I want to know if Americans use the expression "rag trade" the way the English do to describe the clothes business. I'm also interested if it is used with a derogatory connotation or not.

It seems to me that the English use it in a slightly deprecatory way but at the same time it has something of an "insider" element to it. So for example someone I met that was quite successful in the clothing industry introduced themselves saying "Oh I used to be in the rag trade"...as if it was something quite insignificant and at the same time it was obvious they were actually quite proud of their involvement in the business.

  • 2
    It's called either the fashion industry or the garment trade, like the part of New York City that is largely focused on what you call "the rag trade" is called "The Garment District."
    – user361733
    Sep 18, 2019 at 21:50
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    Pre-1880s (before the invention of the Kraft process) there was an important trade in rags since they were the primary raw material for making paper. I wonder whether the slang in Britain has to do with the long pedigree of the actual rag trade in that country. By the time that the fashion industry really took off in the US, maybe there was no longer any important trade in rags, so the slang didn't carry over. That's my theory.
    – user31341
    Sep 18, 2019 at 22:39
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    What has your research revealed?
    – lbf
    Sep 18, 2019 at 23:07
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    It's not common in the US, and would likely be understood several ways.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 16, 2020 at 20:54
  • 1
    Like many expressions, in the US, it depends on how much exposure you have had. A lot of people use a lot of terms not used by the guy down at the filling station....
    – Lambie
    Nov 13, 2020 at 20:07

2 Answers 2


Apparently this is a nickname that is currently in use in the US. I found this out by googling

rag trade New York

I found http://www.stylistico.us/location/ which states:

Not only is NYC home to some of the biggest names in the rag trade etc.


The term rag trade began in the eighteenth century to describe the sale of rags or second-hand clothes. Its ironic sense meaning the fashion industry began in the late nineteenth. Below are the relevant dates from the OED. Note that the 1983 quotation does refer to "The Manhattan rag trade", suggesting that it has been a term used in the US - at least in New York anyway.

a. Trade in cloth rags or second-hand clothing.

1745 D. Soyer & J. Lockman tr. ‘Monsieur de Blainville’ Trav. III. xxiv. 189 A particular Tax is laid upon the Jews at Rome... But in return, their Brokerage and Rag Trade is very beneficial to them.

1887 Jrnl. Royal Statist. Soc. 50 703 Resolutions in favour of regulating the rag trade were passed; but the usual want of practical information showed itself in sweeping proposals to prohibit all imports of rags from infected countries.

1927 Bridgeport (Connecticut) Telegram 16 Sept. 4/5 There is a slump in the business of the European Waste Material Merchants, otherwise the rag trade.

2005 M. Vespeth Globaloney vii. 188 It does seem that the rag trade offers people in third world countries a good opportunity to earn an income if they sell used clothes.

b. colloquial (frequently ironic and humorous). The business of designing, making, or selling clothes, esp. women's clothing. Cf. rag n.2 1c.

1890 A. Barrère & C. G. Leland Dict. Slang II. 167/2 Rag trade,..the tailoring business. Also the mantle-making trade.

1907 Daily Chron. 31 Dec. 8/4 They do an enormous business with the ‘rag trade’—that is to say, the wholesale drapers, silk mercers, hosiers, and so on.

1957 J. Coates Ship of Glass 241 I know that line. It's going to be fashionable... Forgive the digression but I'm in the rag trade.

1983 T. Hoyle Last Gasp xvi. 207 He had the native New Yorker's caustically laconic wit, honed to a fine art by a lifetime spent as a cutter in the Manhattan rag trade.

2005 T. Hall Salaam Brick Lane i. 22 The old East End rag trade still survived in the form of leather jacket shops and cheap clothing wholesalers.

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