Thrift Store Reconnaissance: You’re On an Eco-Fashion Mission!


I’ve just returned home with an armful of new clothes. Two soft-as-silk shrunken cotton button downs, one oversized linen-mix cardigan, a burgundy leather hobo cross-body purse that is a dead ringer for Chloe’s Spring 2010 version and a fuchsia straw cloche (may prove risky, but for only 75 cents – I’ll take that risk!)

The sum total for this super satisfying shopping spree was, wait for it – $8.14! It’s like those MasterCard commercials: Add a little pizzazz to your summer wardrobe: $8.14. Keeping clothes out of landfill, the buzz of an incredible deal, driving your friends crazy when they ask you where you got that hot outfit – priceless!

Thrift store shopping is really the most fun I have standing-up. Riffling through the racks, pulling out hangers of clothing with stories to tell, secrets, and pasts, time seems to stop and I’m in the zone of space and creativity. I assess what works within latest trends, pair disparate pieces together and imagine how I might cut, sew, or cinch something to transform it to flatter me. Never mind, oh the thrill of finding a certifiable treasure. Over the years, I’ve found vintage YSL, Jean Muir, Missoni, a solid gold deco necklace priced as costume and a Frank Gehry-designed teakettle for only twenty bucks!

Many of my friends are fascinated by my rummaging ways but complain that they never seem to find anything other than junk. I’ll admit it is not the typical store experience. I’d liken it to being more in line with a reconnaissance mission. The best way to get the goodies is use a little subterfuge, embrace your creativity and follow my guide for a successful thrift store adventure.

The Preliminary

  • Swot-up on the latest fashion magazines to get a handle on the trends. If you like, bring clippings to help you keep focused.
  • Figure out what flatters your body and what simply doesn’t work for your shape. There are a lot of guides out there – I like this one. It saves a lot of time if you know for example, that v-necks are the most flattering neckline for you.
  • Identify someone whose style you admire. When I’m really iffy about an item, and can’t decide whether I should take it or toss it, I ask myself – would Julie Christie wear it (insert your own stylish archetype here)? And the answer becomes clear. It’s a little goofy, I admit, but try it!
  • Wear leggings and a t-shirt so that you can try on clothes if there isn’t a dressing room and so you can tell if you can incorporate an item into your regular wardrobe of casual separates.
  • The Push

  • Give yourself a substantial time allowance; don’t bring anyone (kids, partners, pets) unwilling to look for a long time, through a lot of stuff.
  • Ask at the counter for a spot to lay out all your items as you go through the first few rounds of sorting through what catches your eye. Even once I’ve whittled it down to what I want to try on, I’d say my try/buy ratio is still a meager 10:1.
  • Try everything on. Don’t pay too much attention to the size on the tag. Obviously, people buy clothes from different countries that have different sizing systems. Secondhand clothes tend to shrink over the years and remember that a lot of designers have been flattering us with vanity sizing for years now. You may be horrified that you fit perfectly into a size 16 but who cares if you look fabulous in it (when you get home you can perform a label lobotomy if it makes you too crazy!).
  • Look for recognizable names and at the care labels. You can usually get a sense for the age, origin and quality of the garment from its label.
  • The Pull

  • I’ve identified a few favorite hunting grounds over the years, but sometimes I just have to admit that either I’m not feeling it or it’s simply a dry day. Walk away, but don’t give up future visits.
  • Reconstruct your new clothes into something else. I’ve cut sleeves from blazers to create long waistcoats, dipped a trench coat in dye and chopped off the bottom of a sequined dress to create a dazzling evening tank. If you’ve bought something that you love but it just doesn’t work, make it into something else.
  • Abandon Mission!

  • Stay away from anything with stains, rips or tears, but remember that you can always replace buttons and zippers (zippers are trickier and best attempted on something really special).
  • Bring Cash; most thrift stores don’t take credit cards.

Depending on how successful your mission is, you may just want to keep the location and origin of your new-to-you wardrobe top-secret privileged info.

Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.