Secondhand Rose

First, a song. Drop what you’re doing and soak up some Barbra. (It’s good for you.)

Second, NEWSFLASH: WE ALL WEAR CLOTHES EVERY DAY. Look down at your body! It has clothes on it! How about that? You’re wearing a shirt, maybe some pants, maybe no pants (!!!), perhaps some underthings, maybe nothing at all (I don’t know your life!) !!! I’m wearing clothes. I’m wearing blue jeans, a tank top, and a sweater. Yesterday I wore grey-ish black jeans, a tank top, and a sweater. Most days you’ll find me in some sort of tank top, some sort of denim pant, and some sort of sweater. Day after day after day. Consistency. It’s key.

There’s another consistency to my clothes: almost everything I wear (with the exception of handmade pieces, a growing collection), I buy secondhand. This is the case (and has been for about four years now) for a number of reasons:

ONE, I don’t have very much money to spend on clothes. I never really have. Even in middle school, where the other kids had closets full of hollister and abercrombie, I had to make my few prized brand name tees stretch into a multitude of fashionable outfits. Clothes have never been able to be a spending-priority for me, although I do have expensive taste. I love natural fibers, well-cut and well-made garments, things that are thoughtful and beautiful, designed and constructed with care. So, it’s tough. But I’ve learned to admire things from afar, to try to determine what it is that I find beautiful about them and then look for those qualities in the clothes I can afford. It forces me to be creative, which is something that I always celebrate.

TWO, I’m horrified by the damage that fast fashion does both to people and to the earth. If you haven’t watched The True Cost, yet, then you ought to. Really, you can just think about it. It’s impossible for every Forever 21 in the world to have the amount of stock and turnover that it does without hurting someone somewhere and doing some very, very irresponsible things. A $3 shirt is cheating someone. I’ve been known to walk down the street, slow down, and look longingly at a shirt on a mannequin in the window of an H&M, because, like, I’m not made of stone. But I don’t buy it. I won’t. It’s not worth it to me, the way my buying this shirt with money that is precious to me perpetuates something that is already so out-of-control, something that makes me feel sick to my stomach. I don’t want to be a part of fast fashion. So, I’m opting out as much as I can. If you’re interested in reading / thinking more about clothing ethics, check out Fashion Revolution (#imadeyourclothes), and my friend Whitney’s ongoing dialogue about ethical fashion on Fashionista.

And THREE, I love thrift shopping, and, frankly, I’m good at it. This is the bit that makes the rest of it possible. Thrift shopping is HARD. It legitimately is. It’s time-consuming, tiring, and often frustrating. I’ll be the first to tell you that it is genuinely difficult to cobble together a decent wardrobe consisting of primarily second-hand clothes. But I’ll also be the first to tell you that it’s possible. Really. And it’s also wonderful. I feel far more proud to wear my clothes now than I ever did before because I know that every piece was at least a little bit hard-won. Searched for, selected, purchased with a little tinge of joy. Almost across-the-board, the clothing I’ve bought secondhand stays in play in my wardrobe longer than things I have bought new. I think this has something to do with the fact that buying secondhand makes the sorts of clothes I admire suddenly accessible to me. I can afford the beautiful natural fibers, the well-made, the ethical when I find it in a thrift store. Still, finding these gems is a challenge, and it takes a different sort of investment. Rather than money, you have to be willing to invest time, focus, energy.

Initially, I didn’t buy the dog sweater. But please don’t worry because I instantly regretted my decision to leave it behind and I returned two days later to take it home with me and treasure it forever (or until my soul no longer feels attached to this dog and his good, good face and heart.)

Maybe it goes without saying, but underlying this whole essay is the fact that clothes are important to me. I think about them a lot. I care deeply about what I put on my body, the way it represents me in the world, the way it protects me, covers my skin, shows something about who I am, what I like, what I choose. Clothes do not at all feel arbitrary to me. If I make a weird outfit decision in the morning then my whole day is at risk of feeling off. The way I dress is a direct reflection of who I am and how I am doing, whether I mean for it to represent so much or not. It displays what I like, what I delight in, what I care about. It shows what colors I’m drawn to, whether I’m feeling cold, what sorts of shapes make me feel beautiful. I feel aware of how very much the clothes I wear every day reveal about me, so I take extreme care in buying new clothes to wear. My standards are increasingly higher and higher. I refuse to settle for something that is almost or nearly. I refuse to wear something that feels like it belonged to an outdated version of me. Because of this, I am continually reinventing my personal style. As I change, my clothes change. As I change, old things that felt exactly right find themselves to the back corners of my dresser, the rubbermaid bins under my bed. Sometimes I feel shameful about this, disgusted at the amount of castoffs I find myself with, wondering why I’m never satisfied. But I’ve learned to embrace it, my endless quest for the right thing. I let right shift and change. If I were buying new full-price, ethically-made, beautifully crafted clothes everytime I felt a shift in my heart, I’d be broke in a minute. But thrifting makes this sort of matching of outside and inside a little more possible. Thrifting makes me feel powerful, in-control of the way I present myself and my body in the world.

After four years of showing up at Goodwill again and again and again, I’ve developed some strategies that help me through my shopping days. Here’s how I make it work for me. If you are the sort of person who walks into a thrift store and feels immediately overwhelmed, go ahead and try out some of my strategies. Let the thrift store work for you! If you are the sort of person who walks into a thrift store and feels like a star / queen / pro, let’s compare notes! Tell me your ways (in the comments!!) There is enough beautiful clothing already in the world for us to never have to walk into an H&M ever again. We just have to dig through some racks to find it. And, trust me, walking away from a long two hours at Goodwill with a sweater you’re really genuinely excited to wear is a very special feeling, one that I want to celebrate, point to and say, “this is good!” You’ve participated in an exercise in respect and dignity, respect for yourself, your money, the earth, other people who you will never meet. A purchase in a thrift store harms no one. And that, in itself, is beautiful.


(I first wrote these over a year ago as a part of this essay on my personal blog, and I absolutely still stand by them today. This is how I shop at Goodwill. Slowly, methodically, intuitively. It’s almost meditative, I’d say. Think I sound crazy yet? Read on.)

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 crazy 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 it’s my job. If you love a certain 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 pair of oxfords. 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 a wonderful olive pair. 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 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 into 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 few 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.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!

One comment

  1. Danielle says:

    My great thrifting regrets are the times I’ve found a killer expensive designer piece that doesn’t fit me and _not bought it_, after calling everyone I know whom it might fit. (Size 12 Rag & Bone jeans in Brighton, Mass., I remember you.) Why didn’t I think of eBay? I could have bought that item for $6 and made a profit! I could have resold it to Buffalo Exchange for store credit! What was I thinking?!

    My most recent find on that front was a Todd Oldham black pencil skirt that did fit me.

    Generally speaking, my favorite part of thrifting is the sense of freedom I feel knowing that I can buy anything in the store. I don’t have to turn over price tags and feel pinched. I don’t have to debate and argue with myself. I will be able to afford anything I like. It’s a great feeling.

    We can talk about the housewares section another time.

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