A decent thrift store will have a wide variety of clothing to chose from, but from my own fashion experiance there are ten major types of things to be found digging through the racks. This is a guide to what you’ll find, and how to wear it.
1. Vintage Glamor: This is what many thrifters look for. Anything with a pre-1970 aesthetic, including authentic vintage and later reproductions. True vintage pieces are a bit of a needle in a haystack. If you are a regular thrifter and you look through everything at every store, you will find some eventually. What is more common are 1930s and ’40s inspired garments from between 1975-1995, which may look incredibly authentic, but aren’t as valuable. Amazing vintage shoes are easier to come by than clothes, but they’re always for tiny sizes. Purses are also more common, but check the insides very thoroughly before buying because you never know what gunk will be inside. Furs are also popular items, if you’re not opposed to vintage fur. I just bought a mink shawl from c. 1960 for six dollars at a Goodwill. You can get amazing deals on furs. Increasingly, thrift stores are wising up and charging more for authentic vintage items, particularly those in good condition or in popular sizes. But this only seems to happen in “trendy” areas, and like I said last week, the best thrift stores are not in those sort of places anyway.
2. Granny Chic: A large percentage of items that end up in thrift stores come from dead people. Most people are old when they die. Therefore, you’re going to find a lot of stuff aimed at old ladies. You also find a lot of stuff from the early-to-mid ’70s that looks like it’s made for a granny who’s very thin and likes to show a lot of skin. Granny chic is wildly popular with hipsters, but if you don’t live in an area infested with hipsters, you can wear it and get plenty of compliments without looking like you’re thirty and have never had a job. The ideal granny dress has a floral print with lace trim and large buttons, but there are exceptions. I have two Granny rompers from the ’70s that have the granny dress feel, but are much younger and hipper. There are also blouses and skirts to be found, as well as accessories like hats, scarves, and sensible shoes. The combination of granny dress/combat boots is always tons of fun for fall and winter. In warm weather a granny dress or romper looks good with sandals, a funky belt, and dangly jewelry. It’s normal for the dress to be a bit loose, but if you find one you love that’s just way too big and you have decent sewing skills, there are many ways to convert it.
3. Shoulder Pads: Many items at thrift stores have shoulder pads, including those that best fall into other categories. I always tear them out because they aren’t my style, but a growing number of women and men seem to disagree. Many dresses, tops, and jackets you’ll find are entirely designed around shoulder pads. You take them out and the whole thing looks deflated and vaguely sad. Pretty much every thrift store in America has a polyester dress in bright pink, blue, or purple that has short sleeves, massive shoulder pads, and two buttons on the side that don’t really do anything. This look, if you absolutely must wear it, looks best with platform shoes, glitter, and neon jewelry. I would suggest attempting a modern interpretation of big hair.
4. Dorky Sweaters: Everyone in America should be legally obligated to own one dorky sweater and wear it annually. I don’t just mean Christmas sweaters; there are millions of other designs to chose from like geometric prints or over-sized flowers. They aren’t meant to fit properly, so don’t bother trying it on first. They look best with skinny jeans, fingerless gloves, and over-sized sunglasses.
5. Mall Clothes From Ten Years Ago: People buy stupid crap from the mall, and then they don’t want it anymore, so they give it away. Things the are well-designed and classic looking can make for good finds, but most of it isn’t. Usually these come from when a middle-aged soccer mom cleans out the house and takes everything no one in the family has worn for a while to the thrift store.
6. Mall Clothes From Ten Months Ago: I can’t quite explain how basically new items (not completely new and donated unsold, but those bought and then given away) end up in thrift stores so often. This is what people thrifting for purely economic reasons look for. I like things that are more quirky and unique, but who doesn’t want some normal people clothes every now and then? You will often see things that were bought for several hundred dollars just a few weeks ago.
7. My Teenager Isn’t Interested Anymore: Punk, goth, skater, hip-hop, funny t-shirts…Pretty much anything that teenagers get into and then change their minds about a few months later. Not all of it looks teeny-bopper, and even the things that do can be styled differently. I bought a black skirt covered in chains that probably came from Hot Topic for less than a dollar, paired it with a sheer black button-down shirt, black pumps, purple nails, and smokey eyes and wore it to a fashion industry even. You’ll also see “club girl” looking things that suburban teenage girls bought when their moms weren’t around and weren’t allowed to keep. That stuff does not work on anyone actually old enough to get into a club, so don’t even think about it.
8. Business Lady: Suits, button-downs, black pumps with a moderate heel! Everything you need to be a grown-up. You can find amazing deals on suits, both the traditional black ones and more interesting things like pink tweed or red Palin suits. Never buy a basic white button-down shirt new again! You’ll find dozens of them in every size and cut at the average thrift store. You’ll find everything from “lowly cubicle worker” to “Republican socialite” to “Mad Men.” Keep a special eye-out for those trendy shirts that tie at the collar.
9. Work-Out: Okay, so you don’t actually work out. Or when you do, you wear stuff you have lying around the house. But frequently, while thrifting, you’ll find amazing things like funky cut-out exercise tops that look great with skirts and boots. Or tight shorts that are practical enough to not look trashy. A great pair of sweats can be a God-send when travelling, and the best deals are at the thrift stores. Just wash them extra to get out any sweat!
10. Crap: Okay, there’s a lot of crap. Mom jeans with elastic waistbands, over-sized ’90s windbreakers, those beige slacks popular with sixty-somethings, and stuff even the most hardcore of hipsters can’t wear ironically. This stuff probably accounts for 50% of even a decent thrift store. Just put it back on the rack and move-on.
Individual items worth noting:
-Skinny belts. These are in style, and if you find one that fits your waist well, it’s a good accessory to have. Most thrift stores charge under two dollars. Look for one brown, one black, one white or off-white, and one in a metallic, as well as any bright colors you use.
-Black and white sheer button-downs. These can be incredibly useful to add a bit of sex appeal to any outfit, and you can wear them with pretty much anything. Whether you wear a little tank top, or only a bra underneath depends on how sexy you want to be. You can pull this off even if you’re not in great shape!
-Black knee-length skirt. Good for business or casual, pretty much year-round. You can find one in almost any thrift store. Keep looking until you find your size.
-White casual sundress. Prince Harry is coming to your house tomorrow, and he wants to elope to Hawaii and get married on the beach. You need to be prepared.
-Giant I-don’t-care sweatshirt. You’re going to see a movie, and the theater is freezing. But you have your giant shapeless sweatshirt in the back seat, so all is well.
-Vintage heels. Shoes nowadays are ridiculous. An older pair of heels will almost always be easier to walk-in. Anything from the old millenium is better than what they’re selling now. Buy some practical vintage heels in a neutral color for special occasions when you have to be on your feet.
Editor’s note: For everything you need to know about clothes from different eras and what to look for, check out MissWorded’s guide to vintage style. Here’s the first post in the series.