Thrift Shopping for You

May 3, 2011

When I was a teenager, I often bought my clothes at the thrift store.  I loved finding awesome (mostly vintage) items that I knew no one else would have.  At least for me, being a teenager was all about wearing crazy things and wearing them with confidence.  I still have some of my favourite vintage items, including several Adidas zip-up jackets.

My favourite pink Adidas zip-up and Adam's Grandpa Willard.

Now that I'm an adult with kids, I find that I've had to rethink thrift shopping for myself.  I don't think I'm at the stage anymore where I can pull off most of my former wardrobe, but thrift shopping can still make sense.  Shopping for kids clothes is easy, but it is admittedly more difficult to build or add to your own wardrobe with thrift store finds.  I've been shopping at thrift stores for years, and here are a few tips I've picked up along the way: 

1. Go often.

I don't know if I can say this enough, but the more often you go to the thrift store, the more likely you will find things that you love.  Chances are other people have similar taste, and lots of the 'good' stuff gets snatched up after a short time being on the floor.  The other advantage to going often is that it's easier to quickly scan the store for new items.

2. Shop with a buddy.

If you are buying for yourself you will need to try things on.  I like to have a second opinion on things, and the bonus to this arrangement is that my friend can watch my kids while I go into the dressing room by myself.  Best scenario is to shop with a buddy that isn't your same size so you don't fight over the perfect dress that you both love.

3. Keep a list of what you are looking for.

I try to do this with kids items especially, but this is good practice for thrifting in general.  If I know that I need a new pair of jeans, I look until I find something that I love.  If something is on my list I look, and if it's not, I skip that part of the store.  This helps me to not buy too many similar items and keeps me from forgetting about my highest priority items.  Although, I'm not convinced that I will ever have enough jackets and coats!

My gorgeous friend Katja and my almost as gorgeous green velvet coat.

4. Know what you are willing to spend.

For me, I typically compare prices with other thrift stores, but if you do most of your shopping at Target or the Gap, compare to their sale prices.  If you find a sweater in excellent condition that you love, and it's $7, don't automatically dismiss it because it sounds expensive for a thrift store.  Ask yourself if you would spent $7 on the same sweater at another store you often shop at.  If the answer is yes, it's a good deal and you should get it. 

5. Only buy what you are actually going to wear.

Even if something is a good price, don't buy it unless you love it.  Similarly, don't buy 'novelty' items, unless you have a specific event planned.  My sister Emily has an awesome cream and black striped spandex jumpsuit from the 70's that fits her like a glove.  Unfortunately neither of us have a scanned picture of her wearing it.  She bought this either in high school or college, and it got plenty of good use then.  I am no longer going rollerskating or to disco dance parties, so it doesn't make sense for me to add these types of items to my closet as tempting as it might be.  It does make sense to buy a black wool pencil skirt or something else I know I'll wear. 

Vintage Western Shirts Worn to the Medicine Hat Stampede. I owned this shirt for years and only wore it once or twice.

6. Be flexible with sizes. 

I find that depending upon the brand, and decade that the clothing is made in, I will fit into anything from a 4 to a 14.  It's a good idea to shop with a tape measure, and know your basic measurements, so you can quickly gauge if something is worth trying on.

7. Learn how to make basic alterations.

Lots of vintage dresses and skirts have very generous hems, so it's easy to make them a little longer (or shorter).  Skirts with back zippers are easy to take in (equal amounts from both sides).  Pants are easily hemmed, and sleeves can be shortened.  Sweaters and shirts can be taken in along the side seams to make them less boxy.  My favourite new trick is to buy bootleg jeans that fit nicely in the hips and bum, and turn them into skinny jeans.  I've seen several tutorials on this, but the basic idea is to take in the side seams from about the knees to the bottom hem.  I try and stay realistic with my alterations and put items back on the rack if they need a lot of work or if I am too busy to take on a big project.  I break this rule if it's something I really love and I have a vision for what I'm going to do with it.

My high school graduation dress, which predates digital cameras as you can see.  I removed the fluttery 80's bridesmaid sleeves and it was beautiful.  Or at least I thought so in 1999.

8. Buy brands you already like.

If you are wary of buying vintage, then just stick with the newer items in brands you feel comfortable with.  I very often find cute clothing in nice brands like J Crew, Ann Taylor, Gap, Express, etc, that is only a season or so old.  If you know and like the way that a certain brand of jeans fits, keep looking until you find a pair in your size.  If you go often, things will turn up!

9. Check out the accessories.

I've bought nice leather purses, necklaces, earring, belts and bracelets at the thrift store.  They are usually cheap and since fashion tends to cycle every 20 years or so, there is almost always something currently fashionable among the selection. 

Finding something awesome at the thrift store is a total thrill and I wish you success not just in finding things for your kids and your house, but also for YOU!

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