Sunday, June 16, 2024

A Fashion-Revolution-Worthy Clothes Thrifter

I posted these tips on Instagram in April for Fashion Revolution Week, and I'm sharing them here now too.

Part One:

Monday begins Fashion Revolution Week 2024. I’ve been thinking about how to add my two cents into this year’s FRW, and it seems the most useful advice I can give is about how and why to thrift clothes. Thrift stores have taken a bad rap recently, as in many places their prices have gone up,  for a mixture of reasons. Many reels have been shared of crazy overpriced junk items still wearing dollar-store price tags for less than the thrift store is asking, or of empty supermarket jam jars priced at more than the jar of jam. People are absolutely right to find that offensive. On the other hand, if you’re careful and know what you want, you can pass right by the jam jars and other garbage, and come home with things you like and can use—and that includes clothes. Most of my tips for successful in-store clothes thrifting are not that earth-shattering, but I’ll lay out a half dozen of them  in hopes of restoring a little faith in thrift shops, especially the little non-profits who have been getting their share of the recent shade on this, but who really deserve support. I should add the caveat that most of these tips are for women’s clothes; mileage may vary on men's, children's, and infants' clothes.

1. Try to avoid the clothes equivalent of jam jars and dollar store d├ęcor. Instead of complaining that thrift stores overcharge for BigStore cheapest t-shirts, decide right off that you are not there to waste time on those brands (because, certainly, you could go to the BigStore and buy them there if that’s what you want). Since thrift stores tend to price all t-shirts, for example, within a small range, where you are going to get the best bang for your buck is with a slightly better brand. Same price, better quality. I can’t afford new L.L. Bean clothes, but the Bean pieces I have thrifted are almost always keepers.

2. You’ll hear this often: ignore size labels. It’s true, within reason. Sometimes thrift store items have shrunk, sometimes they’ve been shortened or taken in, sometimes you just want a looser fit, or the sizing for a particular company is different than you’d expect. If you can remember to bring along a measuring tape, or you want to learn some of the sizing tricks like wrapping pants waists around your neck (or whatever that is), you can get even better at overlooking the supposed size of something.

3. Watch out for certain bad things that do get past back-room sorters, like broken zippers or peeling faux-leather. While the extremely rich can apparently get away with wearing something practically in rags, the rest of us are probably better off sticking with intact items or at least those that we know how to mend.

4. Shop in places that do a colour-of-the-week, or that have a last-chance bargain rack. You are just as apt to find something you like on the dollar rack as you are in the fancy boutique corner.

5. This sounds too obvious, but if you’re trying to find a print skirt to match a t-shirt, or the other way round, wear the shirt or skirt, or at least bring it along. Store lighting is often strange, and our visual memory can also play tricks on us, so bring something to match and you’ll be less likely to be colour-flummoxed when you get the new item into broad daylight.

6. As @therefashionista taught us, ugly can become cute, too large can be made just right, and good bits can be combined to make new good things. Look for possibilities and potential: dresses can become skirts, shirts can lose their sleeves (or acquire new ones), scarves can become fancy jackets (or can line baskets or wrap gifts).

Those are my tried-and-true tips, but there are always new things to learn. What works for you?

Part Two:

The six clothes-thrifting tips I posted earlier in the week for #fashionrevolutionweek were pretty basic, but they’re enough to get you started. But how to go deeper? It’s not always easy to put what we really do into lists or words, and it’s not even often required. As Edward Espe Brown once wrote about making salad, you mainly have to know which bowl you’re going to use and how much it has to be filled for everybody to have enough. But here we go with some black-belt thrifting strategies, most of which can be used for clothes as well as other things. 

Blackbelt Thrifting Tip Number One: Many of my thrift-store stops are brief, and I’ve learned to look at things FAST.  Doing this means that you have to tune in certain things you want, and ignore the rest. Have a specialty, a favourite, a signature colour or pattern or collectible. This might not be lifelong, and it could change, but at least for this season, keep honing in on a very few visual cues. When I’m looking at a thrift store shelf of books, I ignore the mass-market paperbacks (easy because they have a similar size, shape, look) and zoom in on anything bigger, smaller, older; and you can train your eye to do the same with clothes, shoes, purses. I don’t mean you need encyclopedic knowledge of fashion labels, but more like—knowing what the red-winged blackbird sounds like so that you can pick it out of the other bird calls. If you love pink silk floral scarves, that’s what you watch for on the scarf rack, and ignore all the black and white glittery polyester stripes. The magic of this is, first of all, that it takes a whole lot of other things out of your visual field, narrows your vision, gives you some “astringency”; and, second, that after you’ve bought things this way for awhile, they (not so strangely) tend to work well together.

Blackbelt Thrifting Tip Number Two: A homeschool saying we often hear is that the best book or resource is often whichever one you have on your shelf (or can find in the library), the points of that being that, first of all, whatever you have is probably fine if you just make the most of it, and, second, that you’ve saved the time, energy, and money needed to source something different. This also applies to thrifting clothes, or, more accurately, not-thrifting them. Yes, thrifting is a sustainable choice, but it is not without its costs, including staff and volunteer time, building overhead, and disposal issues (even the good stuff doesn’t always sell). Although I happen to be in thrift stores frequently and enjoy finding clothes there (though, again, I try to practice one in-one out restraint), that’s not going to be the same for everyone, and, to repeat the opening point, the best and most sustainable thing you wear is probably something you already have. Whether it was bought new or thrifted, whether it’s recently made or a sweater you’ve had since college, wear it, take care of it, mend it, launder it responsibly, and (if possible) do a Joseph’s Little Overcoat and turn it into something else useful when its wearing life is done.

Social media posts often list rules for successful thrifting, things you should "always" do to up your game. But as a friend said recently about hockey, what you really need to know is that the puck is supposed to go in the net. In the same way, I've found that most of the "rules" you can lay down about secondhand shopping can be true one time, false the next, though the end goal is the same. "Always shop with a list"--don't go browsing the shirts when you know you need shoes, or so they say. Reality: this may not be the day that there are any good shoes in your size, but you might find a Crockpot instead. "Don't be too specific, though": sometimes I have gone in thinking "purple turtleneck" and that is exactly what I've found. "Always go on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday, early in the morning, late in the evening, etc."--well, we don't go to the same places in the same order on the same day, because, life and weather and other things. Unless you happen to know that a store ONLY puts new things out on Mondays, you're probably better off mixing things up. "The last place you go is always the best"--well, sometimes we go to the flea market, buy something at the first table while the entry-stamp is still wet on our hands, and then don't find anything else for the next two hours. "Buy it now, because it won't be here when you come back"--sometimes yes, sometimes no. If it's not a popular item, the odds are that it might be hanging around for at least a few days more.

About the only rule I can think of that never fails is "be generous." Don't grab things out of other shoppers' carts or otherwise be a thrifting pig. Ask friends or family what they're looking for, and if you see their "unobtanium," send them a snapshot and ask if they want it. Share your good finds with others. And that is how to be a #fashionrevolutionweek thrifter.

No comments: