The Secret to Scoring Treasures at Thrift Stores

The Secret to Scoring Treasures at Thrift Stores

Marlen Komar
Feb 12, 2017
(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

When you pop into a thrift store, you almost want to roll up your sleeves upon entering. There are piles and piles of kitschy dresses, pilling sweaters, eye-searing patterns, and questionable pants. But tucked in between those pieces are diamonds in the rough, vintage scores and modern pieces that might look lackluster at first glance, but are actually sartorial wins. If you want to know how to hone your eye and be able to nab those pieces, read ahead! All it takes is a little prep work before you hop into the car.

Know how to alter and transform

Let me introduce you to my favorite denim dress. It's a shin-skimming beauty that looks amazing when coupled with a sheer skirt, but it didn't always used to be. When I found this guy in the thrift store, it had matronly denim sleeves that hit to the wrists, making me look like I was going to lead a barnyard classroom session. But I knew that cutting sleeves off of dresses was an option. And because of it, I was able to nab this without hesitation.

Homework: Learn all the ways you can easily alter an item so can really pull the sartorial goodness out of a thrift find. Dress hems can be turned into minis, baggy tops can be made into crop tops, cute dresses can be cut into shirts or layered with sweaters to be transformed into skirts. Pants can be nipped into shorts or tailored into a more modern fit, and belts can completely transform the silhouette of baggy dresses and skirts. Know your options, and all of a sudden you will see a lot more potential.

Zara is all over the oversized fashion trend.
(Image credit: Zara)

Catch up with what's trending

If you haven't flipped through the pages of a magazine or peeked into the display windows of your favorite stores, would you ever have guessed in your wildest dreams that mom jeans were back in style (I know, I know, not ideal)? Or imagined that crushed velvet bell bottoms were now taking up rack real estate? These are all hot items at the moment, but unless you keep your finger on the pulse they all sound like bargain bin deals inside thrift stores.

And guess what? They are! But you could easily overlook them and miss their potential if you don't catch up with what's trending. Store sites and magazines often style these tricky pieces in non-threatening ways, which in turn make you feel like you can pull them off yourself. And if you feel like you can pull them off, you'll notice them in the thrift store. So do your trend research before grabbing your keys.

Homework: Before you go thrifting, open up your favorite store websites and do a quick study session. See what new items they have up and take stock of what you might be able to find at the thrift store. Are cranberry pleated skirts on trend, especially when paired with soft, oversized sweaters? Are polka dots in, or baggy men's button downs? You wouldn't necessarily know these were pieces you wanted if you didn't see them used in modern ways.

(Image credit: Mango)

Look up traditionally thrift-able pieces online

There are certain items we all expect to find in thrift stores, no matter what zip code they're tucked into. From Chicago to the small towns in rural Washington, there are some things each charity shop will carry: tropical prints, old Levi jeans, '90s shift dresses, and high waist granny pants are some to name a few. Since we know what we can probably find on the racks once we swing by, why not do some recon prior so you can realize their potential? Search online—whether through store sites or blogs—and you'll see how these second-hand pieces can transform.

Homework: Keep an eye out online especially for those standard thrift items. You want to gather intel that will convince you those classically kitschy pieces can actually work for you. Then, take note how the brand or blogger tweaked or styled the piece so it felt new and fresh. Was a tropical dress cut into a mini and then layered with a turtleneck, like this MANGO dress? Does a baggy frock look minimalist and effortless when it's sleeveless? (You can easily cut the sleeves off a thrifted item.) Does an embroidered collared shirt look chic when you unbutton it one button too many and pair it with red lipstick? Tweaks like that will help you spot diamonds in the rough that you'd originally dub as dated threads.

(Image credit: Zara)

See how layering updates old trends

Never second guess the power of layering. An old staple can look incredibly chic if only you mix and match it with some clever layers. Take this spaghetti strap dress for example: It might feel a little "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" alone, but when popped on top of a turtleneck, it transforms.

Homework: Create a Pinterest board specifically for layering ideas. This will be the place you gather all sorts of tips and tricks to surround outdated pieces with your modern closet favorites, completely transforming them. From learning that worn flannel shirts look J.Crew-chic when paired with blazers, to finding you can pop men's collared shirts underneath winter knits for an unexpected accent, you'll be able to see the potential in items others would be happy to skip over. And when you style them in these cleverly new ways, your friends will wish they had the foresight.

(Image credit: Mango)

Understand that new accessories can transform old trends

Sometimes, all a simple black shift needs is big statement earrings to jazz it up. Or baggy mom jeans transform when paired with quirky and modern boots. A matronly dress becomes flirty when paired with thigh-high boots or strappy heels. Fashion has so many different avenues when it comes to styling a single piece, and you'll often times find that even traditionally "ugly" (or plain) items can be turned into something beautiful when paired with the right accessories. Study ideas so you're aware of the possibilities when looking at a baggy polka dot dress or Icelandic knit.

Homework: Make another Pinterest board (organization is key!) specifically for accessory ideas. The next time you scroll through clothing sites or look through other people's boards, keep a sharp eye out for details. What hats are street style stars wearing, how do they accessorize with scarves and silk handkerchiefs? Does a dress change when paired with booties verses clunky sandals, and how do necklaces and earrings transform a top you might have considered "ugly"? Knowing that layering delicate necklaces together can make a cheap two dollar tank top look like bohemian heaven will have you doing handsprings towards said cheap tank tops. You won't skip over jewels if you know that all they need is a little bit of accessorizing.

(Image credit: Marlen Komar)

Speaking of accessories...

Just like with wide leg pants and and crushed-velvet everything, you're not going to know you want that tassel fringe Western belt unless you see it on the mannequin of a very chi-chi stores. So explore! Pay close attention to the accessories coming out for the season and the ways fashion editors are spicing up their wardrobes with them, but especially keep a close eye on vintage duplicates. From hats to belts to purses, accessories often times look toward past decades for inspiration. And you can easily find their near copies on the shelves of charity shops.

Take this straw purse I have for example. Would I stop in my tracks if I saw a handbag that resembled a woven basket from the corner of my eye? Probably not. But did I nearly bowl over a pensioner on my way across the store because I saw something similar in Topshop just last season? I'm slightly embarrassed to say I might have.

Homework: Look specifically for vintage influences in your pictures. When you look through Pinterest or scroll through Instagram, see if you can notice accessories that pull inspiration from decades past. Chances are you'll find something similar at the thrift store.

Follow the people who know best!

No matter if you live and breathe fashion, we all need sources of inspiration from time to time when things get stale. Even if you have tastes as sharply honed as Anna Wintour, when you look at a dress and when I look at a dress, we see different things (and that's a good thing!). We can teach each other with our different points of view, so find a group of thrift bloggers you can follow and swap ideas with; I promise you they'll open you up to new possibilities!

Homework: Find a small tribe of thrift bloggers you can learn and pull ideas from. Your styles don't have to 100-percent match up, you'll mostly use them to learn clever ways to mix thrift finds with your more mainstream pieces. From finding a way to make silk shirts look less '80s dad and more summer chic, or tips on how to alter dresses and skirts so they feel fresh and young, you'll start to see your thrift options in a new light. As in, you don't have to take the thrift options you find at face value. You can completely alter them with your own style or with a needle or thread.

Sharing is caring: Do you have your own thrift-to-treasure tricks?

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