When I was a twelve years old, my oldest sister dragged me to the thrift store. As a pre-teen who's 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 used racks of clothes from God knows what era. I was overwhelmed by the moth-ball fragrance that pervaded dimly lit shop, "Can we go now!?" I desperately asked my sister with eyes watering from an unspecified allergic reaction. 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 later and thrifting is my #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 fifteen, I developed an interest in fashion and realized that the cookie cutter clothes offered at the mall weren't my style. I was inspired by fashion history and wanted items that were uniquely my own. At 25, I also thrift because it's the best way to build an ethical wardrobe. Bottom line is I sucked it up and got over my thrift store shopping prejudice. I know that's easier said than done because the instinct to run away from thrift stores is very real; it's used clothes from people you don't know, that haven't been washed, and quite literally smell. You're cringing as you read this, aren't you? I'm not going to sugar coat and say that the ick factor doesn't bother me anymore. Even now, when I go thrifting, I prepare myself mentally and physically through a series of steps.
If you want to go thrifting but have similar hesitations, try the system that 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.
More importantly, preparing yourself physically by wearing the appropriate clothes can help you get into the thrifting headspace. I honestly wear work out clothes when thrifting because it makes me more willing to get down and dirty for my beloved vintage gems. I'm ready to work hard for my buried treasure! I also tie my hair back to avoid it touching all the clothes.
High Quality Usually Equals Cleaner Items
Obviously, our goal when thrifting is to find high quality items that will last forever. Thrift store items dated from the forties through the nineties were made with higher quality fabrics like cotton, wool, and silk. Even their artificial fabrics like rayon, polyester blend, or nylon were constructed with precision. The yarns of these fabrics will most likely be tightly woven together to make the item more dense and when stretched, it'll quickly bounce back to it's original shape. The stitches of 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.
You may be scoring these items for just a couple bucks, but they were originally much more expensive. The previous owners of such high quality items most likely took care of their items by washing and storing them appropriately. 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.
What To Skip Trying On (And What You Absolutely Must)
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, smelly dress or 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 an another oversized style.
It is especially important, however, to try on skirts, pants, and 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 than they are because they contrast against the small, high waist. Be sure to try these on and move around. Also, look for dresses that zip in the back or button in the front so you don't have to pull it over your head.
Put Your Purchases All Into A Plastic Bag
So you've scored your thrift store finds for a fraction of retail prices and now you have a bag full of smelly clothes. Instead of going home and dumping your thrift store items in with the rest of your laundry and stinking up the place, keep them tied up in your bag and ready for washing.
Do A Separate and Double Wash
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. 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 cup 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 it still has the thrift store smell. If it does, pour in a half a cup of detergent. Following this step is important because it'll help you mentally overcome any possibility of remaining thrift store residue.
Take It To The Cleaners
A lot of high quality thrift store gems are dry clean only. 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. Dry cleaning your items will help you to start seeing your thrifted finds as yours and not someone else's. 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. Fast fashion stores do all the work for us by styling their mannequins and clothing displays. At the thrift store, your 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.
This article originally appeared in Verily Magazine.