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The Thrill of the Hunt: How to Shop Vintage and Secondhand Like a Pro

Let’s get one thing straight: I love thrifting. It’s what every paycheck goes towards, how I prefer to spend a free day, the root of my closet and room being all second-hand sourced, and the honest cause of my anxiety when I step foot in a department store. Even as a child, I loved fashion but also a good bargain which is why thrift stores feel like a second home to me.

I can experiment with my style without hurting my bank account. But it can also be the cause for my mindless shopping that results in beautiful (or not-so-beautiful) pieces going untouched in my wardrobe. For instance, in the last year, I thrifted the most amazing ’70s empire waist dress with a matching floral vest. It was so perfect I couldn’t put it down. I had to buy it. And sure, I loved it, but practically speaking, it wasn’t something I would have a lot of opportunities to wear. 

This is a situation I am all too familiar with when I go second-hand shopping. In the moment, I see the racks of clothes as a bargain. Once home, I realize half my purchases weren’t my style or in my comfort zone. I know I’m not alone! Every thrift lover has, so it’s always good to remind ourselves how to shop so we can “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last.” –to quote Vivienne Westwood! 

Whether you are a seasoned thrifter or lover of all things antiques and vintage, here are some essential tips. 

Before You Go

Research the good thrift stores in your area 

When it comes to your local thrift stores, you will be surprised at how many there are. Some neighborhoods may have one on each block, so it’s important to research and know which ones may have the best selection for what you are looking for. Mapping out the stores ahead of time and creating a plan can also help destress a thrift day. 

Make a list or mood board of specific pieces to source

Going into a thrift store open-minded is always a good idea, but it can also help if you know what you are looking for before you begin. Scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest to find thrift-able pieces is a great way to get inspired and see what may be lacking in your wardrobe. This also helps cut down the mindless rack searching that can sometimes be discouraging.

Define your budget

When it comes to me and my thrift habits, I can rationalize any purchase. This can lead to spending way more than I intended. If this is you, giving yourself a budget for the day is always intelligent. This can help weed out those pieces you weren’t 100% set on getting, save money, and help cut down overconsumption. 

Wear clothes you can change into

Picture this: You have found an item you love. But wait, you run into a problem because the dressing rooms are closed or even worse, the store doesn’t have one! No worries if you’ve planned accordingly with your outfit. If you want to try items in the store quickly, wear tight-fitting clothes or layers you can easily remove. 

Bring a snack and water

This should be a no-brainer, but I often let my excitement get ahead of me and find myself hungry or thirsty because I forgot to eat according to my daily schedule. It’s the worst when my thrifting day has to end due to flagging energy. Don’t let this be you! Taking a snack and a water bottle is always a good idea to let you keep scouring the racks. 

Things to consider Once You’re There

  • Thrift items that are your size. Even if it’s something you really like, consider the probability of you getting it altered and how much you would actually wear it if the fit was unflattering. If these chances are slim, leave it on the rack. 
  • Just because it’s a desirable brand doesn’t mean it’s a desirable item. Don’t be seduced by brand names. If the piece didn’t have the tag, would you still want it? Don’t let a label persuade you to purchase something just for the sake of owning it.
  • Go into shops knowing what colors you do and don’t wear. Not only can this cut down time if the store is categorized by color, but it saves you the purchase of a top you end up never wearing because the color is unflattering or hard to pair with other pieces in your closet.
  • A good reminder for every thrifter is that many second-hand shops are charity shops and provide pieces to those less fortunate. I recommend anyone shop at them but when it comes to a slim selection of coats, jackets or shoes at a store, be mindful of who might need these pieces more than you.
  • Lastly, keep in mind what’s already in your closet. If you already have something similar, do you need a second piece that will function the same in your closet?

Start with basics

While thrifting can be a great alternative for staying up to trend without hurting your wallet, also consider pieces that won’t go out of style and will work as a staple piece in your wardrobe. Yes, that’s right. I’m talking about basics. Classic white T-shirts, little black dresses and neutral sweaters will always be classy and can be styled in so many different ways. And the great thing is, they can almost always be found second-hand. Look for timelessness and elegance!

Inspect the material

When it comes to narrowing down the items in your cart, it can help to closely look at each item for any stains, tears, holes or missing buttons. While all of these things can be fixed or upcycled, it’s important to know if you will take the time to take them to a seamstress or mend them yourself. 

It can also be helpful to check the tags for the material of the piece to see if it will last or bother you, whether it’s polyester or wool. It’s always great finding long-lasting pieces like wool or cashmere but these pieces are usually dryclean only. If these aren’t problems and then go ahead and buy them! Especially if it is polyester or a similar material harmful to the environment, giving it a second chance is a great way to be eco-friendly. 

Keep yourself entertained

When setting a day or even a few hours aside for a thrift trip, searching through racks can become tedious and even unenjoyable for some. And if you aren’t a “seasoned pro” at thrifting or are trying it for the first time, this can become discouraging. One of the smartest ways to combat this boredom is listening to a playlist or podcast while you search. This can help drown out any unwanted chatter from fellow thrifters while making the process feel quicker and less stressful. Alternatively, go with a friend for some moral support and good conversation.

While thrifting is a highly sustainable approach to shopping, remember it is still consumerism and can end in overconsumption. Reminding yourself of the above tips will make you a more practical second-hand shopper and may also discourage you from buying that thrifted jacket that will forever hang in your closet untouched. Because trust me, I’ve been there too!  

–Natalie Murphy


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