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my ultimate thrift guide: find gems, avoid clutter, and live for the hunt

Okay, not to brag, but I was voted "Best Thrifter" at my university faculty's holiday party. And the previous year, I was voted "Best Dressed". So this is as close to a professional guide to thrifting as you're going to find.

A long sleeve green top, a cream coloured tee shirt, and a black tank top lie next to each other

Thrifting your wardrobe has become increasingly mainstream over the past decade - it's good for the planet, it's usually much cheaper, and (this is my own personal theory) it feeds our former hunter-gatherer brains. Foraging for a real leather purse can be as gratifying as finding a stash of berries in the wilderness.


I've been thrifting for various purposes my whole life. In my childhood, thrift stores were a utopia for someone who lives to make a costume. In my early teen years, thrifting became a way for me to redesign my lewk on my tween funds. I was deep into Tumblr aesthetic culture, and loved to visit my local basement thrift store, Jinglers (Frederictonians will remember Jinglers and the accompanying faint smell of pee fondly) and seek out items to pair with my band tees. In 9th grade, I went to see The 1975 wearing a yellow sweater with some weird slogan about a chocolate company and America that I bought to be ironic.

An orange sweater and a black sweater with pink embroidered flowers lie next to each other

I fell out of thrifting for a while when trying to erase that Tumblr era of my life, but came back strong in university. Today, I love to devote a few hours every few weeks to stalk the racks of a few thrift stores. My small city doesn't have any particularly "cool" thrift stores, and the population isn't exactly out here donating designer items, but there's usually decent selection if you're willing to dig.


More than supplying my clothing, thrifting has shaped my style. I've collected some fantastic pieces throughout the years, alongside tips and tricks for improving your collection and your experience while thrifting. I've made some bad purchases and collected some gnarly clutter over the years - let me help you not make the same mistakes.


A red shopping cart is pictured from above. There are clothing items draped over the sides of the cart, hanging from hangers on the side of the cart, and a black shoe in the bottom

One of the best aspects of thrifting is that it allows our monkey brains to forage as well as consume. It's shopping with a little less of the moral burden that going to the mall and buying sweat shop clothes carries. Which is why, I think, it's important to try and hold strong and not over-consume. I'll expand on that thought below.

A white knitted sweater with a blue rose pattern on the front

This guide to thrifting will cover:

  • What to wear thrifting (because not all thrift stores have change rooms)

  • How to spot the gems among the muck

  • Staples to look for to raise your wardrobe

  • How to not buy the whole thrift store

  • How to minimise closet clutter

  • Guidelines for thrifting responsibly-ish

 

What to Wear Thrifting

No matter your personal style, there's one thrift hack I ascribe to that everyone can use!

A pair of blue jeans with a pair of dark brown slacks folded in half and lying on top of the jeans

Following the pandemic, my local Value Village permanently ditched their fitting rooms. Very clever, you corporate thrifting bureaucrats. No change rooms + returns for store credit only = more profits for Value Village.


Well, not on my watch. You can take away my change rooms, but you can't take away my will. I'm going to try stuff on in the aisles.


Your new thrift uniform

Wear a simple tight t-shirt or tank top when thrifting so you can try things on overtop. For bottoms, wear a long, loose skirt. That way, you can try on any bottoms underneath, and yank your skirt up to see how they look!



How to spot the gems

A brown saddle bag with a gold clasp

Accessories


I always make time to check out the accessories section of the thrift. A good bag or unique scarf has the potential to take an outfit from a 5 to a 10!


Shoes in particular hold a lot of power in an outfit. Are all of the shoes that I've thrifted over the years in perfect condition? Or recognizable name brands? Or particularly comfortable? Nope.


I try to look for shoes that make a statement. I've never found a pair of shoes that turned into one of my every day basics, but I've certainly found some unique pairs that elevate an outfit.


A pair of brown mary jane style shoes lie next to a green belt with a silver buckle curled into a circle

Accessories are definitely one of the areas where thrifting has shaped the types of pieces I select. Simply because of the nature of most items I pick out, my personal style has shifted toward a more vintage and simple look. Thank you to all of the old people donating their wardrobes! I couldn't do it without you!



Here are some of my favourite staples I've thrifted:

  • Patent leather saddle bag with gold accents

  • Chunky loafers

  • Brown Mary Janes

  • Colourful belts and scarves

  • I'm not big on thrifted jewellery, but rings are usually safe

  • A real leather trench coat (probably one of the most expensive things I've ever thrifted at ~$40, but the brand name and classic style were enough to convince me I'd have it for life!



Tops + Bottoms

It's hard for me to tell you what to look for, because I don't know your personal style. In my experience, there's value in striking a balance between finding fun pieces that push your style outside of it's comfort zone and well-made basics. But no matter what you seek out, be sure to check through all of the sections and a variety of sizes.


Particularly for women's clothing, we all know how inconsistent sizing is between different clothing lines. It's the same at the thrift store, so don't skip a whole section just because the size or title seems wrong for you.


 

How to not buy the whole thrift store

I think it's a canonical event for people who want to get into thrifting to have a phase where you just want to buy the whole store. You find something cute and it fits? You buy it.


But then you get to be a year into your thrift journey, and your closet is full, and you're still wearing that one pair of jeans and those 3 tops every day. Here is a secret my friend: the "cute stuff that fits" will never end. You can keep buying it, but it won't make you wear it all.


It's the consumerism hammered into us that makes us want to get to that point. Even while thrifting, a slightly less consumerist practice of consumerism, the urge to satisfy your desires with more stuff and more stuff and more stuff pops up. And it can never be satisfied. It's not a real desire.


Two long dresses lie wrinkled side by side. On the left is a brown dress with a small checked pattern, and on the right is a white smocked dress
when I saw the brown dress on the rack, I saw myself as a preschool teacher. When I saw the white dress, I saw myself out for dinner on a wharf in California. Luckily the California one is my soon-to-be reality, and the preschool thing is never gonna happen. Still a cute dress though.

To combat this infernal loop of consumerism, you need to take a balanced and measured approach to picking your items. Ask yourself a few questions:


  • What can I wear this item with?

  • Can I imagine at least 3 outfits using this piece and my existing wardrobe?

  • Would those outfits be impossible to achieve using the things I already own, or do I need this item?

  • Is purchasing this item going to lead to further purchases? Ie: If I buy this skirt, am I going to feel the need to buy a top that will match it "perfectly"?

  • Where would I wear this outfit? For me, this is particularly important for dresses. Sure, that dress you found is cute and it fits, but is it super formal? I don't live a life where I need to dress formal more than a handful of times per year, and I already have several formal dresses that have only seen the light of day once or twice. Would my money better be spent on a more casual dress that I would wear more often, and could dress up if it needs to be formal?

  • Is this item a passing fad? Buying trendy items in a time where fast fashion reigns supreme is almost never a good idea. By the time it makes it's way to a thrift store, that trendy item is probably on its way out of the trend cycle. Quick hint: if it's from Shein, it's not worth your time. H&M items are on thin ice.


A bright orange cardigan that has tassels on the ends of the ends of the sleeves and along the bottom. It's tied in a bow at the neck

Thrifter math: Return donating items

Okay, my liberal arts degree brain hates the term "girl math". It's definitely rooted in misogyny and does nothing for the promotion of further education for women. I also think that it's often used to promote and/or glorify consumerism; making light of the compulsion to buy things you don't actually desire. Thrifter math is also guilty of this.

Four long skirts lay bunched together. One black with white polka dots, one white, one with with a pink flower pattern, and one black with a green and white paisley pattern
my collection of thrifted long skirts

That being said, I think "thrifter math" (and many similar terms) can be lovingly enjoyed as they do not pertain to a specific social identity one could be oppressed for.


My definition of thrifter math is this: if you buy an item at a thrift store, you're really saving money. You would have spent a lot more if you bought it brand new somewhere else.


Once or twice a year, I go through my closet and cull items to donate. When I return donate thrift items, I feel like I'm contributing to a healthy cycle of reuse, while also not overwhelming my storage space.


This has a lot of adjoining clauses. Notably, if you donate items to a thrift store, you're also sort of saving money (?) This pertains to Value Village - if you donate items, you'll get a coupon for savings on your next purchase. This is a really clever marketing scheme: Value Village gets free merchandise thanks to your donation, and then incentivises you to buy from them. They make money, and then they make more money.


A photo of shelves at the thrift store. The white shelves hold many small ceramic items including pots for plants, small candle holders, and small vases of various sizes, shapes, and colours


Thrifting Responsibly-ish


A knitted beige vest with brown buttons lies on top of a cable knit emerald green sweater

This bring me to my next point. Thrifting from Value Village and other thrift chain giants is not some humanitarian mission: while they do support some charities, Value Village is a for-profit corporation.


I have a lot to say about Value Village's prices consistently rising and rising, but in the interest of time, I'll save it for today.


If it's an option for you, I definitely recommend supporting smaller, more local thrift stores before these big national ones. Do your research on where the clothes are coming from and where the profits are going.


For example, in my hometown of Fredericton, the hospice house (a non-profit) has a volunteer-run boutique store. People make clothing donations and receive a charitable tax receipt if the value of the donation is over $20. All of the money goes to funding the local hospice houses, so families of the dying do not have to shoulder the financial burden of keeping their loved one comfortable in their final weeks.


I'm not trying to demonise Value Village or their fellow corporate counterparts. I don't boycott their stores - some of my best finds have come from there. What I am saying is that thrifting can be as much of a humanitarian mission as you want it to be - do research into how you can best spend your money! Equivalents to Fredericton's Hospice House Boutiques can be found everywhere - support them when you can by choosing to shop and make your clothing donations there, and always be courteous to the volunteers who devote their time to running them!

Three tank tops lie side by side. One is a deep mauve colour, one is cream coloured with a flower cut out in the middle of the chest, and one is mint green

Finding Joy in the Hunt of Thrifting

Going thrifting is one of my favourite activities when I have time to spare on a weekend. I love finding something new to wear and getting 5 items for the price of 1 at the mall.


I've found pieces that suit the current styles and I've let myself be enthralled by weird items that go on to shape my style and be some of my favourites.


I've also bought things and then realized there's a huge brown stain, and bought something and then let it sit in my closet for 3 years while I convinced myself I would wear it one day. (I never did).


Thrifting is foraging for modern girls. It's the joy of the hunt and a cycle of renewal and reuse which should continue to become more and more mainstream.


 

Two aspects of thrifting I didn't touch on in this were non-clothing items and up-cycling items. I have so much to say on these that it will warrant another post! Stay tuned <3

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