5 Tips for Secondhand Clothes Shopping

I love second-hand shopping... thrift stores, flea markets, estate sales… all of it. It's 100% my preference if I'm looking for a new piece for my home or closet, especially if I'm traveling and want to bring back a trinket to remember the trip. It's my favorite for many reasons but probably, most importantly, because of its deliberate dichotomy: its 'tangible evanescence,' if you will. Because I know that whichever piece I find to keep is only available in that specific location, at that specific time, in that specific condition, from some specific -yet unknown- origin. It's a whole vibe ;) … exciting, unpredictable, and sometimes bleak. But once you come across that first great treasure, you'll likely find it's a whole lifestyle too. And you'll want more of it.

I grew up in this 'lifestyle' and like to think I'm pretty good at it. If you didn't or don't, I'm here to offer a few tips. True, there may be personalities better suited for 'junking' than others… but if you appreciate a little patina, you'll absolutely want to give it a try.

There are a lot of things I'll buy second-hand, but what I'm shopping for depends on my season of life. Recently, I've been paying closer attention to building out my wardrobe, so I've been frequenting thrift stores with this in mind. Clothes shopping second-hand is, in my opinion, the best way of designing a closet that is equal parts practical, sustainable, whimsical, and classic. It allows for the purchase of quality pieces at affordable prices without contributing to societal excesses. And it's fun.

For clothes, I generally prefer thrift stores to flea markets because of their accessibility and optionality, so with that in mind, here are my top 5 tips:

TIP #1

Set very clear rules about what you will and won't buy. Laying them out clearly for yourself will decrease the overwhelm and the chance of buying something you'll regret later. You may come up with different rules for yourself than me, but exacting some parameters is helpful no matter what they are. Just devise them in advance and be strict. These are my three very hard-and-fast rules when shopping for clothes. 

  • Quality

I only buy natural fabrics like linen, cotton, silk, wool, and leather. Never polyester or acrylic, no matter how fantastic the style or price.

  • Source

I avoid anything made in modern China and the like. Not only are the materials and tailoring lesser quality, but I try to side-step the whole 'fast-fashion' world in general.

  • Tailoring/ Care

I only buy things I can hem or mend myself (skirts with side seams, wool sweaters with tiny holes, etc.) - never something I would need to take to a tailor and only things that can be dry-cleaned for $20 or less.  

(Vintage Silk Dress - Made in New York - $10)

TIP #2:

Give yourself a time limit, so you're not overwhelmed. I'm generally in and out of a thrift store in less than 20 minutes… often it's just 10. I pop in on my way from another errand or if I have an extra few minutes before I need to be somewhere. Thrift shopping doesn't need to be a whole event. You can quickly and efficiently scan the sections you're interested in and recognize when something is particularly valuable or special. I never go piece by piece through any specific section; I scan the racks for colors and lengths and then zero in to see if the fabrics are right. 

TIP #3

Have something in mind you're looking for… maybe a color you want to add to your closet, a dress for a specific event, or an overcoat to build out your closet. For example, a cool, bold green sweater struck me in the JCrew Catalog this fall. I knew it would be a fun addition to my closet, so I started hunting with this specific color in mind. I didn't find a good substitution right away, but when I did, I knew it was just right.

(Wool Sweater - Made in Switzerland - $5)

TIP #4:

In general, stick to items you can try on over your clothes in the store. I rarely, if ever, look for jeans at thrift stores, even though I know there are good ones out there. Pants fit so differently depending on shoes, undergarments, etc... personally, I don't find the slog worth my time or effort. Blouses, dresses, shoes, handbags, hats, and coats are all good options, and you can get a pretty good sense right away of whether or not you can make it work. 

(Vintage Wool Coat - Made in New York - $10 + $20 Dry Cleaning)

TIP #5

Refine your editing process by keeping in mind your existing closet. Even if you find a great piece that fits all of your parameters, ask yourself if you need it in your closet and, if you don't, what you're willing to get rid of in exchange. Editing is always the most challenging part of any process for me but often the most important. If unsure, snapping a photo on my camera helps. When I can look at it in the abstract, it's easier for me to see it with clearer eyes, and I generally know whether it's worth buying.


And that's it!  My top 5 tips for shopping for clothes second-hand.  I hope these were helpful, let me know!  I also made a little video showing how I mix and match old and new with some of these pieces over on my Insta if you're interested!  



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Elina Brooks

I enjoy shopping at thrift stores, so I was thinking of buying used clothes as well when I visit the neighboring town next week for a short trip. I found your advice helpful when you told us to lay clear rules about what we will buy to decrease the chances of buying something we might regret later. I’ll be sure to follow what you said while I look for consignment stores in the area that sell good quality women’s resale apparel. https://bigcitygirlconsignment.com/womens-clothing

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