The Secrets to Always Finding the Best Clothes at the Thrift Store

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

When you’re faced with racks and racks of sequined ’80s evening dresses and pilled sweaters, it can be easy to run through a thrift store in a hurry and decide there’s nothing there for you. But while there might be a lot of kitschy sweaters and shoulder pad blouses strewn across the store, there are just as many gems tucked in between those options…you just have to recognize them. Don’t let those dollar deals pass you by; follow these five tips to notice the gems you constantly overlook at thrift stores.

(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

Size doesn’t always have to matter.

Unless you’re a person that exclusively likes to wear figure-hugging pieces, size doesn’t have to be a deal breaker when it comes to thrifted pieces. Baggy dresses can easily be cinched with belts, too-big tops could be turned into tunic staples and tucked into tighter pants or skirts, and oversized sweaters can be balanced out with skinny jeans. There are plenty of styles in boutiques and department stores that are meant to be worn baggy, so why not your vintage finds?

Homework Assignment: Next time you’re shopping, try on the too-big piece regardless how you think it will look on your body! Purposely wear skinny jeans or a tight maxi skirt to see how those XL pieces will look with your wardrobe, and take a belt into the dressing room so you can play with the silhouettes of those bigger dresses and skirts.

Don’t be afraid of a little bit of hemming.

The first thrifted dress I ever bought was this amazing mint chevron number from the ’60s, but I almost passed it up because the rayon hem went all the way down to the floor. It was a little too Sunset Boulevard circa 1950 for me, that is until I remembered I knew how to sew in a straight line! If you like the pattern and style of a dress but feel like it’s too long, you can easily hem it up to a length that feels more you. The same goes with other tweak-able details in other finds.

Collars can easily be taken off, sleeves could be snipped, pants could be turned into shorts, and blouses could be hemmed into crop tops. You can do all these easy alterations with either a needle and a thread, no-sew hemming tape, or with the help of a tailor—almost anything is doable.

Homework Assignment: The next time a color, pattern or texture catches your eye, try to envision the possibilities. How would the boxy top look if you turned it into a crop top? If you hate the bottom of that two dollar dress, could you maybe just hem it into a top? If you hate the top of that dress, could you pop a sweater over it and wear it as a skirt? If the bottoms of those pants look a little too “retirement home,” can you ask a seamstress to give them a more modern leg? When you’re paying only three dollars for a piece, a little fiddling will be worth it.

(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

Let yourself think in terms of accents.

When you’re just starting out and building a wardrobe, your main concern is getting your basics. You can’t really play with an outfit if you don’t have enough tops and bottoms to mix and match. But once you’re set up and going to thrift stores to find interesting treasures, allow yourself to look at certain items as accents. What I mean by this is, don’t be afraid to try something that’s outside of your style. While you might be naturally minimalist, the cops won’t be called on you for trying on that pompom-heavy summer scarf. You’re allowed to have fun with fashion, so if something unusual catches your eye, try to imagine how it can fit with outfits you currently already own.

For example, an egg-shaped purse isn’t something I’d spend good money on at the mall, but for five dollars I can see it going with a long summer dress. Or a long grey business-casual vest seems outside of my territory, but when worn as a top it fits right into my style.

Homework Assignment: Follow your gut when something catches your eye. It might be gaudy, sparkly, vintage, or grandma chic, but force yourself to move past those labels. You might feel ridiculous for finding something interesting about it, but take a moment and consider it.

Pick it up and try to imagine which pieces in your wardrobe can work with it, and how you might style it with an outfit. Can your style tone it down, create a fun contrast with it, work with the colors, weave it in subtly? Let yourself process the information before moving on – if it really won’t work, then put it down. But if it has potential, buy it! It’s only a couple of dollars anyway.

(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

Seek inspiration.

It’s easy to snap up a trench coat or a camel colored sweater at a thrift store because you know those are staples people usually need, which helps you notice them on the racks. The same logic applies to vintage treasures you constantly overlook: How were you to notice that fringe and medallion belt if you didn’t know that could be fashionable?

Homework Assignment: Before thrifting, do a bit of recon. Scroll through Pinterest and pin your favorite outfits. These don’t necessarily have to be looks that fit your style 100 percent, but outfits that have qualities that you like. After you have enough intel, scroll through your board and take stock of the details that attracted you to the outfits in the first place: Do you like the way the boho dress was accented with a western belt? Do you like how the high fashion dress was contrasted with a baggy denim jacket? Or do you like how that ’80s sequined top looks when paired with black skinny jeans and red lipstick? Do those boot-cut mom jeans look amazingly normcore when paired with a silky tank?

The next time you go thrifting you’ll be quicker to notice those diamonds in the rough, because you’ll know that they could be reworked into stylish outfits.

Think in terms of “quieting.”

If you find a statement piece you like that won’t work with your style, think again! Rather than taking it at face value, think about how you can “quiet” the item down.

Homework Assignment: Imagine ways you can subdue a loud piece with current trends and sleek staples. While a leather vest can make you look like you’re joining Clint Eastwood’s last frontier, it can also look chic and understated when paired with a white oxford shirt, skinny jeans and booties. It’s all about surrounding those wild card pieces with tailored staples and trendy fashions to balance out their kitschiness.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you hit the dollar rack and you just might leave with gold!