A look at Haiti's brisk trade in discarded--and re-tailored--American clothing.
The source: “Textile Skin” by Hanna Rose Shell and Vanessa Bertozzi, in Transition, Issue 96.
The dockside market at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is ablaze in color. Mounds, walls, rooms, and stalls made of piles of secondhand clothes, called pèpè, shelter rows of tailors working furiously at their foot-powered sewing machines. The pèpè arrives at Haiti’s major ports by the ton and is unloaded and filtered through the dressmaking brigade. American discards become Haitian fashions. Baggy pants are restitched to Haitian proportions. Shapeless blouses become fitted, a t-shirt gets a bow.
Traditional retail clothing stores have largely disappeared from Haiti, writes Hanna Rose Shell, who, with Vanessa Bertozzi, produced Secondhand (Pèpè), a documentary film about Haiti. “Despite—or more likely, because of—the abundance of pèpè, people in Haiti are by and large the best dressed in the hemisphere,” Shell says. Every item can be reshaped. Women’s clothes fit better in Haiti than in the United States, according to Shell, a doctoral candidate in the history of science and a filmmaker.
The term pèpè may have originated with crowds who mocked a preacher who began handing out the clothes while trying to calm the recipients, shouting, “Paix! Paix!”—French for peace. Or it could be derived from the markings on boxes headed for Port-de-Paix (PP). In Haiti, pèpè also goes by other names: sinistre, which has a connotation of victimhood as well as charity, and odeide, for the family name of the first woman to make a living trading in secondhand garments.
Another name dates from the 1960s, when the United States started shipping secondhand goods to Haiti as part of an international aid program announced by President John F. Kennedy. The president became the face of the discarded garments arriving from his government. Even today, Shell writes, many older people still talk of “wearing kennedy.”