When I was 12, my oldest sister dragged me to the thrift store. As a pre-teen whose goal in life was to look like I lived in Hollister, I was mortified. I stood awkwardly in the aisles, hoping the shoppers around me thought I was being held hostage amidst the smelly racks of used clothes from bygone eras. "Can we go now!?" I begged. She finally released me from my personal hell, and I vowed never to be seen in an thrift store ever again.
Fast forward thirteen years, and thrifting is now my No. 1 method of shopping. So, what the heck happened to the girl who looked down upon second-hand clothes from her Abercrombie-clad high horse? At 15, I developed an interest in fashion and realized that the cookie cutter clothes offered at the mall weren't my style. I wanted items that were unique. At 25, I still thrift for that reason but also because it's the best way to build an ethical wardrobe—something generally thought to be too expensive for the average shopper.
I get it: Thrift stores sell used clothes from people you don't know, that haven't been washed, and quite literally smell. I'm not going to lie and say that the ick factor doesn't bother me anymore. It does. But now, when I go thrifting, I prepare myself mentally and physically through a series of steps. This system has helped me me overcome my fears and allowed me to benefit from the creative and economic perks of thrifting.
Dress for the Occasion
Thrifting isn't a leisurely activity like perusing shops at the mall. It's actually a bit of work (but the reward is beyond worth it). Wear an outfit that is easy to move in and easy to take on and off in the dressing room. The smell of the thrift store may transfer to what you're wearing, so wear something you can throw into the wash afterwards. I wear work-out clothes when thrifting because it makes me more willing to get down and dirty—riffling through bins and shuffling around racks—for my beloved vintage gems.
Know What to Look For
Clothing from before the aughts were just made better than what you find today. From the forties to the nineties, clothes were made with higher quality fabrics like cotton, wool, and silk; even artificial fabrics like rayon, polyester blend, or nylon were constructed with precision. The yarns of these fabrics will most likely be tightly woven together, making the item more dense and when stretched it will quickly bounce back to its original shape.
Construction is another key thing to look for. The stitches on the seams will not be loose or sloppy; rather they will be straight, closely spaced and lying flat on the fabric. Many have linings that protect the garment from stretching and prevent the seams from being pulled to allow for an even longer life.
Look for pieces that have a smooth, clean exterior without snagging, pilling, or staining and have maintained their original silhouette. If an item is covered in fuzz, dust, looks faded in color and has lost it's shape, just skip it.
Don’t Skip the Fitting Room
Items at the thrift store come from different brands and eras, meaning the fits will vary. Trying on the clothes is very important if you want to make sure you're going home with something you'll actually wear. But if you're still struggling with the ick factor, pulling a used (potentially unwashed) sweater over your head might be sending chills down your spine. My recommendation is to skip trying sweaters and tops. We all have a general idea of what tops will fit us just by looking at it. Most of the time, it doesn't even matter if you're trying on a button down or another oversized style.
It is especially important, however, to try on skirts, pants, shorts, and dresses. The hip and waist measurements of bottoms and dresses truly determine how something will fit. High waisted items can be especially deceiving since the width of the hips appear larger because they contrast against the small, high waist. Be sure to try these on and move around.
Do a Separate and Double Wash
So you've scored your thrift store finds for a fraction of retail prices. First order of business: Wash your new wares. Speaking of which, instead of adding your thrifted clothes in with your regular laundry, do a separate thrift store wash to contain any foreign debris and dirt to that load. Sometimes one wash isn't enough to deeply clean and get rid of the thrift store smell, especially if you have it on a gentle or hand wash setting for delicate items.
Pour in one full cap of detergent, run two washes, and use the extra rinse setting. For the second wash, pull out an item and do the sniff test to see if there's a lingering odor. If it does, pour in a half a cap more detergent. Following this step is important because it'll help you mentally overcome any possibility of remaining thrift store residue. Dropping your gems off at the dry cleaners is another great way to get a deep clean. They come back good as new, perfectly pressed and smelling fresh. Plus, the cost of dry cleaning still doesn't amount to what you would have spent at the mall on a full-priced item!
So, Why Is All This Work Worth It?
There's an inexplicable feeling of accomplishment when you happen upon a stunning item at the thrift store that fits just right. Perhaps it's an embroidered cocktail dress worthy of Grace Kelly, a Kennedy-esque tweed blazer, or the floral circle skirt of your dreams! Cherishing your individual finds can help develop a healthier relationship with the things you own. This is something we've all but lost as a culture that constantly consumes cheap, disposable items. By feeling a sense of joy in the items you buy, you will begin to recognize your that your thrift purchases will become the stars of your wardrobe.
Not to mention, your creative abilities are put to the test. At the thrift store, you have to think analytically about how you will wear any given item. Your brain shuffles through potential outfits, how you'd mix and match the items, and the events you'd wear them to. This requires you to think out of the box, maybe even spurring you to try a look you would have never thought of before. Thrifting pushes us outside of the mall mentality, inspiring us to delve deeper into our personal styles. Besides, there's a certain feeling of pride that comes from working to discover your unique thrifted treasures that makes it all worth it.
Photo Credit: Shanna Camilleri