After the US election, congresswoman Cori Bush kicked off a conversation on Twitter about the high cost of acquiring a professional work wardrobe for Washington, saying she was heading to a secondhand shop to stock up.
“The reality of being a regular person going to Congress is that it’s really expensive to get the business clothes I need for the Hill. So I’m going thrift shopping tomorrow,” she wrote.
Bush’s background as a single mother working as a nurse and a pastor means she is building her professional wardrobe from scratch, and the cost of that can be eye-watering.
Fellow Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez quickly offered support, as did other congresswomen, pointing out that among its other virtues, secondhand clothing was “good for the planet”.
“Thrifting, renting, and patience as you get your closet together sis,” wrote Ocasio-Cortez. “Capsule wardrobe will be your best friend.”
Wearing thrifted clothes in parliament is a practice that has long been embraced thousands of miles away in New Zealand. Watching this exchange on social media, Aotearoa MPs were quick to jump in and share their best thrifted outfits.
Of those who revealed that they had been dressing secondhand for years in the country’s halls of power, many said they had done so through necessity.
Marama Davidson, co-leader of the Green party and minister for family and sexual violence, has been called “the Queen of thrifting” by her colleagues – a title she describes as “fabulous”.
“I have always loved supporting sustainability and local businesses with what I wear. The vast majority of my wardrobe is secondhand, op-shopped or locally sourced,” she told hlcarpenter.com.
“During the campaign, I had a team of amazing women from my local neighbourhood who scoured op-shops to find me new clothes for the election trail. It completely transformed my wardrobe.”
“I’ve never been big on buying fast-fashion or anything fancy and expensive, it just isn’t me. I get joy from the op-shopping experience – particularly being able to support local sustainability.”
“Op-shopping”, as it is called in New Zealand, is a popular pastime with secondhand shops in most suburbs and towns, and attached to garbage dumps. Most shops are tied to a charitable organisation.
For National party MP Louise Upston, op-shopping was a necessity as a solo mother living on the benefit. Now, she enjoys it for other reasons, and usually gives a donation on top of her purchases when she shops in a charity store.
“Earlier, my motivation was purely budget. Now, I’m more interested in consuming less and making sure clothes are re-used rather than new ones being created all the time,” says Upston.
As a longtime op-shopper, Upston says the hobby helps her get uniqueclothes – but stigma can remain, even as secondhand cringe has morphed into vintage cool.
“I had a colleague the other day say, ‘Oh I love your jacket, it’s amazing!’. And I said ‘Oh, thanks, I bought it from an op shop’. He kind of looked at me quite shocked. [There can be stigma], which I think is completely unnecessary.”
The trend goes all the way to the top. Though the prime minister chose not to respond to questions, Jacinda Ardern is well-known for re-wearing her outfits. She has fewer than a dozen or so pieces on high rotation.
‘A long-time sport’
Since Jan Logie, a Green party MP, was a teenager, op-shops have felt like, “large dress-up boxes, providing me with the possibility of many lives to be lived,” she said.
“Now my relationship with op-shops tends to the more prosaic; a cheap and environmentally legitimate means of indulging my consumerist and creative urges.”
“In a workplace that feels as if it is the natural home of shoulder pads, wearing an op-shop treasure gives me a thrill of subtle subversion and calls me back to myself.”
National party MP Maureen Pugh first became reliant on op-shops when she was living on an isolated farm on the South Island’s west coast. Her friend, who ran an op-shop in Greymouth, made regular trips out to the Pugh family, her arms laden with affordable treasures.
“She’d bring out old woollen jerseys for me to unpick and knit into new jerseys for my kids,” Pugh says.
“The cost is attractive, but it is also the ultimate in recycling for me.”
For many women in the Beehive, op-shopping allows them to stay connected to their roots – and to introduce an element of realness and diversity into the building’s hallowed halls.
For Green party MP Golriz Ghahraman, op-shopping “is a longtime sport” that makes fashion “affordable, accessible, and unique.”
“Coming into parliament, I never wanted to wear suits and take on the traditional optics of power – people should never feel like their representatives look out of reach,” Ghahraman says.
“As a woman, it also means something not to conform to in what are ordinarily very male-dominated standards of formal wear. So I regularly wear the op-shop finds that make me happiest on speaking engagements, out in the community, and in the House – it means I get to feel like ‘me’ while being an MP.”