I waltzed into a meeting wearing a grey curly lambs-wool coat, a cream heritage turtleneck sweater, and skinny AGOLDE jeans. “What a great outfit,” my colleague exclaimed. And I said thanks, it cost me 40 dollars — total. She was suspicious, as I’m sure you are, but here’s my big secret; It’s all a mixture of flea-market finds and hand-me-downs.
When I survey my closet, I see the bounty of a lifetime’s worth of treasure hunts. It wasn’t always glamorous. In fact, the clothes I’ve amassed were usually sourced from a stinky Goodwill, and often required two-to-three washes before I felt comfortable putting them on. But I’ve learned to embrace the hazards of shopping this way because it’s helped me understand my style, and my relationship with shopping and commerce, in a way that I’m truly grateful for.
When I was an angsty 90s teenager growing up in Los Angeles, my idols were Claire Danes from My So-Called Life, Kate Moss and Courtney Love. Grunge was a lovely fashion fit for me, because it let me wear pajamas and slips outside, and kept my feet ergonomically safe in sturdy, colorful Dr. Martens , (which is more than I can say for my poor mother, who grew up stumbling around at the height of the 70s in bell-bottoms and platform clogs). The 90s were golden years for thrifting, and I began to build up quite a collection of polyester dresses, pin-up girl bathing suits and hippie skirts.
As I got more confident about my style and grew tired of the ripe arm-pitted smell of polyester, I began to shop vintage with a different set of goals that have lasted me until today. I consider second-hand (vintage, thrift, or whatever you want to call it) a huge style boost, and here are the top five reasons why:
1. Clothes were made better back then.
Assuming you avoid the pitfalls of pleather and polyester, you will soon discover that wool, cotton, and silk were better quality, and the stitching is usually much sturdier than today’s clothes. I have gorgeous alpaca wool sweaters that look like they came out of the 2016 Filippa K Winter Collection, but were actually just owned by some Swedish housewife in the 60s. In fact, most of my vintage clothes look like they’re not vintage at all. I look for classic timeless pieces — trench coats, silk blouses, leather a-line skirts, and because of the quality, they really are timeless.
2. The price allows you to be more experimental with your wardrobe.
I might not have bought an electric blue Nehru collared coat if it had been more than $20, but because it was sort of interesting, and I was able to bargain down the price at an estate sale, I did…and it’s my favorite coat ever! It looks great with everything. It makes boring outfits interesting, and I always receive compliments when I wear it. I long for spring when I can pull it out again and rock it with leather leggings and a feminist t-shirt.
3. It’s so much less icky for the environment and for your soul.
When I go to H&M to pick up some basics, I’m always struck by the sheer mass of goods available and what that implies about labor, pricing and waste. You want to know where else I see a lot of H&M…? At thrift stores, which means that a $5 skirt that was made in some sweatshop was probably only worn once or twice by the original buyer before it was sent to a thrift store.
On another level, there has always been something restorative about bargaining and bartering for clothes at a flea market. I once traded an hour’s worth of babysitting time for a mint-condition Hudson Bay blanket. I was at a flea market in Berlin, and my friend knew the lady operating the booth. She was exhausted from an early start, and really wanted a break. Her two-year-old son was getting antsy and wanted to explore. I offered to take him around the market and get him an ice cream while she got some rest. She thanked me by giving me the blanket I’d been eyeing earlier. This exchange felt so much more genuine and community building than walking into the Gap, having some sales lady call me “sweetheart,” and walking out with a fluorescent yellow sports bra that was on sale for obvious reasons.
4. You will always have an individual edge.
Even if I pull on a simple, grab-and-go dress, I know that I won’t run into five other shoppers wearing the same thing. I know not everyone cares about having unique items, but the proliferation of just a few brands is making the world a pretty boring place, sartorially speaking. It seems like every season, hordes of Zara-zombies appear, all sporting the same micro trend. I just find it inspiring to see something…different. Also, it is crazy satisfying when I take a chance on some off-beat ruffled blouse, and then a year later, it is everywhere. It’s like fashion confidence-boosting crack.
5. You will suddenly want to visit Boise Idaho.
Whenever I plan a trip, the first question I ask is, Hmmm…I wonder if they’ll have good thrift stores there. I have used this logic to discover some really great, underrated cities, from Antwerp, Belgium to Yuma, Arizona.
Sabrina Small is a freelance writer living in Berlin with her family. Her work can also be found on Billfold.com.
Image via Unsplash