But in Nothing New, Annear takes us back to what might be called the birth of second-hand. A robe, head-dress, sandals and tunic – sounds like an outfit for Splendour in the Grass, but in fact, shortly after the crucifixion of Christ, soldiers divided up Jesus’ clothes. They weren’t souvenirs, ‘‘but a perk (short for perquisite), or entitlement, which soldiers would have counted on to sell or barter’’.
Annear writes about the significant part the humble rag played in the history of second-hand. Aside from being used for cleaning, rags made from workday apron-fronts were also used as bandages, dressing poultices, sanitary napkins, hair-curlers, nappies, bibs, footstools, bolsters, to stop draughts whistling under doors, and as stuffing for pillows.
In the British Museum, Annear tells us, there’s a Roman doll stuffed with rags, perhaps 1800 years old. ‘‘Rags were traded across borders and oceans.’’
By 1833, London was teeming with around ‘‘10,000 second-hand clothes sellers in London, where there’d been 300 or so half a century earlier’’. By the 1860s in Melbourne, unwanted clothing was ‘‘strewn about on every unoccupied piece of land. Opposite the gaol, at the north end of town, tons of discarded clothes lay rotting’’.
In the 1870s, the middle classes were happy to wear second-hand cast-offs, until they became potentially lethal. The arrival of ‘‘germ theory’’ lead to a new understanding that tuberculosis, smallpox and typhus could be lurking in lace or hem. Despite the introduction of fumigation laws, second-hand clothes quickly found their way to charities, where the poorest of the poor played Russian roulette with the clothes on their back.
Today, 80 per cent of Africans rely on clothes bought second-hand and the industry provides a low-paying livelihood in buying and selling, along with mending and alterations. In Ghana, second-hand clothing is referred to as ‘‘white man’s deads’’.
In more than 20 chapters, Annear tackles her sprawling subject matter with her trademark wit and her knack for singling out the perfect historical reference. Nothing New is one of those books that will annoy the hell out of anyone who isn’t actually reading it because you can’t help but blurt out, ‘‘Listen to this bit’’.