Ever since I was little, I have been singularly obsessed with Other People’s Clothes. I say this as a proper noun because, well, it’s a proper little obsession. I love new clothes too, but there’s nothing that makes me happier than buying something that’s already been broken in.
This, of course, makes my mother practically apoplectic. She grew up in poverty, was adamant that I have brand-new clothes for every occasion so that I looked crisp and clean. My unrequited love for vintage and thrift was confounding and concerning for her. I can see her plight: a single mother working multiple jobs to give her child the things she never had, and yet the child insists on second-hand everything as the main source of her wardrobe. It’s nothing personal, Mom. I just prefer that lived-in look.
My love for these items took on a life of its own in college, where I discovered the joy of “borrowing” my boyfriends’ items of clothing. I pilfered college sweatshirts and created quite the stash of broken-in denim; I’ve since evolved to paying for my second-hand clothes, and I love the tales my closet could tell: jackets that I imagine were used as many a ladies’ Sunday best, handbags that saw special nights on the town, shoes that walked a minute into the most special events. I scour flea markets for mix-and-match plates, I wrap myself in blankets that have slept on other beds. My prized possessions are vintage designer bags and clothes, all of which were scored at stoop sales, garage sales and flea markets.
Bottom line: I love the feel of well-loved items surrounding me.
I do, however, have some general rules for the proverbial diving of dumpsters and the victory of scoring the perfect vintage piece. Follow these nine tips, and you’ll love each and every second-hand item you buy.
1. Inspect Your Stuff
Anything that smells like it’s rotting is never a good find. If it’s dry, brittle, cracks and smells musty, it’s going to fall apart. This also goes for items with cracked embroidery and/or beads that fall off when you pick it up. Pay attention to these details and examine your items carefully, because once you’ve bought it, it’s your burden to bear. (More on this in #3.)
2. Judge Those Jeans
Denim looks amazing worn in, but if it’s too old and has not been properly cared for, it can also dry out and cause rips. If you spy a pair you want to purchase, roll the jeans up in a ball first to make sure they’re still pliable. If they crack or rip, put them back on the rack. Worn in is one thing, ripped and dry is an undesirable other.
3. Try Everything On
Wear leggings and a fitted tank when you are shopping so you can strip down easily. If there’s no changing room and you can’t try on a skirt or a pair of pants, use this general rule of thumb: wrap the item around your neck twice, making sure the ends meet on the second wrap. If they do, it should fit.
4. Have a Good Tailor On Hand
If you find something you love and it’s in good condition, but is too big in some places, you can always have it tailored. I love buying men’s jackets and having them taken in, since I’m busty and most blazers are too tight across the bust. Find a good tailor — their ability to customize clothes to fit you can make a $5 blazer look like a $500 bespoke piece.
5. Bring Cash
Money talks, and having cash on hand also means you can haggle, which most vendors expect you to do. Having a set cash limit also usually means you’ll be mindful of how much you spend. It’s hard to overspend when you only have a certain amount of cash in your wallet.
6. Ask Questions About Accessories
You can find some amazing accessories at thrift stores. But make sure you always check the quality of jewelry (are the stones firmly in place? Are there any cloudy stones? Is the paste secure on costume pieces?), then ask the seller about the history of the piece. If the jewelry is by a well-known designer, ask the seller if he or she still has the certificate of authenticity. Then feel free to haggle away.
7. Don’t Turn Your Nose up at Something Just Because It’s “Plain”
New buttons can spice up an old piece of clothing like nothing else. The same goes for an item you find that may have a broken zipper or ripped lining. Your trusted tailor can fix these things, creating a clothing that looks almost as good as new.
8. Try to Buy in Bulk
If you find yourself at a single sale where you’re interested in buying a number of items, come up with a round figure for the lot of what you want to buy. Most sellers would rather get rid of many items at once than come back home with unsold merchandise. Be prepared to walk away or continue to haggle, but most sellers would rather bargain over a larger lot than a single piece.
9. Wash Your Goods Right Away
That means every single thing you’ve bought the minute you get it home. You’ll avoid bringing any unwanted visitors with you (the worst of which could be bedbugs), and your items will begin their new life in your closet fresh and clean.
For me, well-loved clothing makes for a wardrobe filled with stories and endless possibilities. They’re softened from affection, and I feel the love when I wear each piece. I keep the cycle going, by the way. I give away pieces and sell items to friends and loved ones by hosting swap meets. It’s my hope that someone will give one of my beloved pieces a new home and continue the cycle of finding a new set of stories with an owner who will love it as much as I did. Because, in the end, that’s what well-worn clothing is a sign of: love.