By KIM BOATMAN
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- My son walked out the door the other day wearing Ravi's Pacific Trail jacket, Kyle's No Fear long-sleeved T-shirt and Karl's skateboarder dude black Vans.
As for the Old Navy pants, well, we're not exactly sure whether they came from Ravi or Kyle or Ryan or the family down the street. But they're so perfectly broken in and comfortable, my son wears them to school at least twice a week.
Among my decidedly middle-class circle of friends, family and acquaintances, swapping kids' hand-me-downs has become a fixture. Pass it along is our motto, and we do so with great relish. We are linked by small garments; the 49ers jacket my sons inherited from Ryan and Kyle is now on its fifth kid, my 6-year-old nephew, who lives in Florida.
But I've found we are also linked in unexpected ways. In sharing clothes, we also seem to foster a we're-all-in-this-together attitude when it comes to parenthood.
And we are far from alone, judging by a cruise on the Internet, where there's much discussion about clothing swaps and even a Web site, www.swaphandmedowns.com, where strangers agree to mail each other boxes of used clothes. Lands' End proudly advertises the durability of its children's clothing as "hand-me-down" quality.
"I don't think it's the majority, but I do think there's an incredible number of people who find pleasure doing it," said Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for the New American Dream, which works to promote responsible consumption. "There's a general sense it's the right thing to do."
I never wore a hand-me-down as a child. I was the oldest of four girl cousins, so everything I wore came with a price tag attached. There was a certain stigma attached to hand-me-downs, perhaps because family and friends wore them more out of economic necessity.
And although Melissa Siebert, child-development supervisor at San Jose's Georgia Travis Center, which serves homeless and at-risk women and children, says, "Second time around is twice as good," it would be difficult to know your child has never owned anything new.
"They're usually just very grateful," said Siebert, who acknowledges that the children "miss out on trends."
Among the children I know, there's no stigma attached to hand-me-downs. Perhaps it's all in the label -- or labels. The clothing passed along is often hip, brand-name apparel.
"All of my coolest and cutest clothes are hand-me-downs," said 10-year-old Alyssa Castillou, who admires the glamorous teenage family friend who bequeaths her the hand-me-downs. Another 10-year-old says her friend's hand-me-down Limited Too pants fit just right.
So far, my guys are simply unaware. My 7-year-old will wear anything with a number -- I hope this speaks to an athletic future, rather than an adulthood spent in penal institutions -- while the 9-year-old tells me, "Mom, I do not care what I put on my body."
Of course, as our children grow older, our reliance on hand-me-downs will likely cease. By junior high, kids are ultra-sensitive and aware about their appearance. But still, the preteen and early teen girls I know trade clothes. In fact, the wildly popular "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" trilogy revolves around an amazing pair of jeans that somehow fits four friends perfectly.
Taylor says clothing swap parties have become trendy among 20-something women, out on their own for the first time and perhaps not able to purchase extensive wardrobes.
"They like the novelty. They like the pleasure of wearing something new, trying something different," she said.
For my friends and me, this culture of hand-me-downs has evolved throughout our kids' childhoods. Siebert, mom of a 17-month-old daughter, embraces hand-me-downs and shops for gently used bargains at consignment shops and thrift stores. But she figures she's the exception among first-time mothers.
When we are graced with our first babies, quite often we think everything must be just so. Thanks to family and friends, my first-born wore Gymboree ensembles and designer clothes until he was 18 months old. Then, just as he outgrew the freebies, he began a rough-and-tumble existence as an outdoors-loving, clothes-punishing toddler. Soon after, his brother arrived, and it has been bargain city ever since.
I had no idea what a pleasure it would be to have another mother hand me shopping bags stuffed with perfectly good clothing. Over the years, my friend Karen Ichikawa has kept my boys so well supplied that my friends and I call her hand-me-downs "House of Ichikawa," as if they bear their own designer label.
SATISFACTION IN THRIFT
Something about hand-me-downs speaks to my thrifty Scots-Irish, Tennessee mountain heritage. I adore a bargain and get great satisfaction in knowing that some of the boys' clothes have been passed along a half dozen times. And sure it helps if I don't have to buy the boys seldom-used dress clothes or expensive winter jackets.
But the truth is, clothing has never been cheaper in history.
"There's a glut of garments on the market," Taylor said. "It reflects the fact that almost everything we buy is not produced here. We import well over 12 billion pieces of clothing a year in this country, and I think we produce half that.
"In this context, the whole notion of seeing a piece of clothing through its life and extending its life is getting lost. I think a lot of people are taking the throw-away approach to clothing because it's cheap and there's so much of it."
So, passing along hand-me-downs for some is a backlash against all this rampant consumerism, Taylor says.
My mom friends and I enjoy wringing more life out of children's clothing, so often rapidly outgrown before it has seen much use.
But there's more at work here, too. We enjoy the bond. For years, I've enjoyed seeing pictures of my nephew, Matthew, in clothes the boys have worn. It feels like a connection between two families living on opposite coasts.
And seeing Matthew in those clothes reminds me of things the boys did and said at that age. In a small way, it makes it seem as if they aren't growing up as fast as they so obviously are.