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Thrift Store Shopping 101

You don’t have to spend lots of money to look good. I promise you! There are many tricks to maintaining a fresh look without dropping g’s on designer clothes at the mall or on Rodeo Drive or wherever it is that Carrie Bradshaw bought her shoes.

Anyhow, one of those tricks is thrift store shopping. Ah, the thrill of the hunt! Few things are more satisfying than finding a unique piece of clothing you absolutely love and having it cost about as much as a damaged sock from a “high end” store. So get out your treasure maps and your sense of adventure, mysteries await on every hanger! Laughs both of incredulousness and joy are on the horizon. Are you ready? Let’s begin!

Thrifting: The Basics

1. Dollar dollar billz, ya’ll

At thrift stores, they like everything to be from history, so don’t count on your plastic.
I once was at a local thrift store where they had these lovely specimens:

Legit L.L.Bean duck boots for only $6!! Well, because I had entered on a whim, I had no cash whatsoever, which many local thrifty stores don’t like. Including the one I was in. So I hid the boots, left, got cash, came back, and they had been SOLD. I guess I didn’t hide them well enough, and now I am duck boot-less. Don’t let this happen to you!

2. Examine the merchandise

There may be a legitimate reason someone didn’t want that ______ anymore. So before you buy it, make sure there are no moths in the lining eating holes into places you really don’t want drafts.

The benefit of shopping at thrift stores is — should something have a tear in it or disintegrate within a few weeks — at least you bought it for only a few Washingtons! It’s a lot less ok when the blazer you just bought from Forever-Urban-Apparel, which cost you an arm and a leg and a date with that cute girl at the coffee shop, does the same thing.

Actually, to be fair, Forever 21 does have some reasonably priced clothes. Maybe that’s why things sometimes fall apart. Hm. Anyway, moving on.

3. Try it on (or not)

If you don’t like trying on other people’s used clothes without washing them first, that’s okay. Just size it up and down and make a sound judgment. For instance, if I see a long t-shirt I like, I’m not going to buy it without trying it on because I know long t-shirts have a personal vendetta against my hips.

However, if you’re pretty sure that big comfy sweater will fit, go ahead! That’s another benefit of buying things cheap–being suspicious of other peoples’ used apparel shouldn’t keep you from reaping the benefits of thrifting.

NOTE: Please don’t buy undergarments at thrift stores. Unless you’re absolutely 100% sure that the sealed package hasn’t been opened, don’t bother. It’s just not sanitary. If you’re going to splurge on something, let it be underwear.  Like these sweet briefs from Nudie Jeans. Co.

4. Branch out

It’s good to expand your style horizons. Don’t be surprised if the low prices inspire you to try on new things. Embrace it. If a sweater vest usually isn’t your steeze, but you see a fun one that might go smashing with that staple button down you own, DO IT.  You can get this one at DirtBag Clothing, the “authentic rock & roll clothing store”. Don’t be afraid to try something a little risqué–viva experimentation!


5. Take your time

Serious thrift shopping gets tiring. Especially because there might be a local thrift store on one side of town and a Goodwill nine towns over. And maybe that local thrift store only has teapots and fur-coats so for variety you have to go to that other OTHER thrift store. Bring a snack, a friend, and a realistic time frame. Spread out your thrifting; it’s more fun that way.

6. Gender bend it

Another good thing about thrift stores is that you’re less likely to get a sideways glance from someone if you’re prancing about in the men’s section than if you were in say, Brooks Brothers. Because yeah, I’m trying on these men’s trousers, maybe even a pair of Dockers B.C. (Before Close-mindedness), but you’re over there trying on a ridiculous bird hat. So I don’t think you’re necessarily going to be judging me.

7. Know your stores

There are a number of different “levels” of used clothes shopping.

You have garage/rummage/yard sales. These are great for chatting with neighbors who aren’t yours, finding Barbie dolls with fun alternative-life-style-haircuts, courtesy of their screaming three year old (if you can, get two alternative-life-style-haircut barbies for optimum scissoring action), and maybe even a red fuzzy cardigan.

You have your local thrift stores, which will often have a mix of furniture/knick-knacks/ clothes/etc. These are basically like garage sales, only the stock of items will be continually replenished, and they will often provide little make-shift dressing rooms to try on the clothes, if you want. Beware: the puzzles you get at thrift stores may have pieces missing.

You have those ‘name brand’ thrift stores like Goodwill and The Salvation Army. These are generally way bigger, brighter, and less musty smelling than your local thrift store. They’re also super organized. You can get basically anything here. Sweet saddle shoes, a super bowl clock, whatever. Tons of clothes and a pretty solid collection of furniture pieces & VHSs.Unfortunately, The Salvation Army is still following that stupid trend of thinking homosexuality is, you know, the devil’s’ work or something. If you can stomach the fact that they have  an official policy statement seeped in intolerance and scriptures, go ahead and shop. But really, I recommend you go spend your money at Goodwill instead. It’s plenty satisfying and magical and not homophobic.

Then you have Plato’s Closet, which sells “gently used clothing for children, teen, and twenty-something boys and girls” at a bajillion locations. Far from musty smelling, these clothes are name brand, hardly used, and saturated in colorful happiness; though they often lean a little teen with lots of Hollister and Abercrombie. Their inventory updates daily and they do cute things with finding which style or  trend you are this season. They mention that “Didn’t Steal Your Boyfriend” is a fashion trend right now. Besides being a little silly in the idea that “oversized” clothes can only possibly be “boyfriend” clothing, I’m actually all for this trend as long as they keep making comfortable fitting clothes. Also, this means that in summertime guess what’s coming back in style? NORMAL LENGTH SHORTS. It kinda has been back in style, but it will be in full force soon. More on this in a few months when warmer weather is on the horizon.

Lastly,  you have those crazy online vintage stores: Blue Bird Vintage, De Ja Vu Vintage, Snow Jane Vintage, Lotus Vintage, Art House Vintage, Meat Market Vintage, Neon Life Vintage, I would say there are roughly a million of them. Really, just put some nouns together in a Google search and add “vintage,” and see what happens! This shirt is from Billie Goat Vintage. Basically these people made thrift store shopping their job and created an online store where they put on these clothes and pout. Then you’re like “OMG I WANT IT,” and you can buy it. You can get pretty cool/crazy stuff. But in some cases, though it’s ‘used’, it can be pretty far from bargain prices.

8. Give back

If you have any clothes in good condition that you don’t want anymore, you should definitely donate! Share the love. Just think: that could have been some other lovely lesbian’s flannel shirt.

So enough of this, I think I’ve assaulted your eyes enough for one day. Get out there and explore your options! Happy hunting!!

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I'm Becky. I write about style because I think anybody can look great and I think everybody usually does. I'm into self-expression. I'm into being expressive. When I'm not writing about style for Autostraddle I'm usually trying to make a film. I'm also a dancer, so I will Gahu with you anytime, anywhere.

Becky has written 23 articles for us.


    • that bird hat is pretty solid.
      And I don’t know why “that” has been added to my name. Perhaps it’s because I’m shmammered.

  1. hmmm do you know where i could buy a chain vintage chanel purse in nyc?

    theres a pic of it on here http://www.alipstickdiary.tumblr.com

    its all black, i have been looking and i can’t find it in any stores, and they have the ones they make now adays but i really want a vintage one…plus it’ll be cheaper if its vintage!

    p.s i like this post, anything with fashion makes me weak :-)

    • hmm indeed, that’s a difficult article you’re after! Unfortunatly in this case vintage doesn’t mean cheaper, it means “lot’s of people still want this but because it’s not in stores anymore we’re going to jack up the prices even if it’s been used”. that means if someone doesn’t want theirs, they’re not going to donate it to a local thrift store, (if they do, and you find it, buy it and run for your life before anyone changes their mind) instead they’re going to sell it on ebay and let the fashionistas bid until they forget what they’re bidding for.

      you can get it here now, for about $1,000 something dollars. maybe buy yourself two consolation purses for half that price instead?

      anyway, sorry i couldn’t be of more help–glad you liked the post!

      • lol yes becky i agree..no matter how old the chanel purse gets, they will never bring the price down smh

        they have this thrift shop out here where i live in williamsburg brooklyn called “beacon” but i haven’t seen it yet, $1000 bucks? lol geesh thats alot, i could buy a new slr with $1000 bucks..hmm hopefully some rich old lady will give me one randomly one day lol, in the meantime i’ll keep searching cure thrift shops and other shops!

        anyway i loved this post

        my personal blog which has vintage things on it

        Lesbian website

        P.S. you should do more post!

  2. I love love vintage shopping. I bought these great 50’s lighters that I need to get the wicks fixed for super cheap at a vintage shop on the upper west side. Also great bottles for booze. You know what town has great vintage shops too… Austin, TX I bought this great skinny tie that has galaga space ships on it. superb.

    • fact: any object with scifi/arcade game influence is, for the most part, extremely fashionable. this fact was brought to you by becky’s fashion fact book of fashion.

      also, i love vintage shops for all the random things you can get there. like, you can get really creative when looking for ashtrays. i think one of the best one’s we bought was a porcelain Mickey mouse club dish thing at this shop where we also bought a soccer net. sadly, only one of these objects ever gets used.

  3. This is a super long-shot, but can anyone recommend a good secular thrift store/op shop in/near Sydney? All I can ever find is Anglicare/Salvos/Vinnies… XP

      • Try markets, there are good ones in Glebe. Otherwise there are lots of upmarket vintage stores, where they select the best stuff for you, but charge you five times the price.

        If not, why not have a clothes swap party – get a whole bunch of your mates together, preferably with a sewing machine, and you all bring your old clothes and swap them around, trying them on and drinking beer/wine/cocktails, and altering the clothes if neccesary (this is where a sewing machine is awesome). It is a good time, and, in my experience, full of lefty/queer girls! Flirting and new clothes. What more could a girl want?

  4. I loved this. I’m happy that there’s now a style section.
    P.S. I was just at GoodWill today and found this sweet purple one-sie snow suit that I totally want to wear snowboarding.

    • DO IT. i always get snow in my snowpants when i snowboard; maybe a snow SUIT is the answer. and the fact that it’s purple. i think the color purple has magical effects on snow, like, turns it into marshmallows. i either read that somewhere or i interpreted it from the back of a Lisa Frank folder. either way, sweet find!

  5. Forever 21 is my favorite store/guilty pleasure, I def bought a military style blazer from there for like $32, I don’t know if that’s good or bad but the clasps are coming loose and you’re right, I’d be less disappointed if that cost a few bucks. (Like my run-on sentence?)

    More barbie scissoring! yay!
    And now they’ve got the Shane!-cut-my-hair-in-the-kitchen-while-I-cry look.

    Doesn’t Riese have a red sweater like that? It’s in a post somewhere I swear. Don’t get the creepy stalker vibe.

    “We don’t support you, you’re not ‘scriptural’, in fact you should be celibate. But we’ll still allow you to shop in our stores!”
    Gee, thanks a heap, Salvation Army.

    • I totally bought a captain-esque blazer thingy from forever 21 too!!!! now the buttons are coming off but i still love it!! that run-on was exquisite, especially because it was followed by a barbie scissoring comment. i think there’s one of those grammatical rhyming rules about how run-ons are okay if followed by gay sex. or something. … and yay online vintage shopping!

      • Really? That’s def my new fave grammar rule.

        From now on, if someone leaves a run-on sentence reply in a post and I directly reply with something about gay sex, it’s not my random Sapphic cries for attention, I’m just having their back grammatically. Because y’know, friends look out for each other like that.

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  7. In love with the red cardigan, possibly thinking of heading to Goodwill instead of the usual stores to get said red cardigan. Oh and a bow tie.

  8. 85% of my current wardrobe came off the “used and useable” table at my old apartment complex. It was so convenient to just walk by on my way home and grab whatever looked like a keeper. :P I was amazed how much stuff there was (in my size!) for a small complex.

    I don’t have the patience for Goodwill (though when mom forced me we did strike gold, but I hate having to look through racks so I’m just glad she still speaks to me).

    Informative and funny, thanks Becky! But you have got me wondering what has happened to my old alt. lifestyle haircut barbies… I was genuinely disappointed at the time that it wouldn’t grow back. Now I’d just sew Barbie a wee Tegan and Sara shirt. :D

  9. I love this times a million. I love cheap things. Plus, you always find little gems at thrift stores.

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  11. I love love love this!!!
    Buying mens sweaters at thrift stores is like my favorite thing EVER. I also enjoy sporting the “once worn by my grandma who lives in boca raton” type sweater that is found at practically every thrift store.

    If anyone is from the palm beach county/south florida area you HAVE to check out a place called “world thrift”…it’s basically where half my wardrobe comes from. Plus its huge and color coded!!!

    This post totally made my day!

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  13. I’ve shopped almost exclusively at thrift stores since I moved to Eugene almost a year and a half ago. Best purchases include a velcro flannel [I cannot even begin to tell y’all how terrible/AWESOMEAWESOMEAWESOME it is], a member’s only-esque jacket, and this wonderful sweater that has about 15 patterns on it. I actually went to one of my favorite thrift stores yesterday where I’ve never paid full price because the owner is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.

    Also, I’d like to make a motion that “let’s go to my favorite thrift store!” be the new “let’s get coffee.” Yes? Anyone? I don’t drink a lot of coffee and I often take cute girls to thrift stores. So.

  14. I buy 80% of my clothes and almost 100% of my shoes from thrift/vintage stores. I’ve made some ridiculously lucky vintage finds (armani jeans, etienne aigner boots, etc) and tip #5 has always been the biggest trick to it.

    ebay can also be an awesome source for really cheap thrift.

  15. I miss the thrift stores in LA :( Been to the goodwill store here and it was just a big NO.

    Oh I wanted to give a shout out to California’s Out of the Closet (http://www.outofthecloset.org/) thrift stores! The money goes to AIDS health care and HIV testing is done at some locations.

  16. As a thrift-store employee, I must say you hit the nail on the head. Well done!
    I have some insider tips as well…
    a) Local thrift stores are holy places. Like rivers, you can never step into the same place twice. Their inventory changes every day. You can make this work for you by communicating your desires with the universe. The more you wish to the universe for brand new snow boots, a perfect Halloween costume or a Joan Baez LP to come in, the more likely you are to get it. Be open to suggestions from the universe — like, if you were wishing for Bean boots but some Timberlands came in you had best buy them.
    b) Location is destiny to some degree. Inventory in a thrift store depends on the people who bring shit in and also on the customers who take it out again. Trendy thrift stores have awesome clothes and accessories, but they tend to have higher prices and the merch has been picked over by hipsters. Weird suburban thrifts are full of dead Grandma’s bespoke business suits and handmade Italian pumps, and the people who work there don’t even know they should charge more for these items. Shopping in wealthy neighborhoods’ charity shops is always a gold mine. If you are browsing with an immigrant dad on your right and a granny in a fuzzy poodle sweater on your left, then you are in the right place — like you, these people are looking for quality and bargains, but UNLIKE you they are NOT looking for a perfectly worn-in Slint tee shirt! Actually a lot of dealers visit the cheap rural/suburban stores, because they know they can find gorgeous pieces for pittance and resell them for 5x the price.
    c) I TOTALLY agree with your anti-Salvation Army message. A lot of thrift stores support great causes (I LOVE Out of the Closet!) and even if they’re for-profit, they’re still local businesses.
    d) Please make my life a wee bit easier by starting to think about your Halloween costume in June.

  17. I went to Goodwill today and bought a shiny pair of gladiator-like sandals and a sweet button down sweater (from the mens’ section, I would just like to point out) for no more than $10.00.

    And I donated a lot of things yesterday (after unpacking after I moved two weeks ago) and saw one of the things I brought in yesterday sitting on the shelf next to/near the shoes I bought. It was awkward and thrilling in a good way.

    The sweater will (hopefully) help me not freeze this winter.

  18. I’ve bought pretty much all my clothes recently at charity shops (as we call them here across the pond) and managed to completely make my 11th Doctor cosplay from charity shop stuff.
    Not sure why, people are just always really nice in there as well, the shop assistants are much more likely to be friendly and chat about outfit ideas in a charity shop

  19. I love thrift store shopping! It’s where all of my guy friends get their dresses and shoes for our local amateur drag show and my girlfriend was able to get a few basic pieces for her new girly wardrobe without getting weird looks from the employees.

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