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Pandemic clothing purge is on as normal life resumes across the United States

With more of us vaccinated, restrictions lifted and more people heading in to work, a lot of us are eager to get rid of the clothes they’ve worn working from home.

Cameron Howe at home in Lynchburg, Va., with her collection of leggings purchased during the pandemic. She’s OK with continuing to wear them as business attire as she transitions back to work. But plenty of other people are looking to say goodbye to their casual pandemic wardrobes.
Cameron Howe at home in Lynchburg, Va., with her collection of leggings purchased during the pandemic. She’s OK with continuing to wear them as business attire as she transitions back to work. But plenty of other people are looking to say goodbye to their casual pandemic wardrobes.
Cameron Howe via AP

Alina Clark is about as tired of her pandemic wardrobe as her comfort clothes are stretched and torn.

“I have four sets of jeans, seven shirts and five sweaters that I wear every week,” said Clark, co-founder of a software development company in Los Angeles. “They’re everything I’ve worn in the last two years. Me and my wardrobe are suffering from COVID fatigue.”

A wardrobe purge is on for some as vaccinations have taken hold, restrictions have lifted, and offices reopen or finalize plans to do so. The primary beneficiaries: resale sites online and brick-and-mortar donation spots, continuing a trend that’s been building for the last several years.

Among those benefiting from the pandemic reawakening in clothes are dry cleaners.

Tom Ryan, vice president of franchising for CD One Price Cleaners, with 34 locations around Chicago, said they’ve been seeing an upward turn in dry-cleaning customers after a plunge of 80% during the pandemic.

“In March, we started making progress again given the vaccine distribution,” Ryan said. “As more people go back to work, we’re finally starting to see more people bringing their in-office clothes back for professional cleaning. Still, we expect post-pandemic attire and fashion trends to be different going forward, with more people in the office less often.”

Ryan expects business casual to be more the new normal — swapping out button-up shirts for more polo-style wear.

At the resale site Poshmark, orders are up from last year for handbags, work-worthy dresses blazers, suit jackets and heels.

Projections show the trend growing stronger. The secondhand clothing business is expected to more than double, from $36 billion to $77 billion in 2025, according to a recent report commissioned by the secondhand marketplace ThredUP and the research firm GlobalData.

The growth is driven by an influx of new sellers putting high-quality clothing into the market, said James Reinhart, co-founder and chief executive office of ThredUP. He estimates that nine billion clothing items that are hardly worn are sitting in shoppers’ closets.

Even before COVID, buying and selling secondhand clothing was popular. But the pandemic seemed to make people’s appetite for thrift even more appealing.

The post-pandemic shopper is more environmentally conscious and is showing a greater desire for clothes that have good resale value, rather than disposable fast fashion, Reinhart said. People who haven’t been able to wear most of the items in their closets for a year are more aware of waste and want to put their clothes back in circulation.

“There’s a new mindset around clothing consumption,” Reinhart said. “It’s not this buy, wear, throw out. There is this consciousness that happened during the pandemic where people were much more sensitive to this notion of waste.”

Maia DiDomenico’s mother introduced her to ThredUp during the pandemic. A recent college graduate who began a new job working with kids on the autism spectrum, the 23-year-old in Cranford, New Jersey, purged some Athleta sportswear on the site and received $557.60 in Athleta gift cards in exchange.

“It cleans your closet out quickly, and you have the chance to donate unwanted clothes,” DiDomenico said.

For months, Clark, 29, has had the urge to declutter her overflowing wardrobe. She started piling up clothes for donation weeks ago. But she’ll be buying new clothes, looking for “glitz and glamour” as her Zoom life soon ends and physical get-togethers have begun.

Consumers are purging more than their worn-out pandemic wear. At the luxury resale site TheRealReal, with more than 22 million members, the total value of pre-owned goods sold this year through May was about $239 million, up 53% over the same period in 2019, according to the company.

Not everybody is looking to abandon their COVID style, though. In Lynchburg, Virginia, 33-year-old Cameron Howe is ready to burn just about everything she has worn during the pandemic — except her impressive legging collection — as she transitions to a new career.

“I bought 15 to 20 plus pairs of leggings,” Howe said. “In a few weeks, I’ll start a new career as a project manager for a local nonprofit. I plan on wearing leggings to work. Thankfully, both my past and new employer are legging-friendly. I don’t really want to wear real pants again. I developed an absolute love of leggings during the pandemic.”

While piles of pandemic clothes are going to churches, donation boxes and online thrift and resale sites, some people are keeping them in the family.

Like many, Samantina Zeon, 31, from Queens, New York, has gained weight during the pandemic. She has plenty of clothes she can no longer fit into. So she’s sending the stylish ones to a cousin in Haiti.

“She plans on reselling them in her neighborhood for extra cash,” Zeon said.