Walk into any thrift store or any vintage shop, and what you’re faced with is just a whole lot of stuff. There are racks of stuff, bins and baskets brimming with mountains of stuff, and wall displays of more stuff. There’s such an overwhelming, alarming, panic-attack-inducing amount, that it’s almost paralyzing to even figure out where to begin. And even if you’ve armed yourself with the mission to find that one treasured one-of-a-kind hidden gem, that one piece you can wear and humblebrag (“Oh this? It’s vintage), there’s still the chance that you’ll walk out empty-handed, with nothing to show for the hours you’ve invested.
Do you start with the nearest rack to you and work your way through? Or is there a better strategy? To help take the edge off and shed light on how to dredge up the good stuff, we asked three of the top vintage-shopping excavators for insider tips: Jenny Walton, illustrator-slash-fashion-blogger-slash-thrifting extraordinaire (see three of her excellent vintage outfits, above, for proof); Jenn Rogien, costume designer for Girls and Orange Is the New Black;and Samantha and Morgan Elias, the sisters and co-founders behind The Vintage Twin.
First, Go Into It With an Open Mind—Don’t Look for Anything Specific
“I like being surprised by things I may find,” Walton says. “Honestly, I never know what I’m looking for at all—I love randomly coming across the coolest things ever. And sometimes, it’s a good visual experience even if you don’t buy anything—styling ideas, cool color combos, and new silhouettes.” Similarly, Rogien says drafting a shopping list might hinder your thrifting experience. “Personally, I don’t go when I’m looking for something for an event or when I have a specific shopping deadline,” she says. “It’s a challenge because you don’t necessarily know what you’ll find or what you’ll walk out with.”
But if you are looking for something in particular, Walton suggests searching on eBay or Etsy: “It’s easier to navigate and you have a huge amount of inventory at your disposal.”
Shop by Color and Patterns
“Focus on fabrics in the color you want or pattern,” Samantha says. “Those are easy things you can scan the rack for, and if you find something desirable or remotely interesting, you can pull that piece out. It’s definitely a great way to cut through the thousands of garments out on the floor.”
Or Shop by Era
Walton says she loves to shop by color, too, but she also loves shops that separate clothes by decade. “I get into the groove of it,” she says, calling out Screaming Mimis as one of her favorite vintage stores that organizes clothing by eras. “It’s great if I’m in a ’50s mood or if I want to do the ’70s trend.”
Tackle the Shop in Waves or in Sections
“If it’s super overwhelming and it’s too much to handle, I find success in popping into the store regularly and peeking through to see if anything catches your eyes, since the merchandise is constantly changing and there’s always a rotation of new things and they’re constantly getting new things,” says Walton, who sometimes finds one gem in every 10 visits. “A lot of people go in and think that they have to look at every item on every rack, and it just takes hours.”
Or if there’s a category you’re interested in, make a beeline to that section. “Start small, instead of trying to conquer the whole store in one go,” Rogien suggests. “Personally, I’m into vintage Levi’s, so I just look at the jeans section first and then quickly browse other sections.”
Don’t Limit Your Search to Women’s
Be open about shopping in the kid’s section or men’s. For Walton, her go-to is soft men’s vintage graphic tees. And for Rogien, one of her favorite thrift store items is a large kid’s flannel shirt.
Remember What Looks Good On You or What You’re Comfortable with
“The biggest mistake most people make is buying clothes at a vintage store and never wearing it because it’s too far out of their comfort zone,” Walton says. “It’s very important to remember what looks good on you. It’s hard to not be enamored with ‘vintage clothing,’ like long maxi dresses, but you need to ask yourself if it’s something you can see yourself wearing or if it feels too dated that it doesn’t work with anything else you own. Don’t forget those shopping rules or questions you ask yourself when you’re at a normal department store. I’ve gotten the best wears out of the most classic staples, like a beautiful black A-line skirt—it’s so simple, but I’ve worn it with almost anything—or this white oversized shirt that’s so chic and I’ll wear forever.”
Only Buy Pieces That Makes You Happy
“It’s only worth it if you’re going to sleep thinking about it that night,” Samantha says. “Don’t buy it because it’s cheap, because then you’ll end up with a closet full of stuff you’re not excited to wear. You should be excited to wear everything you own.”
But for Walton, she buys pieces that interest her—and she buys a lot of it. “I like buying vintage and thrift because it allows me to buy more and I’m able to play with them more at home,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll buy a blouse because I love the color, but will have no idea what to wear it with, and then six months later, I’ll find a cool skirt to go with it.” But if the piece is a lost cause, Walton says her tactic is to sell it back to the thrift shop and accumulate store credit that she can use to buy another item she really loves.
Avoid Looking at Labels
“If I’m looking at the brand name, versus the actual garment, it alters my perception, and then I buy something because of the tag and not necessarily because I like it,” Walton says. “A lot of people make this mistake, and end up buying brand-name clothes that they never wear.”
Consider the Fabric, and Proceed with Caution
“A great leather jacket for $25 seems like a bargain until I remind myself that leather can be tough, since skins dry out if they’re conditioned or stored properly,” Rogien says. “The risk of buying any kind of natural fabric, whether that’s wool or cotton or leather or fur, is that it can dry out over time and it becomes unrestorable. If something feels stiff, like an army jacket or denim, it’s not going to get less stiff after you buy it.”
Carry a Tape Measure
“Contemporary sizing is not the same as vintage sizing,” Rogien says. “The three main measuring points are armpit to armpit, the waist, and the hip. Measure the waistline of the dress and then measure yourself to make sure something will fit. Don’t trust the labels. And always try things on.”
Get It Altered
“If you love something that doesn’t fit correctly, find a tailor and have it taken in,” Rogien says. “Just remember, you can alter something smaller; it’s much more difficult to make garments bigger.” Don’t buy anything that’s too small—something that Walton confesses she falls into: “Sometimes if a piece is too tight, I say to myself, ‘I’ll just work out more,’ but I never end up doing it.”
Be Wary Of:
Odor: “I personally don’t buy things that have cigarette smoke, because I’m not sure if it’s ever going to come out, and I don’t want the rest of my closet to smell like it,” Morgan says.
Rips and stains:“Always check the condition—you can restore some items to an extent, but if the fabric is falling apart or there are permanent stains, then it’s just a waste of money,” Rogien says.
Shoes:“Vintage shoes are beautiful, but they just end up breaking,” Walton says. “I once bought one from the ’70s and within a few wears, they fell apart. Shoes get messed up pretty quickly.”
Shop Early in the Morning
“Or when the vintage stores open,” Rogien says. “Because 1) that’s when they’re the most organized, 2) you’re beating everyone else there, so it’s quieter, it’s easier to take your tape measure out, and there’s no wait to try things on, and 3) you’ll have access to fresh, new merchandise.”