen hats in the Hyattsville Value Village the previous day, I couldn’t stop scratching my scalp. It was a small price to pay, though, for being in the cultural vanguard.

Yes, thrift stores can be a bit dirty. This is the most common criticism of secondhand shopping, and it’s often true. These are, after all, discarded clothes, dead people’s clothes, ancient mildewed piles recovered from attics and garages. Half the coats still have things in the pockets, folded napkins, pencils, sometimes a syringe. The shelves are filled with half-full bottles of lotion, only minimally stained briefs.

And yet the filth is part of it, too. Another pillar of American culture, one of the main ones, is the borderline-insane insistence on cleanliness, which is a huge reason we as a country have fallen particularly hard for the hamster wheel of consumerism. As horribly depressing USA Today charts continually remind us, we’re still (yes, still) an overwhelmingly Christian nation. (On our money they should replace “E PLURIBUS UNUM” with “IF EVOLUTION IS REAL THEN WHY DON’T THE CHIMPS IN THE ZOO TURN INTO PEOPLE, HUH?”) It’s a straight, short line from “cleanliness is next to godliness” to being some stupid fuck who drives your leased SUV to the mall to buy a new pair of fresh kicks every time you spill a little sugar-free Red Bull on your Nikes.

Just as tight pants baits and thus exposes homophobes and philistines, tattered, holey, stained clothes work as a sneering middle finger to the insistence on pristine newness, which is just an internalization of the principle of perpetual consumerism.

Oh, you stupid, dumbfuck philistines! One could make a very strong case that the majority of our troubles as a society—the anomie-inducing sprawl of our cities, our murderous disregard for the environment in favor of the dead end of industry, etc., etc.—stem in large part from our wilful disregard for appearances, which is only the most visible face of our collective refusal to evaluate and criticize, well, anything. Which is to say, if you can’t even dress yourself, why should we assume that you’ll be able to make an informed, intelligent choice when it comes to voting for president?

And in this way, seemingly superficial matters end up becoming deadly serious.

Wearing thrift clothes has all the commendable qualities I’ve listed thus far, but most of them have been reactionary. Thrifting does have one remarkably restorative, positive quality, though—it supplies the very lifeblood of American culture.

Mainstream culture, after all, is not generative. It’s inert and toxic; left to itself, it can do nothing but regurgitate and reconsume its own waste (coming soon: Batman 7!). It only survives by coopting innovation from the margins (fans of Lady Gaga’s “unique” fashion: Google “Isabella Blow” and commence feeling stupid).

This dynamic holds especially true for style. Every trend presently in various stages of being ruthlessly milked dry and ruined by the man/woman on the street—neon, animal print, cutouts, tattoos, southwestern prints, lace, Toms, chukkas, novelty frames, messenger bags, peplums, the Morrissey haircut, cardigans, Wayfarers, asymmetry, I could go on forever—originated with a weirdo pulling it from a dusty bin in a thrift store somewhere and thinking, “Hm, this might annoy squares!” (Stupid people often point to that scene in The Devil Wears Prada to explain where shit comes from; according to Meryl Streep’s character, the fashion industry is the fountainhead of all innovation. Which is like saying milk comes from grocery stores because, well, just look at this huge aisle full of milk for sale! But what about the cow, bitch?!)

Even the people who are sneering at the very premise of this article, all of them are wearing something with artificial weathering, something “vintage style,” a facsimile of something old. Most everything popular is the reccurence of something long ago discarded, from lo-fi bedroom production in music to Instagram to the careers of Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. People often label this return to the past a matter of nostalgia; it’s not. It’s just that the future isn’t cool. The future is microscopic attention spans, peak oil, global climate change. The future is the Orwellian nihilism of Apple products, the autistic repetitiveness of dubstep, the anti-ironic sadism of the summer blockbuster, the homoerotic homophobia of billion-dollar professional sports leagues, the decocted hyper-Americanness of China’s ascendancy. The future is boring and, well, sort of lame. The only hope is the past, and to harness that, someone must sift through the trash piles of history and bring back the detritus, the discarded aesthetics and ideas that were overenthusiastically chucked out with the trash like a lost diamond ring.

But then what?

An ex of mine who works in the fashion industry recently noticed a trend-forecaster photographer surreptitiously taking her picture and then fleeing the scene. Wise to what was happening, she chased her down and demanded that she erase the photo. The girl begged her to let her keep it; this was her job, she explained, and she had a quota to meet.

“Fuck you,” my ex replied. “I like this sweater. I don’t want housewives wearing this shit next year.”

The photographer stared at her, then reluctantly deleted the photo. “You can’t hide forever,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away.

And it’s true.

The masses know on some level that their lives lack authenticity, and they try to acquire it the only way they know: buying it. This need has created an entire industry of trend forecasting—basically corporate versions of The Sartorialist, armies of photographers around the world taking photos of street style, who then charge designers exorbitant sums to consult their zeitgeist cheat sheets and then pretend that they, the designers, came up with what they find there. The Internet and social media enabled new trends to run their course almost instantaneously, vastly increasing the need for new fodder for the machine. You used to be able to wear something for a year or two before people stole it. Now it takes a few months or weeks. Infusing the culture with much-needed new blood sounds fine and dandy in the abstract, but it’s another thing entirely to walk into a bar and see some white-collar fuckface wearing watered-down Urban Outfitters-ified facsimiles of your beloved woven brown Japanese spectator shoes, and you have to throw them in the garbage when you get home, lest someone mistake you for the kind of hopeless square who tries to buy style off the rack. (And new-old things are never, ever as cool as old-old things, even if, like reissued Jordans, they’re perfect reproductions. To argue otherwise is to argue that authenticity doesn’t matter.)

It’s a never-ending cycle, and like any couple stuck with each other could tell you, resentment is inevitable. It’s no wonder there’s such antagonism between the vanguard and the masses: The vanguard are a reminder to the average schmuck that everything they wear, listen to, read, watch, and even think is a faint thirdhand Xerox of something synthesized by someone cleverer, cooler, and more sensitive—whereas squares are a reminder that the world belongs to the mediocre and that it’s not even close, they’ll always win if only by sheer numbers, and if they weren’t so busy watching Super Bowl highlights on Blu-ray while curled up under ranch dressing-stained Snuggies, they’d march us all off to forced-labor camps where we’d spend 16 hours a day whiskering their fresh-off-the-rack jeans by hand and be force-fed 4000-calorie meals of fried food and soda four times a day.

In a way, the intrepid thrifter is a modern-day Prometheus, heroically bringing the vital spark back from a far-off realm, only to have his gray acid-washed jean jacket torn to shreds by vultures wearing backwards baseball caps and velour sweatpants and Uggs.

To be entirely fair, I probably shouldn’t say no one in D.C. is stylish; that’s clearly not true. I was walking down R Street NW a few months ago when I spied, up ahead, a fellow of inimitable style. He was wearing a slouchy, faded purple T-shirt, slightly darker purple high-waisted, tapered stonewashed jeans, and an old indigo-colored watch cap set at just the right jaunty angle on his head. Intrigued, I crossed the street. Who was this brave iconoclast, this beacon of individuality in a sad morass of khakis-clad office nothings?

He was an insane homeless man.

There is something almost deranged, after all, in the embrace of futility; as the trend forecasting photographer said, you can’t hide forever. Eventually the grabby hands win out. Sometimes it seems hopeless, knowing that by putting forth effort, you’re sustaining the very people who ensure the world remains bogged down in derivative mediocrity. But once in a while, you catch a glimpse of the thrifter’s Holy Grail: the uncooptable look. Mainstream culture may be getting better at stealing new things from the people who unearth them, but that also forces the unearthers to look faster, and better. What might an uncooptable aesthetic look like? It’s hard to say, though skinny jeans, already unusually long-lived in fashion years, might be one aspect of it. Wal-Mart reportedly lost millions one quarter when they rolled them out in stores everywhere and they were decisively rejected by the public. Using things that squares like as a starting point—newness, logos, colors, etc.—one could maybe further define an aesthetic they might be unable or unwilling to steal: monochromatic, tattered, blank.

This first occurred to me one evening as I was sifting through the sacks of donated stuff in front of a Thrift Center in Virginia. I was wearing one of my favorite outfits: a tattered Army undershirt with holes the size of grapefruit under each arm, faded black jeans, and prodigiously scuffed snakeskin ankle boots. A car pulled up, and an old woman came out with a bag of blankets. She began to put them in the donation bin, but saw me and came over.

“Here,” she said. “You should take them. It must get chilly at night.”

It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. “I’m not homeless,” I said finally.

She nodded, clearly not convinced, and went back to her car. That was when I knew I was onto something.