Sunday, August 31, 2008

Some kids’ clothes have a long shelf life. After one child breaks in this year’s back-to-school outfits, it’s likely that someone else — a younger sibling, a cousin, a kid whose mom is an avid second-hand shopper — will wear them again later.

It’s one of the most successful forms of recycling.

The best hand-me-downs typically are classic styles with sturdy construction. Often that means spending a little more up front will pay off in the end, says Amy Maclin, senior editor at the parenting magazine Wondertime.

“It’s not just rampant consumerism to buy something nicer. It might seem counterintuitive, but it could be more green to buy nicer things,” Miss Maclin says.

Kathryn Finney, the blogger known as the Budget Fashionista, encourages thrifty parents to buy garments made of the highest quality they can afford. Durable materials - think denim, wool or velvet, perhaps - that are cared for properly will provide the best opportunity to recoup your investment, she says.

The items that tend not to hold up as well are made of delicate fabrics or have a lot of embellishment. Twill in particular is at risk for losing color unless it’s washed in cold water from the get-go, Miss Finney says.

She also warns that an outfit that’s “trendy” for one child probably won’t be for the next, and the worst hand-me-downs are those items that no one wants to wear.

On the flip side, jeans, cardigans and coats are always popular.

“There is no stigma anymore of wearing hand-me-downs or shopping at Salvation Army or Goodwill,” Miss Finney adds.

Children’s styles don’t evolve as quickly as womenswear, partly because children’s taste is more consistent and they’re motivated by comfort more than fashion, says Lands’ End spokeswoman Michele Casper.

Another contributor: Hand-me-downs actually help keep older trends alive, because styles are almost never laid to rest. If, for example, skinny jeans were the popular style when an older child bought them, then skinny jeans will be popular - at least in one household - when they fit the next-in-line sibling.

Lands’ End queried 724 members of the Mom’s Mind Pool Research Panel about hand-me-downs and found that more than half buy new clothes with the intention of passing them to another child.

With six grandchildren in the family, Gerri Barba has been pulling outfits that her three daughters wore in the 1970s out of her North Caldwell, N.J., attic.

“My way of thinking was, if I spent a little more money, the items had to go to two more children so I’d get my dollar’s worth. I’m sure I’ve gotten my dollar’s worth now,” she says with a laugh.

She saved “the good stuff” - fancy coats and party dresses from Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and the now-defunct Bonwit Teller.

“In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, we watched what we were spending. The ‘70s were pretty similar to what my girls are going through now,” Mrs. Barba observes. “I get a thrill seeing my grandchildren now, and it kills me when they don’t want to wear the clothes. … They would wear a lot of baby clothes hand-me-downs. It was before they could say ‘no.’”

People sometimes make an emotional connection with an outfit, especially those worn for special occasions, Wondertime’s Miss Maclin notes. Luckily, she adds, those garments often age the most gracefully.

That said, Miss Maclin steers parents away from buying head-to-toe matching ensembles for multiple children.

“If you’re buying for three kids, the younger kid will be wearing the same style from preschool to high school,” she explains.

Cecelia McWhirter, a mother in suburban Atlanta, says she is a pushover when it comes to her 6-year-old daughter’s wardrobe, but insists on buying labels with reputations of high quality and resale value - or at least styles that won’t look outdated when her toddler niece is old enough to wear them.

When she first became hooked on cute kids’ clothes, she thought it was an investment for her not-yet-born second child. That child ended up being a boy, though, so Mrs. McWhirter started selling things on eBay. Sometimes she’ll make back the full retail price and her daughter has already had a full season in the clothes.

“I either have good taste or the good fortune to figure out what will be hot the next year,” she says.

Mrs. McWhirter also has learned to buy more gender-neutral items, reaching for a T-shirt with a panda instead of one with a pink puppy.

Nicole Unice of Richmond finds it easier to acquire second-hand clothes for her daughter than her two sons, probably because girls’ closets tend to be fuller and boys are harder on clothes. She buys new - and essentially disposable - play clothes for the boys, but she expects the more expensive dressy garments to last through at least two owners.

And even those hand-me-downs will come at a cost; there’s a significant commitment of time when it comes to sorting and stowing the clothes. To maximize use of the garments, Mrs. Unice has to first take inventory, arrange by age and store by the season.

“It does take a while,” she explains, “and I don’t have much storage space so I go through stuff immediately and will make the trip to Goodwill or immediately pass things to someone else if we’re not going to use it.”

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