Thrifting and Thriving

The beauty of embracing secondhand clothing

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It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I’m one of countless women walking through a residential neighborhood in Michigan, with a dawn-of-the-dead singular focus, toward a giant tent. It’s the one day of the year where every piece of secondhand or vintage clothing at Zany Consignment Boutique is only $5.

It’s a scene to behold. Ladies grab entire arm-fulls of items in their size, then stake out a patch of grass on the lawn to weed through for keepers. It’s an open-air locker room with grown women stripping down to panties or swimsuits and ring-tossing outfits over their heads, all for a good deal. Imagine Filene’s Basement wedding dress dash, with a polite Midwestern sensibility. One woman isn’t even shopping. She’s just circulating through the crowd offering support: “Oh you should get that one. It looks good.” Within minutes I walk away from the scene with eight dresses for $40. Eight dresses for less than I could have purchased one brand new one. The feeling of victory will last all week.

I’ve always been a thrifty person. But over the last 10 years, secondhand shopping has become a serious passion. Around 80% of my clothes and accessories are pre-owned. And I’m not alone. People are embracing the fashion approach for a number of reasons, spurred on by social media challenges such as #zerowasteweek, #sustainableseptember and #secondhandseptember. There’s so much to feel good about this type of consumerism. No wonder the word “thrift” comes from the word “thrive.” Here, some of the brilliant reasons why I make secondhand my first choice:

Reduced waste. Buying used clothing means I’m not contributing to the “fast” fashion industry—where many brands now focus on manufacturing cheap clothing that wears out quickly and then gets tossed in a landfill. These trendy garments are often made in hazardous foreign factories that exploit workers, plus put a strain on natural resources. Manufacturing a single pair of new jeans—from growing the cotton plant to distressing the final fabric—can consume an estimated 2,900 gallons of water. And many denim dyes have been found to pollute water systems. But opting out of that ugly industry is as easy as choosing to extend the life of garments that already exist in the world…maybe some even found in grandma’s closet.

Better health. It sounds kooky to say that wearing your grandma’s clothes can improve your health, but reports from sources like Greenpeace have found that many modern fabrics are now coated with creepy, hazardous chemicals like phthalates—meant to wick moisture or prevent odors—that pose potential health risks. On the flip side, secondhand clothes were often made before those toxic practices became commonplace, or have been washed multiple times, helping to remove residues that would otherwise rest against your skin.

Saved money. On top of helping to save your health and the planet, thrifting also saves shoppers a fortune. My success stories are endless: the Calvin Klein dress—with its original tags—for a steal; the never-worn Hunter rain boots at half price; the vintage Pappagallo Bermuda bag for $2 at a charity thrift shop. You never know what you’ll find. If ever there was a taboo with frugal hand-me-downs, it is gone. In an era where we rideshare and sleep in strangers’ Airbnb beds, it no longer feels weird to wear a coat or a pair of jeans that someone else once occupied. It’s the another-warm-body-was-here discount. And as a bonus, you can always sell items back to consignment shops, earning money while keeping the cycle going. So swap, don’t shop.

Saved time. Secondhand stores are often laid out logically, for speedy shopping. I love the ones that organize their merchandize by color, size and type. So if I’m looking for a black dress, I just strut over to the rack of LBDs in my size and have my pick. Regular retail would require me to visit endless stores all across town to find a fraction of those choices. And I can’t stress this enough: I’m lazy. I wear dresses every day because they require only one decision and one action each morning. They are the Steve-Jobs’ turtleneck of my existence. When packing for a weeklong vacation in Cape Cod recently, I tossed a half dozen sundresses and a swimsuit in my bag and was done. So yeah, any shopping habit that saves me time, money and brain-power is a win.

More original style. This shopping philosophy is liberating because it makes me less focused on brands. I just pull things off the rack that speak to me. Is it Gucci? Is it Target? I have no idea. But I like it! Oh, that navy clutch that I get so many compliments on? It’s an old cosmetics bag that I bought at a garage sale for a quarter. I saved it from a landfill and it saved me from being boring. So cheers to shopping without any preconceived notions. (It’s an approach that works with choosing books and spouses too.) This freedom brings a sort of swagger. You can’t help but get compliments because you stand out.

Earned stories. Anyone who shops secondhand has tales of unicorns—those finds that are too good to be believed. I remember nabbing a Brooks Brothers wool trench and two Coach handbags at a spontaneous “everything is free” alley sale. Apparently, a daughter was cleaning out her parents’ house and didn’t want to be bothered with organizing an estate sale. When I walked by she was dragging things to the curb, in real time. (She was more kamikaze than Kondo. But it sparked my joy!) Another victory moment: Watching the final season of “Mad Men” and seeing Peggy Olson wearing the same vintage blue and red dress I had hanging in my closet from an estate sale. (Who wore it better? Who’s to say.)

Closer bonds. Most of all, wearing new-to-me clothing has connected me to other women. When people hear that I appreciate old clothes, they sometimes want to pass their cherished items on to me. A dress my neighbor outgrew or heels from a relative. One aunt has started a closet cleaning tradition of mailing me items. I think she gets as much joy out of knowing her treasures will continue to be appreciated, as I get from wearing them. It’s the same reason my mother cut up her wedding dress to make a christening gown for my children. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about old clothes, it’s about the memories we share in them. And those never have to go to waste.

How to be a sustainable fashion star:

Check online. We’ve come a long way since eBay. My sister swears by the online secondhand site thredUP.com. And as an author, when I have to attend a fancy event, I love wearing gowns from RenttheRunway.com.

Consider larger sizes. Clothing cuts have changed over the years (hello vanity sizing!), so when shopping vintage, I search a wide range of sizes. I’ll buy too big and tailor pieces down. It’s still often cheaper than buying brand new. Things can be upcycled too: coats can be re-lined and shoes can be re-heeled.

Think outside the box. After I stopped shopping from conventional retail stores, unexpected sources of fashion opened up to me. I found a gold lamé dress at a community theater wardrobe fundraiser sale. And when I needed something fun to wear to a film festival, I found a sparkly tulle skirt in the children’s section of a thrift store. (Who knew an adult small was similar to a girls size 12?) The sources are endless!

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