Thrifting a Capsule Wardrobe

My last post was all about simplifying, but what if you need to add to your closet?

I’ve already admitted I have a bit of a shopping problem. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I decided to simplify my wardrobe. I wanted to say goodbye to regrets and impulses that clogged up my closet and were seldom worn. Cutting back on the retail therapy is helping me maintain my cleaner closet.

But clothes do wear out, especially if you are wearing them more often! Lifestyles, jobs, seasons, sizes, and bodies change. Sometimes we do need to shop in order to maintain a functional wardrobe. This is a huge relief to me, as I’m not ready to give up shopping entirely.

I wanted to let you in on my biggest secret for building and maintaining a capsule wardrobe on a budget: thrifting.

Here are some looks from my late winter/early spring wardrobe. Each of these outfits includes at least one secondhand item.

Can you guess which items were bought secondhand?

Can you guess which items were bought secondhand?

Nearly a third of my summer capsule is secondhand. My closet includes clothes from  J. Crew, Banana Republic, Anthropologie, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, and Stuart Weitzman. All of these items together cost me less than $50 because I bought them at the thrift store. Most of these items appeared barely worn, and some were new with tags.

I don’t care much about brands, but I am thinking more about quality as I shop. Buying things secondhand makes higher quality items more budget friendly.

I started shopping at thrift stores when I was in junior high school, primarily so I would have a wardrobe that was different from what my classmates were wearing. I liked the idea of building a look that wasn’t straight off the mall racks, and I still have an eclectic style in my home and my wardrobe. I continue to enjoy treasure hunting and regard my best thrift finds somewhat like trophies. I’ve tried to restrain myself from enthusiastically responding to a compliment with “Thanks! This was only five bucks!”, as I’ve found most people aren’t as excited about my deals as I am.

If you’re new to thrifting and think you’d like to give it a try, here are some of my guidelines:

1. Look for quality and value. Familiarize yourself with labels so you can recognize whether a shirt came from Walmart or Neiman Marcus. In general, a secondhand Old Navy tank top is not going to be a good value, as it could be found new and on sale for a similar price. Check for condition (no pilled sweaters, stains or twisted side seams). Factor any necessary dry cleaning or alterations into the total cost. For example, I found $100 jeans for $7. Even though they need a $10 alteration for the best fit, they are still a good total investment for me.

2. Try it on. Even if a tag lists a size you don’t normally wear, it might be worth trying on the item. Clothes sometimes end up in thrift stores because of mismarked sizes or inaccurate fit, and these mistakes could be to your advantage. Sizing conventions for vintage clothing and international brands also vary greatly, so don’t count something out based on listed size alone. Also consider whether an inexpensive alteration might make the item a perfect fit. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you could even do these yourself!

3. Have a plan. Make a list of items you’re looking for to replace or fill the current or next season of your wardrobe. It’s helpful to think in advance of wardrobe needs when thrifting, as it’s unlikely you’ll find the exact item you’re looking for on the first try. My striped tunic dress is starting to wear out, so this is something I look for every time I go to the thrift store. I don’t need it urgently, but I can see the need on the horizon. I also want some type of olive or muted green top for fall, so I look through these color sections when I shop.

4. Try out trends. If you’ve been wanting to try a trend but don’t want to invest in an item you may only wear for a season or two, thrifting is a great way to give it an inexpensive go! I found my floral joggers (new with tags!) for $6 at the thrift store. I’ll enjoy them while I wear them, and I won’t feel bad about donating them back to the thrift store when I move on. For trendy items that aren’t likely to become classics you wear for years, buying secondhand can keep your cost per wear low. Since trends are often revisiting fashions of earlier eras, you may even find a vintage item that looks fashion forward (I’m looking at you, 90s crop tops!).

5. Go often. I regularly explore three or four thrift stores in my area. Because I go often, I am generally familiar with the merchandise and can spot new items fairly quickly. I actually enjoy searching through every item, but becoming familiar with stores in my area makes it easier to quickly browse. Merchandise also turns over regularly, so going often gives you the best chance of finding the item on your list before someone else does.

6. Search outside your area. Thrift stores often vary greatly by location. I like to occasionally look in other parts of town for a different selection, and I also try to find thrift stores when I’m traveling. Areas favored by retirees may have great vintage merchandise, and places inhabited by young professionals may have good options for an office work wardrobe. You never know what you’ll find, but trying out different places will give you the broadest selection.

7. Shop online. If you don’t have thrift stores conveniently nearby, or if you prefer not to rummage through racks, you now have some great online options. Sites like Twice and thredUP buy and sell quality used clothing. You can search by size, color, or brand. People can buy and sell clothes directly with one another through apps like Poshmark, and even Goodwill has the option to shop a selection of goods online. Of course, there’s always ebay (where I recently bought gently used boots for fall for 20% of their retail cost) and the vintage section of Etsy. If you don’t mind paying a little more for convenience, you may find shopping secondhand online can help you build your budget capsule wardrobe.

What about you? Are you an expert treasure hunter with more tips to share? Are you a fledgling thrifter ready to give it a try? Do secondhand clothes have a place in your wardrobe?

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6 comments

  1. AudFern

    Hey, great post! I’m Audrey and I’m very interested in fashion and style. I think you would enjoy my posts; I would really appreciate a follow back! Thanks!

  2. adventuresintheherenow

    Half of my wardrobe is thrifted! Almost all of my dresses came from Value Village, which has sadly closed its local location 😦 but the dresses are still going strong even a few years down the track. If something has survived one owner it usually shows that it will survive longer than the brand new item you buy at a cheap retailer. It already reveals its flaws. I have found a couple of dozen pretty dresses that fit me pretty well despite having a wide range of size labels and brand names. Several of them also have pockets! (one that came with tissues and cough lollies – ugh! but pockets!! lol) Many of the dresses (and coats) I have found would have retailed in the $60-$80+ range so I don’t mind spending $10-$15 on them. And if they don’t work out in the long run, if I “grow” out of them, or otherwise change my mind, it’s no big deal to send them back to be thrifted again.
    I absolutely agree that every store and area is different. Our blue color neighborhood has great stores with a wide range of brands and qualities represented. But we went to a well-off area mostly populated by older people hoping for some scores and their Goodwill selection was terrible! I think they must have been the kind of people who wore their clothes out – maybe that’s how they ended up well off! I’ve heard that different nationalities are the same – there’s little room for second hand in some countries (was it Germany?) because people wear their clothes until they are completely worn out. Unlike us Americans who buy too much on impulse and get bored easily, and assuage our guilt about overbuying by donating to the needy. But for me, I thank goodness for people donating barely worn dresses, not following through on their good intentions to wear something other than a tshirt and jeans. 🙂
    I started the same way as you, as a student, wanting to look a little different from my peers and be able to afford nice things, and I’m so glad I’ve come back to that at this point in my life. Retail stores make me kind of sad because everything looks the same and nothing seems to last anyway. Thrift stores are a treasure hunt. …and now I feel like I should go thrift shopping! 🙂

  3. daisylinshih

    Thank you so much for mentioning the online shops, Like Twice and thredUP. I did not know these were in existence and will definitely be checking them out.
    I love the idea of thrifting for high-value, beautiful pieces and I think you’ve got a great selection! Unfortunately the Crossroads Trading Company near where I live sells brands such as H&M and Forever21– which, as you said, are better value purchased new (if purchased at all).
    Love your blog and your reflections on life. Keep up the beautiful work 🙂
    http://www.simplicityrelished.com

  4. Pingback: For the Love of Vintage | Hark at Home

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