Thrift Store Style: The Affordable and Eco-friendly Way to Shop

I love thrift stores. Some of my best clothes come from thrift stores, and thrifting is both cheaper and more environmentally friendly than buying things new. It’s one of the few things you can do that’s good for the earth and cheaper than the alternative. It’s also surprisingly fashionable.

In the first of what will hopefully be a series of posts, I’ll explain the basics of thrifting.

Why should you shop at a thrift store?

1. Price. In most thrift stores, you can buy an entire outfit for under $15. Many items are $1 or sometimes even less. You can often find items identical to what you would find at the mall for a fraction of the cost.

2. The environment. When you buy things second-hand, you’re supporting a sustainable model where things no longer of use to one person aren’t just thrown out. You’re also refraining from supporting companies that, nine times out of 10, have abhorrent environmental and labor practices. You can buy things made by questionable companies guilt-free.

My Peggy suit: $12! The heels were also a thrifting find.

3. Charity. Most thrift stores are run by non-profits who use the money they raise for good. Admittedly, some are a bit sketchy (I’m looking at you, Salvation Army!) but it’s still better than giving your financial support to a corporation that’s only goal is to make a profit.

General rules about thrift stores:

1. The best thrift stores are in the least trendy places. Many vintage stores have thrived on a model of buying stuff in thrift stores in a working class area and reselling them for 10 times the price in a more fashionable downtown. It’s not an issue of class as much as an issue of cool. Some of the best thirft stores in the world are in very ritzy suburbs. If you see a lot of hipsters, punks, goths, or anyone who considers him or herself as “artsy,” you won’t have much luck. My favorite thrift stores are in two kinds of neighborhoods: poor areas with high crime-rates (but only the ones hipsters are afraid to live in) and upper middle-class suburbs full of McMansions and people who drive SUV’s. There are exceptions to the rules, of course, and it’s worth checking out any store at least once.

2.. Dig around a lot. Good finds can be a needle in a haystack. If something is a maybe, see if you can try it on. Many items look like crap on the rack but fit really well, while other things look fantastic on the rack but fit weird. This is more true for thrift stores than anywhere else.

3. The best and most stylish clothing is usually between a size eight and a size 14. Thrift store selections are not based on designer fantasies but what people actually wear and buy and most American women are in those size ranges. If you are not in that size range, that doesn’t mean you won’t find anything, but I just wanted to be clear to people who are in that size range that they have the most to gain. I am a size four and have found some amazing things. A friend of mine who is a size 18 has also made some great finds and says that, overall, thrift stores are better for plus-sized women than new stores. That being said, do not let size stop you at all. Don’t base your decisions on what size the label says but rather, whether it looks like it would fit you. For vintage clothing, you’re always going to be several sizes bigger. Many of my thrift store items are an eight, because that’s what tends to fit for things made in the’70s and ’80s. If you’re very skinny you’ll have luck with vintage items from the ’50s and ’60s, when women were tiny. My best find ever was a wool suit from the early ’60s that looks like something Peggy Oleson would wear. It is insanely tight around the waist, and I can’t eat in it without undoing the button!

4. If you see something that you love, but it has a stain or is in a weird color, you could consider taking it home and dyeing it a different color. But make sure it isn’t 100% Polyester, because then you can’t do that. When it comes to minor damage, look if it’s something you can fix and only buy it if you still want it even if you can’t fix it the way you want to. Remember that the person who wears an item of clothing will always notice imperfections everyone else won’t. I’ve bought things with little tears or discoloration that was never noticed by anyone but me, even when I asked about it.

5. If you’re not sure and it’s under $5, go ahead and buy it. If you regularly shop in thrift stores, the money you save will be more than enough to eat the occasional loss if you end up donating something back again. One example of this is a blue sundress from the ’40s I bought for a buck. It’s itchy as hell, and I still have no clue how I’m going to wear it,but I don’t regret buying it. If you sew, you can even use the fabric for something new, though it’s mean to do that to something that’s really old and special.

The dress and hat shown here put together cost $5.

6. If you see something that’s really nice but the wrong size or just not your style, you might want to check online to see if similar items are selling. A lot of money can be made buying things cheap at thrift stores and reselling them on Ebay or Etsy. Having a knowledge of vintage styles and designer labels can be very useful.

7. Have a thrifting buddy who knows your style and you can split the store and go through everything much quicker.

8. Shoulder pads usually come out easily!

In the next post, I’ll go over the different types of clothes and accessories you’ll find at most thrift stores and how to find an entire outfit for any occasion in one trip.

11 thoughts on “Thrift Store Style: The Affordable and Eco-friendly Way to Shop”

  1. I recently found a leather Banana Republic bag that I really liked at a store (that called themselves “vintage” instead of “thrift”) and it was $20. I don’t know if it would have been cheaper if I’d stumbled across it in Goodwill, but it still felt like a good find because I hate paying a lot of money for accessories, and $20 seemed like a good price for a bag that was probably originally $80.

  2. Why shop at thrift stores? Because you can score a pair of perfect fitting Anne Taylor petites wool dress capris for $4.99!  I love both my new-to-me pants and thrift store shopping in general. Since I am a humanities PhD student who has to look somewhat presentable for teaching and giving papers at conferences, a lot of my conference/teaching clothes are thrifted. I am not yet at the stage where I can afford well-made dress clothes new, but thrifted they are a lot more affordable.

  3. I love thrifting.  There is thrift store somewhat near my house that is great.  It’s far enough into the bad area of town that it keeps the college kids away but close enough to the good area of town for all the ritzy people to drop off their good stuff.  Employees seem to know enough to up the price on the high end stuff, but vintage and medium range items are almost always dirt cheap.

    The only qualm I have with it is since I generally can’t go with a specific item in mind, it can lead to mindless buying.  Sure those blue ombre heels where only $7, but I didn’t need another pair of shoes.

  4. Yay! Thrift store shopping – I love it, but I also sort of hate it.  I have to be in just the right mood for it.  I’m not much of a shopper, so the idea of sifting through clothes makes my head hurt.  Then there is the fact that my pant inseam is 36… yeah, not going to happen.  Maybe someday, but I have a hard enough time finding pants in the normal stores that fit me right.  But I have found some awesome tops and sweaters and accessories in thrift stores. So I can’t complain.

    One of my closest childhood friends is a fashion designer and one of her many projects has been teaming up with Goodwill.  I think the fashion show was last week, I’m not sure.  But basically she promotes thrift store fashion by a) teaching people how you can find fashionable clothing there and b) redesigning  clothing that she finds into more fashionable/artsy pieces.  I’m fairly certain that nearly all of her clothes are from thrift stores and she has just tweaked them in some way.  And then there’s me in my jeans and t-shirt.  :-p  I love catching up with her, it’s fascinating to hear what she’s doing.

    1. I’m not much of a shopper either. One thing that can help is making friends with the employees. Frequent the same place & they’ll start pointing out things you’d like & talk with you while you shop, which makes the whole thing so much nicer. I have the opposite jeans problem; I’m only 5′ 2″, but I’ve yet to find petites jeans that will make it over 40″ hips.

      You’re friend’s work sounds really cool. Does she sell any of her stuff online?

      1. Booooooo to pant shopping.  I think they are the reason I don’t really like to shop.

        As for my friend, I’m not sure if she sells her stuff or not (bad friend=me).  She has about 5 jobs – or at least she did the last time I talked to her in the fall. I think the Goodwill gig is more of a promotional thing – like hey, look at all of the cool stuff you can find here and look what you can do with it.  :) She also restores old garments and works at a Czech museum doing stuff with the costumes there.  Like I said, she has about 5 jobs.  It’s nuts.

  5. Yayy! Great topic and great post! I am wearing a thrift store find today–a Tulle jacket I picked up for $6.

    Here’s something I just now figured out to do: my favorite thrift store has no dressing rooms, so I wear leggings and a close-fitting tank top (under something else) so that I can try dresses and things on right in the store.

    1. Love this topic! Some of my favorite clothes have come from thrift stores. :) I’ve also refashioned a few items for various purposes, and you can’t beat how great it is to give something old a new purpose. But…I do have to be in the right mood for it! :)

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