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 How can I find the best outfits at second-hand clothing stores?

Answer: I love it when this happens: I wear an insanely cute outfit, get complimented on said outfit, and am able to say, “Oh, this? I got it for five dollars.” Cue: looks of astonishment. Or, equally as good: when I walk by a dress in a store that costs more than a month’s rent, and know I have the same one hanging in my closet—and it only cost me thirty dollars. I get lots of questions about thrift shopping strategies, so I’ve created a list of pointers that’ll help you get the most of your thrift shopping experience, so you are able to find the best outfits at second hand clothing stores:

1. Wear the right clothes.

Well, actually, Kate, I want to buy the clothes so I can wear them, not the other way around. Yes, my witty friend, of this I am aware. But there is a particular frustration which can arise when you’d really love to know how that white cotton sundress would look, but your electric blue/crystal encrusted/zebra print pushup bra is making it nigh impossible to tell if the dress will ever look anything but terrifying. Since you never know what type of clothing you’re going to stumble upon, you definitely want to be prepared. My best suggestion would be a nude, strapless bra with minimal padding and a similar pair of neutral underwear. Also handy: a pair of shorts and a form-fitting tank top, especially if you end up at a store with questionable, full, or nonexistent fitting rooms.

2. Pick a color scheme.

Many thrift stores out there can be completely overwhelming—there is such a huge amount of stuff. Many of my friends who have never thrift shopped have told me that they’ve just never known where to start. If you find yourself in a similar position, try this: pick a few key colors that go with a lot of other items in your closet (think neutrals) and one or two pops of color that also fit the bill. (I personally always gravitate toward charcoal grey, cream, navy, and peach.) Then, with that in mind, let your eyes wander until they zoom in on the colors you’ve picked out. It will help you narrow your search and make the slogging through piles of clothing seem a lot more tolerable.

3. Know your brands.

No, I’m not saying that you should only buy labels. Nor am I saying that you’ll find a ton in your adventures. But, it’s important to come up with a list of high-quality brands that you generally admire. I think everyone has had an experience where they’ve bought a shirt which didn’t survive more than three wears. It’s a fact: some clothing is just superior in quality, and this is even more important to keep in mind when you’re shopping second-hand. Pay attention to the clothing you’ve kept the longest. Of course, it’s always good to try new things, but there’s something to that old adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it (just buy it for way cheaper).

4. Learn your terms.

Thrift shop? Vintage store? Consignment shop? These are just some of the many terms out there for shops which sell things second-hand. Here’s the lowdown:

Thrift shops are your classic Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Amvets sort of setup. There is a ton of merchandise, and most of it probably won’t be what you’re looking for. But, these are the best places for finding unexpected treasures, and for unbeatable prices. These shops don’t typically seek out specific brands or styles, either. So while you may find a million old vacation t-shirts, you may also find a gorgeous boutique top on the next hanger. Luck definitely comes into play here.

Vintage stores sell clothing that caters to the styles of particular decades and time periods throughout history. When integrated correctly into an outfit, vintage fashion can really be flawless. The best way to approach a vintage store is to know your favorite decades for fashion, and the trends during those time periods. For example, if you’re looking for a fifties style cocktail dress, it’s good to know that the particular style also became popular again the 1980’s, so check the 80’s section, too.

Consignment stores are where I have found my best buys, but they can also be tricky. Think stores like Plato’s Closet. People typically sell their gently used clothing to stores like this for either cash or store credit. The turnover at these places is high, so it’s advisable to stop in frequently if you want to snag the best new arrivals. Word to the wise: this is the place where you are most likely (in my experience) to stumble upon counterfeits. If that matters to you, you may want to do your homework before you snag that discount Prada bag.

Alright, that’s it for Thrifting 101! Next step: go out and make me insanely jealous with all of your incredible finds! Have you scored some great second-hand clothes? Tell us about it!

  • Tess

    Good tips! I remember once picking up a pair of genuine leather horse riding boots from Plato’s Closet. I figured they were just fake riding boots, but later looked up the brand online and it turns out they were worth hundreds of dollars and in near-perfect condition. They lasted me about 2 years without getting scruffed up and I received tons of compliments on them. How much did they cost me? 30 bucks. :D

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