Lovely reader N. sent me this question a while back:
I love the idea of thrift store shopping … But I need to know how to do it successfully. I like the stuff I see at thrift stores, but most of them don’t have a place to try things on and I have been burned on fit with no refunds/exchanges. Can you suggest ways to analyze an item without trying it on to see if it’s going to work? Are there ways to tell what items would be easier to alter (and therefore less costly to alter)?
I’ve shopped thrift since … well, since forever. I’ve never been squeamish about buying used garments, and the bargain hunter in me loves pulling treasure from other people’s trash. Here are some tips to address N’s concerns, and hopefully, yours, too!
DRESSING ROOM FREE-ZONES
Very few of us can successfully shop unknown brands, items from eras long past, or garments meant for our quirkyest body parts without trying them on. Although many thrift stores have cottoned on and offer shoppers a handful of dressing rooms, some expect you to make decisions sans privacy. For instance, here in the Twin Cities, the Unique Thrift chain typically offers one broom-closet-sized fitting room and many full-length mirrors scattered throughout the aisles. On any given trip, you’ll find folks in various states of undress squeezing themselves into potential purchases while scrutinizing themselves in narrow mirrors clamped to fixture ends.
Since few thrift stores accept returns or exchanges, you need to be sure. If not sure that whatever it is will actually fit you, at least sure that you’re not going to have a major coronary if you get it home and it doesn’t. But there are a few things you can do to prepare for shopping in a dressing room free-zone:
- Layer: Wear a white or neutral cami under your blouse or sweater so you can try on cardigans, jackets, and anything that buttons or zips up easily and quickly.
- Skirt: You can slip a pair of pants or another skirt underneath the skirt you wore in and no one will glimpse your bits. You can also slip a dress on overhead and get a good idea if it fits, even plastered over a skirt. If you’re in pants, which are typically bulky around the waist, gauging fit is much trickier.
- Leggings: I will never concede that leggings can pass for pants, but since they are made from actual cloth and are completely opaque, they can serve as MAKESHIFT pants in a trying-crap-on-in-the-aisles situation. If you’re really worried about anyone getting a peek at your private bits, slap on some leggings underneath your skirt and you’ll be a paragon of modesty. Kinda.
- Slip-on shoes: If you’re hunting for footwear, you’ll want easy access to your tootsies.
EYEING FOR FIT
If you simply can’t stomach getting quasi-naked in the middle of a thrift store aisle, you can train yourself to eyeball items for decent fit. You’ll never be 100%, but a little practice can help hone your visual judgement. Pick out five perfectly-fitting tops from your own closet. Try to select from several categories of top, such as blouse, sweater, tee, cardigan, and/or jacket. Then pick out a top that is either very fitted or actually too small. Pick out a top that is either very boxy or actually too large. Set perfectly-fitting top number one on your bed, and place the too-small top next to it. Swap in perfectly-fitting top number two, three, etc. Then do the same thing with the perfectly-fitting tops and the too-large top. By the end of this drill, you should have a vague idea what a top that would fit you looks like. Repeat with skirts and pants. And just to reiterate: This ain’t foolproof, but it should help.
Measure your shoulder width, actual boobs, below boobs, narrowest part of waist, widest part of hips, and inseam. You can also measure garments that fit you perfectly – which is especially helpful if you prefer that your skirts and dresses hit your leg at a specific spot. Write your stats on a cheat sheet, bring your handy dandy tape measure shopping with you, and measure garments in the corresponding spots. If measuring flat, be sure to multiply by two. Now this method may seem like it should be foolproof, but it isn’t. You are unlikely to get completely accurate measurements with your tape, and factors such as garment age and spandex content may confound. Truly, the only foolproof method is to actually try the dang thing ON. But checking the numbers will get you in the ballpark, and is somewhat more accurate than eyeballing.
WHAT NOT TO BUY
Everyone has their own rules about what should be avoided and embraced at thrift outlets. Some are more squeamish, or more crafty, or thrift for different purposes … but I think these guidelines will be helpful to a thrifting novice who is shopping for 100% wearable items:
- Don’t buy anything damaged that you can’t mend yourself: Exceptions are gorgeous designer finds that can be salvaged with the help of a tailor … but these are few and far between.
- Don’t buy anything stained: If it’s truly stained, that means permanent. So what’s the point?
- Don’t buy anything from fast-fashion retailers: It’s only going to be a buck or two cheaper than new, and someone else has already worn it for much of its short life. I’m no brand snob, but I AM a quality snob. Something that has been made cheaply and worn for a while isn’t going to fare well in your wardrobe. Exceptions happen – especially for things like coats, accessories, and other durable goods. But generally speaking, thrifting fast fashion isn’t the best use of your money.
- Don’t buy anything remotely intimate: Undies, socks, tights … even slips and mufflers are suspect. I am one of the least germophobic people I know, but even I have limits! Dry cleaning can help, but dry cleaning is expensive, so just be sure to figure that in.
TO ALTER OR NOT TO ALTER
I am not a huge fan of purchasing used clothes and then laying down to have them tailored, as the collective cost approaches buying new … but sometimes it’s worth it. Occasionally a nearly perfect item presents itself, and if it’s super high-quality, enlisting a professional’s help to make it completely perfect is a good investment. Here are my thoughts on altering thrifted goodies:
- Avoid pleats: These make tailoring tricky, regardless of garment type.
- Skirts over pants: Skirts are fairly simple constructions, generally speaking, and will be simpler to shorten, take in, or let out a skirt than a pair of pants.
- Avoid embellishments: Anything that sports embroidery or embellishment of any kind near a seam is going to cause issues.
- Dresses are costly: A good dress is hard to find and the right one will be worth the dough, but unless you merely want a hem taken up, getting a dress altered is going to be laborious and expensive.
- Avoid coats: Tailoring a coat is VERY expensive. If it doesn’t fit in the shop, don’t bother.
LEVELS OF THRIFT SHOPS AND SECONDHAND SHOPPING
Used clothing is sold at several levels, and you can adjust your price-range and quality-range by limiting yourself to stores that fit your personal parameters. Most large metro areas will offer thrifting at all of these levels, but you’ll have to do some legwork to discover which are which on your home turf.
No-frills: The bottom of the thrifting heap – sometimes literally – will put you in an unadorned space stocked with unsorted racks or bins of clothing, shoes, and accessories. You are left to your own devices to hunt and peck. Here in the Twin Cities, this means G-Too/Values By the Pound, a Goodwill outlet also affectionately referred to as “Diggers.” A dimly-lit warehouse where rejects and unsold merch from regular Goodwill stores goes to meet its final fate, Diggers features several person-high piles of stuff brought in by dumptruck. Clothing is sold by the pound. Not for the faint of heart, but fantastic for the scarce of money.
Slightly better: Racks are roughly organized by item type, but rarely by size or color. Stores at this level don’t typically feature fitting rooms, and the offerings are in any state from broken-in to ruined. Twin Citians, think Salvation Army on Central Ave.
Good: Slightly more accurate and helpful organization of merch and a possibility of fitting rooms, these stores offer slightly higher price points alongside their improved facilities and services. Fitting rooms are still a hit-or-miss by location, but you’ll find some brand new items sprinkled in among the oldies, and some bona-fide bargains … so it’s worth a trip. TC folks, I put Goodwill and Unique in this category.
Even Better: With guaranteed fitting rooms and stock organized by size and color, this is the level at which I thrift most comfortably and successfully. A few stained and torn items are mixed in, but merch is generally in great condition. Locals will find that ARC’s Value Village and Savers outlets fit this bill.
Best: Now, “best” in this context means no flaws or damage to speak of, reputable labels, and helpful staff … but it also means much higher prices. Consignment boutiques and upscale vintage stores fit into this category, and if you’re hunting for true bargains, you should aim a few levels down. But if you’re seeking covetable vintage (Via’s) or upscale labels at slightly lower prices (Turn Style), this is the level for you.
- Consignment vs. Thrift: Knowing Your Options
- Your Thrifting Checklist
- How to Make Thrifted Clothes Look Spendy
- All Already Pretty posts on thrifting
(Image courtesy Emily Allen)