A friend recently told me that after a spate of thrifting in her early twenties, she’d long given it up. Sick of ill-fitting clothing and the “thrifted” look, she skips the thriftstore because the risks are big, the pay-outs small and the time, who has the time to spend three hours at Savers and walk out with nothing? It’s ultimately just easier to go Ann Taylor and buy the pieces you know will fit well and be in style. Her frustration and disappointment in her adult thrifting experiences immediately inspired me to write a “Thrifting in Your 30’s” guide. In short, it’s a guide to teach you what I know about thrifting and how to use thrifting to supplement your “adult” wardrobe.
But if it’s too consuming and risky, why thrift then?
For me, there are two basic reasons. The first is cost. It might be easier to go to Ann Taylor and spend $300, if you have it to spend. As a Phd student, I’m radically short on funds but thrifting guarantees that I can always update my wardrobe with new, interesting pieces (including work pieces) for a fraction of the cost. The second reason is personal style. Believe or not, the thriftstore has the most in common with the designer runway. The designer runway is full of beautiful unique one-of-a-kind pieces, and so is the thriftstore. Since designers always recycle and reimagine silouhtees of past fashion decades, you’ll often find original pieces from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s that fit right in with modern trends.
Considering all this, I’m at a loss why people don’t thrift more, and I think it comes down to technique. So in this two-part post, I’m going to put together the best tips I have for thrifting well, especially if you are in your 30s or 40s (i.e. an adult). These tips are for official thriftstores–Savers, Goodwill, Salvation Army, church stores, etc– and not for consignment or vintage stores (which is not, in my fanatical opinion, actually thrifting).
1.KNOW YOUR STYLE
Yes, yes, you say, but easier said than done: What if I don’t know my style? Or what if I don’t know my style anymore? Style-wise, the 30’s are tough time.You’ve outgrown the tendencies of your younger years (in my case, that’s pink dreadlocks and combat boots) and want to look more polished and grown-up, but it’s hard to know where and how to start. Before you step foot in a thriftstore, I’d start with two things. The first is
crack Pinterest. Spend an hour or two a week pinning the looks that you love and starting writing things down: What do you love about the styles that you pin? Is it a specific color? Shape? Pattern? After years of saving images from blogs, I finally realized that at heart, I’m a minimalist. I like basic shapes, bold colors, clean lines. Armed with the tag “minimalist,” I’m already a step ahead of the thrifting game because I know what I’m looking for.
The second, and this can be done in tandem with your pinning, is the practice of closet curation. Madeline @ Wide Eyed Legless has a wonderful series on closet curation and I absolutely swear by her technique that she posts here. It completely changed my entire fashion game. In short, you take everything out of your closet. You then select 5 pieces that you absolutely love. Let them hang in the closet as you study their features: What unites them? What color are they? Shapes? Fabrics? Theme? When I studied my 5 pieces, I saw the themes immediately: navy, black, leather, minimal, bold patterns. The next time I stepped into H&M, the effect was amazing. It took half the time to shop and I left with less (but better) stuff. And I look for the exact same things at the thriftstore. This leads me to the next and crucial tip.
2. ONLY THE BEST
The problem with the thriftstore is that without the tempering guidance of a budget, we tend to forgo the same careful deliberation that we might use at a department store or Zara and H&M. This is a big mistake. Never ever buy something just because it costs a dollar. Treat the clothes at the thriftstore with the same careful eye (with the added caveat, of course, to look for things like stains, smells or other typical thriftstore problems) as you would anywhere else. In fact, you should be stricter at thrift store because the temptations are greater and so therefore is the risk of a closet full of junk. But since the thrift store is also full of unusual pieces, don’t worry about being strict while at the rack. Just pull whatever interests you. I always shop the aisles with an open-mind but once I’m in front of the mirror, I’m ruthless. Try everything on. Check labels. Check brands. Check fit. Check quality. Check condition. Carefree on the floor but militant at the mirror. If it’s not 100%, it goes back. I rarely spend more than $30 on clothes on any given thrifting day. I’m that ruthless.
Tip: Never calculate your purchases against time spent. Walk out with nothing if you have to. Chalk it up to a bad day. Thrifting is like the weather– it comes and goes. Some days are sunny, some days are grey. It doesn’t mean thrifting isn’t for you or that it doesn’t work. It takes patience and dedication. If you are just starting out, try a few times a month.
(What about alterations, you say? Alterations can be expensive. Taking in the waist or shortening pants is easy and cheap. But an overhaul can add up quickly and I recommend it only for designer or vintage pieces that you absolutely love. And be sure you are the type of person who will actually take it to the seamstress).
3. TAKE RISKS
It may seem like a contradiction, but being strict does not mean you cannot take risks. I rarely buy national brands (re: the Gap, Banana Republic, Target, etc) at the thriftstore. The price differential is not worth it and frankly, most of those clothes are dead boring. The whole point is to find those beautiful quality pieces that no one else will have or luxurious staples that you otherwise cannot afford. Cashmere sweaters, for example, are easy to find and at a fraction of the retail price. I have 5 black cashmere sweaters, all in perfect condition, that I found for less than $10.But if you happen across an irreverent vintage blouse or oddly cut wool pants from a lost decade, and the fit is great, but the style scares you (even though you secretly love it)? If it’s under $5, I always buy it, and try out. It’s so much easier to take risks with silhouette, patterns, and styles when you aren’t putting $200 on the line. To paraphrase the slogan of the century, just do it.
4. KEEP A LIST, HAVE A PLAN
Prep: Thrifting is basically a sport. Eat a big breakfast, have a strong coffee, and bring water, granola bars and hand-sanitizer. Wear flats/sneakers and the easiest possible slip-on and off clothing. Wear a proper bra though (for fitting) and I always put on some blush and lipstick. Sometimes it’s hard to see the potential of a piece if you look too underdressed compared to your day to day look.
List: Each time I go thrifting, I refresh my memory of the things I’m looking for. I keep a running list in my phone for both clothing and housewares. I list everything from specific patterns (polka dots, stripes) to styles (70’s blouses), basics (cashmere sweaters, black scarf) and hoped-for items (I’m on the look-out for a Commes des Garcons “Play” striped sweater). The basic rule is that you never find what you are looking for when you are looking for it, but the more often you go, the more likely it will be that you’ll find it. If you have a clothing emergency–black pants for an interview, fancy dress for an important event–the thriftstore is not your place.
Tip: Don’t expect a thriftstore to be like a department store. Think of the thriftstore as a cross between a museum and a garage sale. It’s for wandering, exploring, adventuring.
Plan: I rank the sections by importance and I so always thrift in the same order: shoes, dresses, skirts, sweaters, tops, pants, accessories. Unless I have the energy, I rarely thrift clothes and housewares in the same trip. They are different animals and if you are prone to being overwhelmed, stick to clothes and just ignore the rest of the store.
Rack: When I’m at the rack, I tend to move pretty quickly. I look for things that jump out at me–color, pattern, cloth–and ignore the rest. Anything that looks interesting gets pulled out for another look and if it’s compelling enough (looks like the right size, good condition), it goes in the cart. Touch is an important part of the going through the rack–good quality wool, cashmere and cotton blends are easily detected by hand. If you are unsure if something is vintage or don’t recognize the brand, always have your phone handy for looking up labels.
Tip: Don’t dismiss polyester as “cheap” and therefore unlikely to be vintage or worthy of a purchase. Polyester was used for decades by major companies (including major designers) and at least 60% of my vintage dresses are American-made in synthetic fabrics. Leave your clothing prejudices at the door, folks!
Size: Always check the smaller and larger areas of the rack. You might be a size 4 at the Gap, but at the thriftstore, you have clothing from every era, every country, every manufacturer. There are no rules when it comes to sizes. A size 8 from 1975 is not a size 8 now, but it gets put there anyway. If a dress or skirt looks even remotely close to your size, throw it in the cart.
Tip: One of the most common complaints I hear about thrifting is that vintage clothes are only available to those with small frames and “normal” bodies. Let me absolutely emphatically say that this is simply not true. Not even a little bit. I have spent countless hours in thrift stores, from Goodwill to local church auxiliaries–and I have seen incredible clothing in every size and shape, from 2-22. In fact, vintage clothes tend to be a great deal more forgiving since the size 0 phenomena is mostly a function of the last two decades or so. It is a matter of patience and time. There are so many plus-size bloggers and Instagrammers doing incredible styling with both vintage and commercial clothing so seek them out for inspiration.
Stay tuned for Part Two!