The title of the post is in reference to a small existential crisis my husband had the other day. After an afternoon of thrift shopping, Isaiah tried on his newly purchased Goodwill shirts, explaining to me all the reasons that he loved them and chose them, and then proceeded to try on all the rest of his shirts, further explaining his love for them as I watched him and lovingly listened to him from the bed. He kept saying, “Nobody asks about my shirts! Nobody knows why I picked them!” And it’s true. No one really asks. He had chosen each and every one of his shirts with care, found them slowly, over time. Each one had a story, and no one knew. He didn’t want compliments, he was expressing a desire to tell people something, to share something, a memory. To be known. It wasn’t about the shirts, not at all. And yet it was, because the clothes we choose to wear are important and inextricably linked to our identities. It felt important to him then, all at once, as he grabbed shirt after shirt out of the drawers. It felt important because it is important.
We should love what we wear.
Isaiah and I are both self-proclaimed champion thrift shoppers. We are very proud of our prowess and frequently discuss the various merits of thrift shopping as well as our strategies for navigating the racks and racks of clothes at the thrift store. In a recent calculation, I realized that over 85% of my current wardrobe was bought second-hand. It’s been a slow accumulation of carefully chosen pieces, items searched for, waited for, things found at exactly the right time. I’m proud of every single one of my shirts, I remember when I bought each and where, sifting through all the rubbish to find it. And, like Isaiah, I wish more people asked.
Venturing to buy most of your clothes second-hand is a very economical choice in a lot of ways. It is good for your pocketbook, obviously. No one doesn’t like $4 perfect jeans. It’s also good for the world. The fast-fashion clothing industry is nefarious, stealing the lives and dignity of millions of factory workers around the world, and only getting worse. To make matters worse, consumers get rid of crazy amounts of clothing every year, with most of it being sent overseas to ruin whatever clothing market used to exist in any given country. Shopping second hand puts no money in the hands of crazy corporations that mistreat their employees, in fact most thrift stores are linked to charities. It keeps used clothes out of landfills or third-world clothing markets, and it, maybe best of all, makes you work harder for your clothes.
Which is why thrifting isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard work if you are serious about it. But I think that’s why I like it.
I’m a person who loves to shop. For my entire life, wandering the mall was one of my favorite pastimes. That hasn’t changed, I still love to shop, but I feel far more conflicted about it now than I did when I was a teenager and everything was just window-shopping, wishing, hoping. It has all gotten more complicated. When I walk into a store like Madewell or J Crew, stores that I like alot and could conceivably afford if choosing carefully, instead of feeling delighted by all the beautiful clothes available to me, I feel completely overwhelmed. There are too many choices, too many things I’d like to buy. How can I pick? Blue t-shirt or white t-shirt, they have every color in the universe. I’d like a cashmere sweater and a lambswool sweater. Rows of shoes that all look important, gems, bags, scarves, it’s all too good. Leaving with just one thing, the responsible thing to do, would leave me unsatisfied, haunted by all the other gorgeous things I’ve left behind.
Like, the other day I visited Madewell (forever a favorite) and tried on these things.
These gorgeous things. I liked all of them, and it stressed me out. Because I knew that I couldn’t possibly walk out of Madewell having purchased four things, even though they all had been extracted from the sale rack. The gorgeous lavender sweater alone was still $80 after markdowns! I couldn’t choose because no possible choice felt good. All the clothes looked lovely on me and all of them were too expensive. So I left with nothing, lamenting the lavender sweater all the way home, cursing the people that think I have $80 just waiting to be thrown into a corporate clothing abyss. A problem.
But, thrifting fixes all these problems. The entire experience is the opposite of my problematic Madewell experiences. Thrifting is an artistic endeavor, an exercise in curation, a genuine challenge. Almost like a game. When I walk into a huge thrift store, one like Goodwill or Salvation Army, instead of gorgeously hued clothes perfectly assembled in all the ways I’d style them myself in my perfect style heaven world, I’m met with this.
A cacophony of colors, a sea of choices, strange decals, neons, faded fabrics, inexplicable stains. Hundreds of shirts, all unknown, mostly horribly ugly. And that is why it works. The challenge of shopping is ushered back in. I walk into the thrift store knowing that less than 1% of the clothes in the room will appeal to me, let alone fit me perfectly. It’s a treasure hunt. A needle in a haystack. And almost always rewarding. Ask my closet.
I have a method. I work my way through the store in almost the same way every time. I’ll share my personal method in a list of strategies. Note that these are my strategies, particular to me and my idiosyncratic, finessed, personal thrift shopping method. Take these strategies or leave them. And, similarly, take thrift shopping or leave it. It’s not for everyone.
But it’s certainly for me. Because I find myself at the end with a small, carefully curated collection like this.
Four dollar J Crew blue jeans that fit me perfectly, a lovely 100% linen tank top in a soft sky blue, a lovely grey lambswool cardigan with a great fit in good condition, a piece I’ve been looking for for a while, and another lovely sweater and long sleeved tee tucked behind. All for far, far less money than that one lavender sweater from Madewell (lovely though it was), and far more satisfying. Thrifting. I’ll never look back.
1. Clear your schedule, take a deep breath, and grab a cart. You’ll need it.
For the sort of thrifting I’m talking about, you’re not going to want to stop in for a quick 15 minute look-see. Set aside an hour at least, maybe two. In order for your thrifting time to be worth it, you’re going to need to not feel rushed. Get yourself a cart, put your coat and bag in it, get comfortable, and start right at the front, the first rack you see for your gender. Dive right in.
2. Look at every single piece. I mean everything.
This is important. You won’t find the gems by simply glancing at a rackful of sleeves. You need to get in there. Touch every shirt. Move every hanger from the right to the left. Feel the fabric. If you don’t look at every single piece, you’ll undoubtedly miss something wonderful. It’s worth the extra time.
3. Turn off your brain and shop intuitively.
If you’re anything like me, after you’ve been working your way through the racks for a minute or two, you’ll feel yourself get into a groove. You’ll know it when you feel it. This is when you can turn off your intellect, your trying to judge whether a particular piece of clothing is to your liking or not, and instead intuit it, with merely a glace. This is the best way to move through the racks. Sort of like Tinder, a mindless swipe left or right. (I’ve never tried Tinder, so I don’t actually know, but I sort of imagine it to be like thrifting. I could be wrong.) Work through the racks quickly, let your mind wander, process your day, decide what to eat for dinner. Your intuition is your best shopper. Your subconscious knows what you like to wear better than your brain does, trust me. If you try to think with your brain about every tiny decision, the thousands of garments you come in contact with at the thrift store, you’ll get exhausted very quickly. In fact, some of my best shopping has happened when I was thinking about something else entirely, working it out in my mind. Funny how that happens.
4. Grab everything that feels even remotely right.
While you’re intuiting your way down the racks, don’t be crazily discerning. Take everything and anything that catches your eye, feels like something you might like. Don’t edit too much, don’t think too hard. Just hang it on your cart and move on. The real work will be in the dressing room.
5. Shop your size and the one above it.
This one is surprising to some people. Clothing sizes are WACKO. Seriously. I live firmly in the “small” camp, but I’ve found perfectly wonderful things in the large section that fit me like a dream. The size on the tag means nothing. Go to your size first, you’ll certainly have the best luck there, but keep going. Definitely also check the next size up, and maybe even two! You never know what you’ll find. You won’t know how something fits you until you see it on your body.
6. If you’re pressed for time or feeling tired, go by color.
When you’re at the thrift store, you will see some truly appalling clothing in some truly appalling colors. If you’re feeling a bit weary, do yourself a favor and cut the crap. Make a beeline for the whites, greys, blues and blacks. And maybe some red just for fun. This works especially well for me because I basically wear those colors exclusively anyway. But, you know, if you’re a big green person or something, go ahead! Add it to your list of neutrals! But truly you can’t go wrong with a groutfit.
7. Shop by brand, but not exclusively.
I have a lot of J Crew in my wardrobe, and it isn’t because I have hundreds to spend on brand new cashmere cardigans in a rainbow of colors. No, it’s because people give their perfectly good J Crew classic basics away to the goodwill and I snatch them up like its my job. If you love a brand, like J Crew or Madewell or anything else, keep an eye out for them at the thrift store. You’re bound to find them floating around. But definitley do not confine yourself to recognizable brands. Most of the great clothes I find are strange mall brands or completely random. Don’t worry about the brand until you’ve decided whether you like the shirt. Feel the fabric, you’ll know a nice material when you touch it, and let yourself be surprised by who manufactured it. And, on the flip side, sometimes you’ll find something from your favorite brand on the rack and feel, like, super lucky, only to find in the dressing room that it’s the ugliest or most awfully fitting thing you’ve ever tried. That’s happened to me more times than I can count. Just put everything that looks even somewhat decent, recognizable brand or not, in your cart. It will all get worked out in the dressing room.
8. Have certain “wants” in mind, but don’t be too disappointed when you don’t find them.
I’m currently shopping for the perfect trench coat. Isaiah is shopping for the perfect deep navy fisherman sweater. We have no idea when we’ll find them. It may be on our next visit to Goodwill, or three years from now! Who knows? I recently found a lovely grey wool J Crew cardigan, therefore fulfilling a long-term search. I’ve mounted similar searches for the perfect navy pullover and a just-right denim shirt, both wildly satisfying when fulfilled. For each of those things, I could have easily shopped around online and found the perfect thing in one afternoon, but that’s no fun! It’s the thrill of the search, the rummaging around, hoping, waiting! I’m a bit more proud to wear my perfect navy pullover knowing that I waited for it and waited for it till I found it. When you’re at the store keep your wishlist in mind, but don’t let yourself get frustrated by what isn’t there. You can only buy the things the thrift store has. Find the treasures.
9. Don’t forget the shoes!
Oh man, thrift store shoes are the BOMB. Leather loafers, hiking boots, early-2000’s clogs, darling sandals. As long as you aren’t too easily grossed out and you have a decent amount of perseverance, you can find some great shoes at the thrift store. I find shoes I like far less often than clothes, but it does happen. Always check. You may get very lucky. Like the time I found my black patent leather penny loafers. Perfection.
10. No, you can’t buy everything at the thrift store, but let yourself be surprised!
For a long time, I wouldn’t touch the pants sections deeming them mostly too out-dated or unflattering. (Lots and lots of boot-cut going on there). But then, on a recent trip to Goodwill, I tried again, looked at every single pant, and found myself some beautiful olive pants in just my size and a modern cut! You can buy pants at Goodwill! You won’t find a great pair every time. Persistence is key. You have to want it. Dresses fall into a similar catagory here. I always check, but I rarely find anything. But every once in a while I get lucky. Persistence. Go ahead and check out the pants. But, still, some things are meant to be bought new. Underwear, for example. Socks. Most of your shoes. Thrifting a lot doesn’t mean you’ll never have to fork over $100 for a party dress again, it just means that your spending on big things doesn’t have to also stretch to, say, your everyday t shirts. It’s good to still go to Madewell sometimes and splurge on one really gorgeous lavender sweater. There is a time and a place for that. Thrifting need not be a tyranny.
11. Absolutely never settle for less than perfection.
Your time in the dressing room is essential. Know that you will be throwing out about 80% of the little collection of possible treasures you picked up on your first pass. Give everything a fair try. Often a really nice piece won’t fit right or you’ll give it a second look and notice a hole or a stain or you’ll just feel sort of apathetic about it. Don’t worry, just toss it! You don’t need it! Do not settle. That’s one of my very biggest rules for thrifting, and one that I’m still trying to live by. It may feel at first like thrifting in the first place is sort of settling for less than perfection, but it isn’t. Not if you keep your standards high and let it be slow, a years-long process of not settling, returning again and again. One trip, you may try on twenty things and not buy any of them at all. That’s okay. In, fact that’s great! If a garment isn’t perfect for you, you won’t wear it. You’ll pick everything else you own, all the things that are perfect for you, over it. It’s happened to me time and time again, and it’s always frustrating to see the thing that was almost great go unworn in my drawers. It’s not worth the maybe. The dressing room is the time to drop the intuition and put on your critical eye. Only keep the very best pieces. Think about how the piece looks on your body. Think about what sorts of shapes you like to wear. Think about how they fit in your existing wardrobe. Collect your clothing carefully. Curate, curate. That’s the point, isn’t it? And let the rest go. Bring your prized choices to the cashier and buy them with pride. Those things. Out of all the weird clothes in the store, you found your clothes. Good job.
12. Use the store, but use it respectfully.
There are three kinds of people who go thrift shopping. First are people like you and me, trying to carefully collect their way to a wardrobe, quietly methodically working their way through. Second are people who thrift shop out of necessity, trying to buy whatever winter coat will fit, hanging onto dignity, also choosing carefully at Goodwill because they can’t afford the mall. And, third, and most problematically, are the gaggles of loud college kids, bumping around trying to find clothes for some goofy party. I’d encourage you to not be that loud silly kid. Have fun. Buy your silly party clothes. But don’t shout about it or bump the sweet old man trying to buy a sweater. No matter who you are or why you are shopping, be aware of the people around you, and be kind.
Thrifting isn’t about buying a bunch of crap. No, it’s about sifting and sorting, patiently waiting, digging, hoping. Never settle. Go slow. Find the clothes that feel like they were yours all along, meant to be worn by you. If you’ve always felt like you were “bad” at thrift shopping, give some of my strategies a go. See what you find. Give it an hour, look at everything, enjoy the hunt. You may find yourself converted.
Also, don’t forget everyone’s favorite internet thrift store, Ebay! I mostly use Ebay for the things I am searching for. If I find myself having tough luck finding gorgeous leather clogs in my normal thrift stores, I turn to Ebay. I never really browse, it’s more for specific treasure hunts for me. But, hey! Ebay is your oyster!