The Ultimate Guide to Shopping at Secondhand Stores

The fashion industry is rife with problems. For starters, most of us feel like we can't afford to dress the way we want to. On top of that, fast fashion is one of the largest contributors to environmental destruction in the world. As a result, looking stylish often leaves us in a position where we have to choose between looking good while knowingly contributing to climate change or going broke just to buy a single eco-friendly shirt.

Thankfully, thrift shopping is a handy remedy to these issues. Buying secondhand means that you're going to be able to find clothes priced significantly below MSRP. Plus, purchasing used clothes cuts down on the environmental impact of frequently replacing items of clothing with brand new pieces.

With secondhand shopping, it's not always as simple as walking into a store, grabbing what you want, and buying it. Because secondhand shops sell clothes that have previously been owned, not everything in their inventory is going to be in the best condition or sized as you're expecting.

To make it easy for you to make sure you're getting the best deal possible, we've put together this handy guide to walk you through the process of finding and styling outfits at thrift shops.

Thrifting the Perfect Shirt

In my opinion, shirts are the easiest items of clothing to find at second hand stores. In general, shirt sizing is generic enough that you can find something that will fit. Plus, most secondhand shops tend to have a larger inventory of shirts than pants, shoes, jackets, and other accessories, so you're likely to have a pretty wide selection.

When shopping for shirts at a secondhand store, take your time to go through each shirt in your size section and getting a good look at them. Especially as designs come back into style, you can't always tell what a shirt's full design is just by looking at the shoulder portion that's visible on the rack.

Right now, it's a great time to check thrift shops for color-blocking and Cuban collar shirts. These have gone out of style and come back into style, which makes them perfect candidates for being on thrift shop shelves. Often, when people perceive that something isn't in style anymore, they donate it; when it inevitably comes back into style, it'll be there on the shelves at your local secondhand store.

On top of that– macabre as it may sound– a lot of thrift shop inventory comes from donations that are made after someone has passed away. For example, if someone's grandfather had several Cuban collar or tropical shirts that they liked to vacation in the 90s or early 2000s, when he passes away and the family is left with his belongings, those items are likely to ultimately be donated if not claimed by a family member.

All of that is to say that, in general, you shouldn't expect secondhand shops to carry cutting-edge, hyper new trends. The timeless staples and the recurring trends, however, will be there.

Checking the Quality of a Secondhand Shirt

Once you find a design you like, I recommend checking the shirt in a few locations to make sure you're getting something you're actually going to wear. Even though it likely will only cost you $5 or so, you don't want to spend money on something if you're not going to use it.

So, each time you grab a shirt you like, look closely at the following details:

  • Buttons: If it's a shirt that has buttons on it, check to make sure that none are missing. Don't forget to check the collar and the cuffs, not just the buttons going down the front. If you know how to sew and are comfortable replacing a button, this may not be an issue– however, you should still note if buttons are missing as many secondhand stores are willing to knock a few dollars off the price if you point out that the article of clothing is damaged.
  • The collar: Collars rub against your chin and hairline as you wear your shirt throughout the day. As a byproduct, collars are prone to fading and discoloration. If the shirt you're looking at has a collar on it, make sure it's correctly folded at the collar crease so you can see what condition it's in.
  • The armpits: Sweat stains and discoloration from deodorant can be impossible to fully wash out. Minor discoloration or fading will likely go unnoticed, but if the armpits of a shirt that you're looking at seem particularly faded, yellowed, or dark, there's a good probability that that's not a stain you'd be able to wash out. Also in the armpit, you want to look and make sure that the seams are in good condition. For most shirts, there are several seams that meet in the armpit since it's a discreet location. It's also a part of your shirts that gets quite a bit of movement in it. If the seams feel strong and aren't showing gaps or holes, the shirt as a whole is probably in pretty good condition.

These locations can be thought of as a health check for your shirt as a whole. If they're in good shape, the shirt's probably in good shape. Of course, it's good to just glance over the entire thing and make sure there aren't any obvious stains or tears either.

Finding Secondhand Bottoms

Thrift shops and Grindr have opposite problems. At a thrift shop, there aren't always many bottoms. On Grindr, however, there's a surplus of bottoms and few fitting tops.

...

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am proud of that joke. As a versatile top, it's part of my culture to make that joke.

Let's move on.

Finding pants or shorts at thrift shops can be a decent challenge due to the way in which pants are sized. Whereas men's shirts are pretty broadly grouped as small, medium, large, extra-large, XXL, and so on, pants are more size-specific since they require a waist measurement and a length measurement.

In my experience, I've never been able to buy jeans or long pants at my local thrift shops. I love them for shorts and gym shorts, but when it comes to pants, I wear a 32x36, and I don't think I've ever seen a 36 length at my usual shops. That being said, I'm planning on going back to the thrift shop this weekend to buy a couple of pairs that are slightly too short for me.

Why would I buy pants that are too short? Well, if you can find quality denim– think classic Levi's– you can still cuff jeans for spring and summer outfits. Plus, if you're marginally handy with scissors, it's not too hard to make a nice pair of acid wash jorts. Both cuffed jeans and denim shorts can be decently fashionable. They're also just very handy to have for yard work and housework.

If you can find jeans that are the right size for you though, be sure to check and make sure that all of the belt loops are intact and connected, and that the button and zippers operate as expected. There's less to check on jeans than with shirts, but it's incredibly helpful nonetheless since a faulty zipper or loose button could mean dropped trousers later in your day.

In particular, I recommend looking for brands of pants that normally run $65+ per pair. Finding these at secondhand stores, even if the fit isn't perfect, can help you keep solid staple pieces in your wardrobe year-round.

Jackets, Accessories, and Shoes

With jackets, accessories, and shoes you're mainly going to be looking for signs of wear and tear.

These are clothing pieces that typically aren't worn every single day and they're typically only replaced once they start to wear out. With shoes in particular, you want to double-check for holes or tears where the sides meet the rubber soles. You'll also want to check the shoe interior and make sure the insoles are included. If they're not, the shoes are going to be uncomfortable unless you're adding in your own insoles.

With jackets and blazers, check and see if the fabric maintenance tag is still intact and connected. One of the big issues with clothing from secondhand stores is that you're definitely going to want to wash it before you wear it. With jackets and blazers, you may not be able to just toss it into your home washer and will instead need to have them dry cleaned. Again, buying these pieces secondhand can give you a great piece of clothing for a fair price and in an environmentally friendly way, but don't care for it correctly, it's not going to last.

Similarly with shirts, for jackets and blazers, you're going to want to pay particular attention to the zones that typically show wear and tear. Check the collar, buttons, and seams to make sure everything is solidly connected and not showing loose threads. If you find a jacket that has a lining in it, make sure there are no rips or tears there either, as that's one of the first places to tear in a jacket.

Everything but the Underwear

Thrift shops are great for your wallet, the environment, and for finding unique pieces that you probably couldn't find in a chain store. You can completely restock your wardrobe at a fraction of the cost and can find pretty much everything but underwear (but that's a good thing– there are very few people whose used underwear I'd want to wear, but, Harry Styles, if you want to donate yours... I'll take them).