Sunday, March 15, 2009

Introduction to Thrift Store Shopping

Thrift Store Confidential's Guide to Shopping in Thrift Stores

No matter what part of our social spectrum you inhabit, you’ve no doubt at least felt a twinge of curiosity when passing your local thrift shop. A part of you may feel uncomfortable, in the “by the grace of God there go I” kind of way. Some of you may even feel lured by the little antique you saw in the window, but shiver at the thought of walking in. There are probably horrible things in there. Somebody from your local PTA may see you. The cashier looks like an inmate. You might get cooties. Whatever the reason, you’ve never walked in.

Now, however, as the economic crisis touches every family (and we all have to buckle down and notice every dollar’s worth), there may be a renewed interest in slyly discovering what second hand shopping is all about.

I’ve already addressed, in several posts now, how to shop for specific items. But this one’s about actually walking in the door.

Granted, not all thrift stores have the beautifully selected items that places in New York City like Housing Works and Angel Street do. The local Salvation Army and Goodwill may look like a foreboding, fluorescent prison laundry. The cashier may well be a recent parolee, and the entire store may look like the photo at left. EEEEK!

However, there’s good to be had and treasures to discover, no matter where you are!

Today I’ll use as an example a subject of one of my forthcoming webisodes. Let’s take Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style as our roadmap. Tim (and I dearly love this kind-hearted, tasteful soul), has wisely discovered that women need only a few basics in their wardrobe, what he calls his “10 Essential Elements.” Not everyone can afford to walk into Macy’s and scoop these pieces off the racks.

With an open mind, I’d like you to consider taking a couple of hours and Tim’s list to your local thrift store, just to look at the possibilities. It’s a game, with no downside. You don’t have to buy anything, and there’s no pressure. Just take a look.

The list is below, and it’s brilliant. With these pieces, you can look pulled together and feel more confident in any situation. I’ve made a few notes after each item that will help you in your hunt for these items second hand.

But first, let’s talk a little about walking in the door and getting over the psychological roadblocks of second hand shopping.

I grew up in Oklahoma City, during the height of the oil boom. Everywhere were instant millionaires, with the most fashionable women shopping at upscale boutiques like Big Daddy Rat’s and Baliette’s, and getting their hair done at Johnny’s Wash & Wad. It seemed everyone was a cross between “Urban Cowboy” and “Dynasty.” During all of this, my mother, really one of the most gorgeous and graceful women to ever plant her feet on red dirt, was a divorcee with four children to raise. She worked as a legal secretary for the State Attorney General’s Office, and I (and everyone else) marveled at her classic style. However, money was always, ALWAYS an issue, a precious spice that was used sparingly, and only when necessary. We saved quarters for laundry day and hit every garage and estate sale in Nichols Hills (the upscale neighborhood at the time).

Mom shopped in thrift stores, and took me with her. Since the age of 4 I’ve been able to tell the difference between cashmere and angora, wool and polyester, and it’s a skill I can’t thank her enough for now that I’m on my own.

By the time I hit puberty, I was deathly embarrassed at having to go with her, afraid that some kid from school would see us and use it as another reason to torture me. Worse yet, what if I showed up at school wearing another kid’s clothes?! MELTDOWN! It wasn’t easy for Mom, either; trying to maintain a low profile with a chunky, surly girl throwing fits in the parking lot was a challenge!

Long story short, we made it through the tough times, Mom looking amazing, and me, well, if not deliriously happy, at least well-clothed. What made this possible was my mother’s critical eye for quality and her fierce determination to make the best of her situation.

This is what I’m hoping to pass onto you. In Oklahoma City, a shop owner told me that she has a few clients who insist on either parking in the back, OR coming in after hours so that no one will see them shopping!

To my mind, this is ridiculous. If you are savvy enough to stretch your budget by shopping second hand, there is no shame in it. Especially now. In today’s economy, being creatively frugal is one of the most desirable traits you can have!

If this has at least swayed you even a smidge, read on, brave warrior. Here’s how to start.

1. Walk in the front door. You can bring a little bag of clothing you no longer want or need with you to donate; the trip has already been worthwhile, as not only will you get a tax-deductible receipt, but you’ll also feel great with the knowledge that someone, somewhere, will be ever so grateful to have something from your closet.

2. Just IN CASE, wear leggings and a fitted tank top under your clothing so that you can slip in and out of anything you might like to try on without getting buck nekkid in the often ill-equipped dressing rooms. Bring a pair of footies or knee-highs to try on shoes, if you find a pair of boots or shoes you might like. You might also bring antibacterial hand gel in case you get the heebie jeebies.

3. Print out Tim’s list below, and begin perusing the racks. This is just a game, mind you. A game that engages your creativity and sense of discovery, and that’s good for your brain. There’s no obligation to buy a single thing!

4. Finally, once you’ve finished, no matter your experience, come here and tell us all about it! I want to hear everything from success to horror stories, and your input will help hundreds of people who are looking at the same thing!

I’m here for you, and I’m rooting for you!
Talk soon and all best,

Adapted for THRIFT STORE CONFIDENTIAL™ shoppers!

1. Basic Black Dress - The basic black dress has been around for a long time. It is often called the "Little Black Dress", and it's true that shorter skirts on the basic black dress, when they hit you in the right place, can be more flattering than a long black dress.

TSC TIPS: Pull out a few dresses in your size. Weed out the ones that are poorly made. Don’t let little things like broken zippers, fallen hems, or unflattering lengths dissuade you. These are easy and inexpensive fixes. Does the dress fit? Does it hug your curves elegantly? Can you reach, bend over, and sit while wearing it? Is the fabric of good quality? If so, you might have a winner! If not, keep looking. If you don’t find anything, move onto the next item on the list!

2. Trench Coat - The trench coat is one of the pieces that is both classic and currently a hot fashion item. Most any store sells this piece now. It is great for fall and you can pick it up in a wide range of lengths.

TSC TIPS: No, you cannot wear trench coat three sizes too big for you! I don’t care if it’s a classic Burberry; if you’re a 10 and it’s a 14, it’s not for you. (Though it might be an easy eBay sale!) For women, look for trenches that fall just past the knee. The shoulders should hit at your natural shoulder, the cuffs just below your wrist. Rips and tears at the seams are easy fixes; rips and tears on the body of the fabric are not. Is the lining in good condition? Linings can be expensive to replace, but it’s not impossible if it’s the coat of your dreams. Don’t be afraid of bright colors or vintage pieces – if the cut is sharp and looks good on you, it can be a kicky, lovely addition to your spring wardrobe!

3. Dress Pants - Although it doesn't say black, this is probably what you want to look for. Black is flattering on all figures and goes with everything.

TSC TIPS: Dress pants are kind of fun to shop for; pull out a few pairs, in black, in your size. Check the fabric for rips, stains or threadbare areas. Ideally, you’ll find a pair of lightweight wool pants that flatter your figure. If you have to do the suck in dance to button them, leave them alone. If they fit in your hips and thighs but are too large in the waist, it’s an easy fix! If they’re just too long, this is also not a problem for your local tailor. If they’re too short, check to see how much fabric is under the hem – many times they can be let down!

4. Classic Shirt - The white shirt is a definite classic. But it can also come in many different styles to make it look trendy and not dated or like a man's piece of clothing. Find one that accentuates your best attributes and minimizes trouble spots. For example, if you have wide shoulders, stay away from large collars.

TSC TIPS: For a classic shirt, again pull a few options in your size. Shirts right now are fairly fitted, so it may be wise to look for shirts that have a bit of stretch. Weed out the items that have set-in stains at the color or underarms (although a good soak in a solution of Clorox and Biz bleach will do wonders for white cotton!) If it’s a beautiful shirt but just missing a couple of buttons, that’s no problem. Make sure it fits across the bust and shoulders!

5. Jeans - Everyone has a pair of jeans, but does everyone have a pair of jeans that make them look great? The wider leg, low-rise jean style has been popular (and still is) but a narrower leg is coming back along with a higher waist, which eliminates the unflattering "muffin top" look.

TSC TIPS: Jeans can be tricky, but not impossible. Look for either white, black or darker rinses, as faded jeans can look awfully faded by the time the shop gets them! Again, find a few pairs in your size, check for rips, tears and stains, then try them on. Tiny back pockets look terrible on everyone, but gaps in the waist and excess length can be easily fixed.

6. Any Occasion Top - Find something you look great in that can look respectable under a jacket but bring on the fun after hours.

TSC TIPS: Here’s where it’s fun to look at vintage pieces – they’re often made extremely well with durable natural fabrics, and, when paired with classic pieces, make a kicky and modern statement. Again, check for size, fit, color, rips, stains and anything else not easily remedied by your local cleaner or tailor.

7. Skirt - If you need dress pants then you also need a skirt. A skirt is womanly and can be flirty or businesslike. Nowadays women do not wear many skirts or dresses, which makes a lot of them fall into a rut of dressing sloppily or like men. See number 8.

TSC TIP: For the sake of our adventure, look at pencil or A-line skirts, which are flattering on most figures. Skirts should hit at just above or just below the knee, and should fall nicely across your curves, rather than choking them or falling like sad drapery. Fastenings like zippers and buttons are easy fixes, as are hems. As always, check for fit and quality of fabric.

8. Day Dress - Women also are not wearing as many dresses anymore. It was certainly liberating to go from the '50s when women wore dresses every day to wearing more practical pants for gardening, exercising, and so forth. But the dress does not have to be abandoned altogether. They can be very flattering, and there is nothing wrong with "dressing up" for daytime.

TSC TIP: A belted shirt dress is often a fine option here, as are vintage dresses. A vintage dress is often well made, well tailored, and, when paired with modern accessories, absolutely stunning. Have an open mind and pull out a few options, again checking for fabric condition and quality. Hem length, pulled seams and fastenings (zippers, buttons, clasps) are easy and inexpensive fixes.

9. Jacket - A jacket does not have to be masculine. Find one with a proper, fitted shape. Women's jackets should follow the silhouette of a woman's body and accent the hourglass curve at her waist. It is also a perfect piece to put with the skirt or dress pants, and white shirt. Or make it casual with a pair of jeans.

TSC TIP: Take a look at my post on “JACKETS AND BLAZERS” for in-depth advice on these pieces!

10. Sweatsuit Alternative - As mentioned before, women wear fewer skirts and dresses these days. But some women have taken casual to the extreme and spend days on end in sweatsuits. It is possible to be casual and comfortable without looking like a slob. Find a comfortable material (that's why this doesn't say jeans again – denim is not as comfortable as a nice soft cotton) that you would want to wear every day. It could be khakis, cords, a cotton dress, or much more.

TSC TIP: Here, the sky is the limit. Check for khakis, using the “dress pants” tips above, or cotton/jersey dresses that can be belted and worn with flats or heels. Use your imagination, and your good judgment!

Most importantly, HAVE FUN, keep an open mind, and realize that by perusing these second hand racks, you’re doing yourself, and your community, an incredibly good service!

All the best,

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