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  • Writer's pictureChristie

How to Thrift Your Capsule Wardrobe - 12 Steps for Finding Quality Staples Secondhand

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

One thing is for sure - quality clothing is expensive when you buy it new, and for good reason. It's made without cutting corners and with high attention to detail. It's made using the best materials and, hopefully, by a company that pays its garment workers a living wage. All of this adds up to what can be a very high monetary price.


Although the high price tag is usually a fair one, it can also be unaffordable for some. Thankfully, really high quality items can be found for extremely low prices, a lot of times for less than you would spend at a place like Wal-Mart or a fast fashion shop like Shein. This is where thrifting, or buying secondhand, comes in.


As a person who has been shopping in American thrift stores for almost 20 years as well as having a wealth of knowledge about identifying quality garments, I wanted to share a few things I learned over the years that will help you find some great clothes for a low price.


Before I get into the bullet points, I want to first define what will be discussed in this article.


Definitions


What is Thrifting?


Thrifting is essentially going to a secondhand shop and buying your clothing pre-owned. This could be a Goodwill, Salvation Army, charity shop, garage sale, estate sale, or any store that sells secondhand.


What is a Capsule Wardrobe?


A capsule wardrobe is a wardrobe of quality items that can easily be mixed and matched to maximize the number of outfits that your can create. In my article, I'm going to be focusing on finding these individual pieces, and will not focus on the big picture of how the individual garment will fit into your wardrobe as a whole. Since creating a capsule wardrobe would need its own article which I haven't written (yet). If you haven't done so already, I would suggest learning a bit more about how to create a capsule wardrobe, and then coming back to this article after you have that knowledge.


Below is an example of a very small capsule wardrobe that I constructed using the "Stylebook" Ipad app. All of these garments are from my own personal wardrobe and they were all purchased secondhand with the only exceptions being the blue jeans which I did get new, and the green dress which once belonged to my grandma.


A flatlay of 11 different outfit pieces: A sage green button front collared dress, a simple brown knit sweater, a basic button-up white shirt, A pair of mid toned straight leg jeans, a tan brown and cream toned checked coat, a blue silk floral full sleeved blouse, a pair of wide legged cropped ivory toned pants, a pair of tan toned heeled sandals, an ivory satchel bag with plastic yellow toned handle, a brown croc texture crossbody structured bag, and a pair of tan and gold buckled heeled ankle boots.
An example of a capsule wardrobe using high quality, secondhand garments.

What is Quality Clothing?:


I think the term "quality" can vary from person to person, but there are some essential characteristics that make an item of clothing high quality. Quality clothing is clothing that is easy and comfortable to wear and that is made well - meaning that it will go through the wash & wear process for much longer while still looking new.


Now that the terms are defined, let's get into it!


How to Shop in Thrift Stores:


Where to Look:


1: Look Through Everything & In Every Section:


I like to call thrifting a treasure hunt - not only because there is truly great stuff to be found, but because you really do have to dig for it. It's important to look in every section and at every individual item. This is especially true if your are trying to build a capsule wardrobe from scratch or looking for multiple types of pieces. If you're looking for a specific piece (like a shirt) look at every shirt in every section. Even if you start out looking in the women's section, don't forget to check the men's section.


2: Look At the Returns Rack By the Dressing Rooms:


Just like you, other shoppers are looking for the best items, and usually it's the best items that are getting picked up and tried on. Make sure that your check out the racks by the dressing room for quality items that may not have worked for another person, but would be perfect for you. If the dressing rooms are open and empty, you can take it a step further and see what clothes were left in there if somebody didn't put the clothes away properly.


3: Look At the Racks that Are Just Being Brought Out From the Back:


At least at Goodwill, the workers are regularly bringing clothes out from the back in order to replenish the shelves. These racks have items that haven't been picked over and will sometimes have quality items on them. Keep an eye out for these clothing racks when and if you can.


What to Look For:


4: Look for Classic Garments:


If you want extremely high quality classic essentials, the thrift store is the perfect place to shop for these items. Things like cashmere sweaters, silk blouses, quality cotton or linen button downs, beautiful dresses, and wool coats and trousers are very common to find in thrift stores.

A boxy ivory shaped short sleeved button-down collared blouse held in front of a blue and white backdrop.
This is my favorite silk blouse purchased from a thrift store for about $7 USD. It's a good example of a "high-quality, classic essential."

5: Ignore the Size Tag:


I realize that this tip might go against what you're used to, especially if you're the type of person who buys all their clothes in one or two stores where sizing is consistent. However, it's really important to realize that sizing is not consistent in the thrift store. Sizes vary between different brands, and they vary even more wildly between different decades. If there are clothes mixed in that are from the 60s or 70s, their size 10 might be the same measurements as a modern day's size 2. It's important to look past the size when you shop secondhand. If it looks like it may physically fit you, pick it up despite what the size tag says. Even better, know your measurements and bring a tape measure with you, just in case you need it. Not all thrift stores have dressing rooms.


#6: Check the Brand Name:


Although the brand name is one of the least important things to consider, especially if you're not familiar with them, it is one of the quickest ways to determine whether or not it's worth inspecting closer or not. There's an order I personally got through when looking through the garment racks at each item. I go first by look, then by touch - if the garment looks nice and feels like it might be a quality fabric, then I check the brand. I can usually do these 3 almost all at once at this point, but it makes the decision much faster on whether or not I should even bother inspecting for further signs of quality. For example, a garment might look nice and have fabric that feels good to the touch, but the instant that I see the brand is Shein or Forever 21, I instantly know that it will have shoddy construction and low quality fabric. It makes it much easier to pass and go on to the next one without having to slow down.


7: Check the Tags:


Although you should ignore the size tag, you should definitely check the material content and care tags since you can find a lot of information from them that will help you determine whether or not to pick up a garment. Below is a breakdown of what to look for on the tag.


  • 7A: Look for Natural Fibers:

Quality clothing is generally made from natural fibers such as linen, cotton, flax, silk, wool, leather, etc. Check the contents for these fibers. Some fabrics to avoid include polyester and acrylic, or anything with the word "poly" at the front of it. These garments will not be breathable and are derived from plastics. I personally make exceptions occasionally if the garment is otherwise made very nicely and isn't going to be worn too close to the body, or if it's part of a blend with a very low percentage. For example, it's somewhat common to find sweaters that have a blend of wool with some acrylic (say, 80% wool, 20% acrylic). I usually am open to taking those home if they are high quality and would fit nicely into my wardrobe.

Close-up of the inside tag of a brown and cream houndstooth coat witha brown lining. The tag is sewn on and reads "Laurel". There is another tag attached that says "made in the czech republic", the size tag which reads "36", and one other tag which is mostly covered up by the other tag but reads "100% wool".
From my own wardrobe, here's an example of the label I'd look at. Notice that this one is made of 100% Wool.

  • 7B: Check the Care Label:

Make sure that the garment you are buying will fit into your lifestyle when your have to clean it. For example, if you are a person who will not dry clean an item, it may be best to avoid items like textured silk blouses that are dry clean only. Granted, I personally hand wash many items that say "dry clean only", but doing this takes research (to see what can be hand washed) and still take extra time to do. Certain silks do okay when washed on the delicate cycle and then left to air dry, but others do not. If your want to play it safe, stick with garments that can be machine washed - linen and cotton usually falls into this category. For other items, keep in mind that they may need a bit more special treatment and consider whether or not you have the time to devote to this care.

A close up of a white and pale blue polka dot blouse with a tag that reads "Rebecca Taylor". The neckline and front bodice is visible. The silk has a slightly bumpy texture as part of its design.
Here's an example of a silk garment that I'd only feel comfortable dry cleaning.

  • 7C: Check Where the Garment Was Made:

There are some exceptions to this rule, but checking where the garment was made is sometimes a good indication of the quality that you will find in it. This is particularly true when looking for countries that seem to be consistent with higher quality. If you see a tag that says "Made in Italy" there is a good chance that it is made with better finishing and/or better fabric. The same goes for "Made in USA". (Sidenote: If you're shopping in the United States, "Made in USA" is also a hint of a vintage garment in some circumstances). You will see a higher ratio of low quality clothing items that were "Made in China" (or other countries), because these countries have had historically lax labor practices when compared to those previously mentioned. These countries can make garments very cheaply and very quickly as a result of these practices, which is what many fast-fashion retailers rely on. That's not to say that countries like China cannot make quality garments. I've found countless items that were made in China (as well as some of the other countries) that are beautiful quality and made with great execution. This tip should definitely be taken with a grain-of-salt.


8: Check to See How the Garment is Constructed:


Check the insides of a garment to see how it was made. This is the best way to determine a garment's quality. It will give you an idea of how well it will hold up throughout the cycle of wearing, storing, and washing. This is honestly a topic that could take up a full blog post on its own, but here is an overview.


  • 8A: Check the Seams:

French seams will be the highest quality. If there is a double row of stitching to reinforce the seams this is also a sign of quality. Also, higher quality clothing will have more "stitches per inch". The stitching should look neat with no loose thread.

A close up of a cornflower blue, ivory, pale blush pink, beige, and dusty rose toned silk blouse being held to show the inner seams. Side seams are french seamed, and hem is folded under so that no rough edges are visible, even on the inside.
Inside seam and hem of a secondhand silk blouse. Notice the french seams and the folded under hem resulting in a very neat, sturdy finish.

  • 8B: Check the Hems:

If the ends are concealed by being tucked under (as shown in the photo above), this is a sign of quality.


  • 8C: Check for Pattern Matching:

If a garment has a consistent pattern, high quality garments will take care to match the pattern and/or make it symmetrical and centered. In the photo of the coat below, you can see this in practice by how the brown row of the gingham fabric travels horizontally under the bust and even extends onto the sleeve in a straight line. The rest of the gingham squares are centered as well. If this were a lower quality jacket, it's more likely that none of these pieces would line up as well.


An ivory, beige, pink toned beige, and pale brown toned wool coat with dark buttons displayed on a thin posed mannequin in front of a grey and white canvas backdrop, white walls and brown floors over a long blue dress. The coat is facing a quarter turn away from the camera at an angle to show how the colors in the checked patterns line up horizontally..
Notice how the back, sleeves, and two front panels match up perfectly across the coat. This is a sign of quality.

  • 8D: On Sheer Fabrics, Check For a Built-In Lining:

For garments that were not designed to be worn see-through, check the garment for a high quality lining. Garments that were made with thin fabric and unlined may be lower quality - that or they could simply be missing a slip that got lost. Thankfully, these are easy to purchase separately if needed (you could check the lingerie section of your thrift store for one).


  • 8E: Check the Zipper:

The way a zipper is installed, as well as the quality of a zipper, is a good indication of the quality of a garment. If it's a concealed zipper, it should not be visible from the outside. From the inside, all zippers will be cleanly installed. It should be easy to zip and unzip. A high quality zipper will feel substantial - YKK is the label that you may find on a high quality zipper and is a highly used, high quality brand


  • 8F: Is it handmade?:

If the seams aren't 100% straight or if the inside has a few loose threads or are generally not "perfect", there's a good chance that the garment you are looking at is handmade. Handmade clothing is not very common, and usually does not have labels. Handmade items will almost never look as perfectly produced as a garment made by a highly skilled factory worker, and in my mind "neatness" is less important for handmade goods. What really matters for these garments is whether or not the garment looks like it would hold up to the wear, care, and washing cycle. If it looks like it can't do that, or if it's shoddily made, would you be willing and/or able to get the item repaired, or repair the item yourself?


  • 8G: Check the Finishing:

The last thing to look for are the details - signs that the manufacturer did not skimp on the quality of materials, or the labor involved in making a garment just a bit more special. Look for construction details such as topstitching, interior jacket pockets, bra strap holders on blouses and dresses, or unique seaming. Look also for quality materials outside of the fabric. High quality buttons or unique zipper pulls are a great and easy detail to look for.

A close up of the underside of an intricately embroidered dusty rosey rust toned dress. The underside of the sleeve is being held up to show a snap button attached to a neatly braided thread which is intended to hold a bra strap in place underneath.
An example of a bra strap hold on a secondhand dress. These are one of my favorite details to find on thin strapped garments.

9. Remember That a Garment Can Usually Be Tailored:


When buying from a thrift store, or even from a department store, it's important to remember that even if an item doesn't fit quite right (particularly if it's a bit too large is certain places), it can likely be tailored to fit you perfectly. If you find an item that you really love but it doesn't fit quite right, buy it and bring it to a tailor. You will spend a bit extra to get it to fit correctly, but if it's a high quality garment it will still be a fraction of what you would pay to buy the same item new.


10. Consider Items That Are Damaged:


Depending on the damage, certain items can be easily fixed. For example, if you find a dress that has loose seams, those can be easily fixed with some simple hand-stitching. A zipper can be replaced if need be (albeit, probably by a professional). Even things like holes can be repaired. If you personally like to do embroidery, they are a good opportunity to try your hand at visible mending and can easily be upcycled.

A close up of a pair of blue jeans in a lap. The blue jeans are covered collage-style in a mixture of triangle patches sewn into individual squares in purple silk and cotton floral fabric in tones of blue, brown, and beige - these pieces are attached with ivory embroidery thread sewn in a decorative way.. Hand-drawn looking flowers are cut out of cotton fabric and attached across the leg. Layers of different sized vintage ivory toned lace are also patched on. All of these textures and patterns are laid out in an aesthetic way.
These beat up Levi's 501s were the perfect canvas for an artistic embroidered repair, shown while I was working on them. Unshown, I also altered the waist to make them fit my body better. They didn't fit perfectly to start with.

Whether you want a visible or invisible repair, many items can be repaired. That said, there will be some items that will not be repairable - At least if you want an invisible repair. Watch out for large holes, shredded seams on already tight garments, or things like staining, especially stains that seem old and have soaked through the fabric (particularly around the armpit). Certain stains will not be removable. The same goes with certain odors. Cigarette smoke is a notably difficult, or impossible, scent to get out of a garment.


11. Be Okay With Not Finding Anything:


There will be times when you go to the thrift store, look at everything, and still leave empty-handed, especially if you are looking for something specific or have extremely high standards for what you purchase. It is great to have high standards, and it is completely normal to not always find something. If you don't find anything, don't get discouraged. Just try a different thrift store, or go back a week later when they will have an assortment of new items. If I personally found something every time I went to the thrift store, with how often I thrift, my closet would be overflowing. :)


12. Research:


Honestly, the largest thing that I can credit when it comes to spotting quality is this: Understanding how a basic garment is constructed. You don't have to know how to sew from scratch or even have the intent to make a garment, but having this basic knowledge will help you to understand and appreciate the labor and steps that go into creating a garment. For those interested in learning this, I would highly suggest watching some videos by creators with a focus on high-quality construction of their clothes. There are three that I can think of from the top of my head. All three are historical fashion channels, but they all take you through the creation of garments from start to finish which, regardless of time period, will provide you with good insight. Here are the three I recommend: Bernadette Banner, Sewstine, and American Dutchess.


Thrifted Outfit Examples:


Last but not least, I wanted to share a few of my own example outfits using 100% thrifted garments. There is not a single clothing item below that I purchased new- all of these items were purchased secondhand over the span of about 5 years at least. Hopefully this goes to show that it is possible to build full wardrobes based off thrifted and secondhand garments, and it's also possible to get a wide variety of looks and styles. Thrifting truly is for everyone!


Although these items are all secondhand, I will also list the brand names on the photo description just in case you want to look for similar items on secondhand clothing websites like Poshmark or Ebay. Buying on these sites does make it easier to find specific items since there is a search function. It's a great option as opposed to needing to dig through racks of clothes if you don't like digging. (By the way, if you use my referral code 'CHRISTIEMATTOS' you will get $10 off your first Poshmark order - note that I will get a commission if you use it).


Outfit One:

Perfect for a summer picnic.

Size 8 blonde pale woman poses in front of a tree and fence in the grass. Photo is taken from shoes up to neck. She wears a rose quartz ad antique gold necklace, red and white gingham top with ties at the front of each spaghetti strap, a pair of wide legged cropped ivory pants, a pair of beige suede loafers, and an ivory tote style bag with a yellow toned plastic handle.
Outfit Details: Necklace: (Vintage) Barse, Shirt: Madewell, Pants: Ann Taylor Loft, Shoes: Naturalizer, Bag: (Vintage) Preston New York:


Outfit Two:

Dark academia with a bohemian twist. Mixing vintage and modern items is a great way to make a really unique outfit.

Size 8 blonde pale woman poses in front of a tree and fence in the grass. Photo is taken from shoes up to neck. She wears a rose quartz and antique gold necklace (partially covered by the dress), a Victorian inspired dusty purple mini dress covered in lace and pintucks with a button and tie front, a vintage houndstooth blazer in shades of brown and cream cover the dress and is just bit shorter than the hem of the dress, a pair of dark brown leather calf length boots with buckles on the sides, and a hard- case croc-texture tote bag with a thin strap is worn over the shoulder.
Necklace: (Vintage) Barse, Dress: Free People, Jacket: (Vintage) Laurel, Bag: (Vintage) Ande, Shoes: Born


Outfit Three:

The perfect "everywhere" outfit. By the way - that skirt is an exception to my "natural fibers" rule. It is made of polyester, but it feels very high quality and since it doesn't sit closely on the body it is comfortable to wear. Setting aside the fabric content, it is also very well made.

Size 8 blonde pale woman poses in front of a tree and fence in the grass. Photo is taken from shoes up to neck. She wears a very thin long scarf (like a necklace) in blue-grey. The scarf features hanging silver chains and silver sewn on beads- scarf is wrapped choker style and tied loosely in the front., a scoop necked sleeveless textured knit tank in ivory is tucked into a drapey pale bluish-green midi length skirt with an asymmetrical hem. She wears a pair of warm toned brown suede ankle boots with gold buckles on the sides, and a hard- case croc-texture tote bag with a thin strap is worn over the shoulder. A long thin silver ring with a pale bluish grey stone is visible on her finger which rests on the bag.
Scarf: Chan Luu, Top: No tags, Skirt: Margaret O'Leary, Bag: (Vintage) Ande, Shoes: Breckelle's, Ring: (Vintage) Unknown Brand


Outfit Four:

Whimsigoth inspired - That silk blend velvet sweater is the star of the show.

Size 8 blonde pale woman poses at an angle in front of a tree and fence in the grass. Photo is taken from shoes up to neck. She wears a dressy red and white crystal short necklace, a tunic length grey button front collared shirt in a high-low style over faux leather black leggings. Over that is a cocoon style velvet sweater which, similar to the shirt, is also shorter in the front and longer in the back - it has a shimmery quality to it and is mostly charcoal with a subtle swirly print in shades of dark red, grey, and copper. Her shoes are Black ankle length combat style boots in a croc texture. A hard- case croc-texture tote bag with a thin strap is worn over the shoulder. A long silver and greyish blue stoned ring on her ring finger is visible on the hand which rests on the bag.
Necklace (Vintage) Unknown brand, Shirt: Eileen Fisher, Sweater: Johnny Was, Bag: (Vintage) Ande, Leggings: Spanx, Shoes: Doc Martens, Ring: (Vintage) Unknown Brand


Outfit Five:

Here's an example of visible mending that I did on the front of the pants. These were inspired by a similar pair that I tried on at Anthropologie but didn't fit and were low quality. I got the same look with higher quality jeans and an original, hand-made finish. All-together I paid just under $8 for my pair since I used materials that I already had on-hand and essentially only paid for the jeans.

Size 8 blonde pale woman poses in front of a tree and fence in the grass. Photo is taken from shoes up to neck. She wears a very thin long scarf (like a necklace) in blue-grey. The scarf features hanging silver chains and silver sewn on beads- scarf is wrapped choker style and tied loosely in the front, a boxy white linen button front blouse with rolled up sleeves, one side of the front of the shirt is casually tucked into the pants while the other is untucked. Her pans are straight legged in a mid toned wash with weathering at the front thighs. Ankles are rolled up. At each front pocket is an antique lace applique decoration. On the left leg at the calf there is light patchwork in different shades of blue, purple, and ivory in textures of lace, silk, and cotton. The pattern seams to travel up diagonally to the other leg that has more patchworking in the same shades with one large diamond shaped piece of ivory lace being the largest piece of patchwork. Worn with warm toned brown suede ankle boots.
Scarf: Chan Luu, Shirt: (Probably vintage) No tags, Jeans: Levi's, Shoes: Breckelle's, Ring: (Vintage) Unknown brand

Closing:


I hope that these tips were helpful - I've found some of my favorite, most long-worn items secondhand. Being able to shop at thrift stores has allowed me to afford a high quality wardrobe on a more modest budget, but it has additional benefits.


Shopping secondhand, especially in thrift stores, allows you to shop outside of the seasonal trends that may otherwise influence your wardrobe when you're shopping at a typical clothing store. It also makes it easier for you to identify your own personal style without the influences of trends because thrift shops, by their very nature, are a mish-mash of practically everything. Shopping at a thrift store will give you access to garments that you may otherwise never see, and quality that you may normally not be able to afford. Finding a $300 retail garment for under $10 is always really rewarding and fun. Best of all, thrift shopping is one of the most sustainable ways to shop for clothes. The garment already exists and has had a past-life. Instead of throwing it away, the person who donated it is keeping it out of the landfill, and you - as the person who is buying it - is giving it a second life. It truly is a beautiful thing.


If you have any thrift shopping tips of your own, or suggestions for future blog posts, feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!






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