What to Buy and Avoid at Vintage and Thrift Shops

What to Buy and Avoid at Vintage/Secondhand Shops

Leah Wise, a thrift shop manager and vintage seller by day, shares these useful tips on what clothes to look for or avoid at your favourite secondhand store.

Vintage Shop

Scavenging for treasures at thrift stores is one of my favorite pastimes but, admittedly, it can be a bit tedious to find just the right thing. I want to share the items I prefer to buy at thrift shops over regular retail stores. For me, thrift shops aren’t just more sustainable alternatives to the mall, they’re treasure troves of goods that defy current trends and traditional merchandising standards. My personal preferences (and my body type) don’t always mesh with current trends, so thrift shops provide an essential resource for finding things that work for me across brands, styles, and eras.

6 Things to Buy at Thrift Shops Instead of Traditional Retail Stores

1. Durable Cotton Denim

Even if you’re not big into the mom jeans trend, you have to admit that thick, cotton denim from the 1990s and earlier just holds up better than jeggings. Since I carry most of my weight in my hips and thighs, I hunt for high waisted denim with extra room in the hips to make into cut-offs in the summer. Cropping full length jeans allows me to customize the length (booty shorts just aren’t my thing) and they’re a lot more flattering than the flimsy, skin-tight shorts you often find on the market today.

2. Skirts, Skirts, Skirts

Why buy a new midi skirt when you can buy a groovy, vintage one from your local thrift shop? I don’t shop for skirts from traditional retailers at all now that I’ve discovered the skirt wonderland that is the thrift shop. All sorts of patterns, lengths, cuts, and brands are available in a single place, which allows you to try on lots of different things and find the perfect fabric, pattern, and cut. I recently styled a vintage Ralph Lauren Country skirt I thrifted in a The Moral Wardrobe post.


3. Sweaters & Outerwear

Cold weather clothes made of high quality, cozy fabrics like cashmere and wool are expensive, not to mention that a lot of today’s luxury materials just aren’t as high quality as they used to be. That’s why I’ve become a secondhand cashmere hoarder ever since I started working at a thrift shop. I used to stock up on Old Navy sweaters made of acrylic and cotton blends, but they never really held in my body heat like a layering piece should. Now that I have access to cashmere sweaters (at $4.00 a pop!) and the perfect wool toggle coat (for $29.99), winters are a lot more bearable.

4. Swimsuits

This may surprise you, but I actually prefer to buy swimsuits secondhand. Hygiene issues aside (just be careful to check for wear and wash thoroughly before wearing), the thrift shop provides better variety and better pricing on swimwear. I found the perfect, daisy print halter swim top at a shop in a neighboring town a few years ago (I can officially say that I had a halter swim top before it was cool) and it pairs just fine with the black swim bottoms I already owned. For someone who is neither an hourglass nor a wearer of push-up bras (it always seems like swim companies assume we all fit in those categories), I like being able to select from a wide variety of silhouettes and sizes. In fact, I think my top may be a children’s item.

5. Purses

Though I have a pretty even mix of new and used bags in my collection, I often get more use out of the surprise finds from the thrift shop. I always use a mid-sized crossbody, preferably made of lightweight fabric with lots of organizational pockets. Finding all of that in an ethically produced bag is pretty much impossible, so I keep my eye out for conventional brands with those specs at secondhand shops.

6. Statement Dresses & Tops

The ethical fashion world is great at producing high quality, organic cotton basics and I tend to prefer to buy those sorts of things new for the best fit and long term wear. But fun, printed garments produced under fair trade guidelines are either harder for me to find in the right cut or out of my price range, so I seek them out secondhand.

The Cat's Meow vintage dresses

Photo: The Cat’s Meow, Toronto

5 Things to Avoid When Secondhand Shopping

I’m a huge proponent of buying secondhand, but not everything on the secondhand market is created equally in terms of stitching, fit, and fabric quality. And since most things have been used or worn before, it’s especially important to be aware of the way certain fabrics and materials wear over time, and to be alert to any condition issues like pilling, pulling, staining, stretching, and shrinking. I recommend looking over the pieces you’re considering in natural light – find a window or see if you can take the item outside – because yellow fluorescent light has a way of covering a multitude of problems.

I’ve been working as the manager of a thrift shop for almost 2 years now, so I’ve become much more aware of the styles and fabrics to avoid, as well as the most common wear issues on secondhand clothes.

1. Polyester & Rayon Blends

If you want your items to wash and wear well, avoid anything made of knit polyester and rayon blends. The term polyester can refer to a huge variety of textiles – from chiffons to satins to knits – and not all of them will show wear quickly. But in my experience, clothing made from both knit cotton/polyester blends and rayon/stretch knits will start pilling after light wear, even if you take care to hand wash and air dry the items. And since you’re already buying these things secondhand, it’s best to just avoid these fabrics altogether.

2. White Shirts

White shirts are so crisp and summery, but it’s best to avoid them on the secondhand market unless you’re shopping at a curated consignment store. In my experience, the majority of white tees, tanks, and blouses donated to thrift shops have either armpit stains or food stains that didn’t fully wash out. I’m constantly having to cull white clothing from our racks at the shop because of pit stains. If you must buy a white shirt, make sure to check it out in natural light.

3. Vintage Elastic Waist Pants & Skirts

While I’ve found lovely vintage skirts at secondhand shops, I would generally advocate avoiding anything 20+ years old with an elastic waist. Elastic wears out over time, losing its stretch and expanding. To check for elastic loss, give the waistband of the item in question a firm tug and listen for the tell-tale crinkling sound of bad elastic. Sometimes elastic goes out in swimwear due to prolonged exposure to chlorine. In this case, the whole suit may feel brittle. When in doubt, put it back on the rack.

4. Jeggings

The thin, stretch fabric that today’s fast fashion jeggings are made with loses its shape very quickly, conforming to the original wearer’s specific curves and movement. It’s best to avoid pants, jeans, and jeggings made of insubstantial, stretch fabric because you’ll often find when you get them home that the knees start sagging or the area around the crotch and thighs has stretch marks from heavy wear by the previous owner.

5. DIY Hemming & Tailoring

Just say no to items that were cut, cropped, and taken in at home. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I’ve been pretty disappointed by items I took home only to find that the hem was uneven or the seam allowance too small for minor alterations of my own. Even if the item was professionally tailored, it may still be a no go, because tailoring is body-specific. An item that may have fit you at its original proportions is now cut just right for the nice lady who donated it to the thrift shop. Tailoring makes it nearly impossible to tell what size the item really is since the size on the tag is now irrelevant.

A few other items to avoid: used socks and underwear (that one’s probably obvious), appliances with only 2 prongs on the plug (it’s a shock hazard!), and particle board furniture (it will likely fall apart in transit).

For more on ethical fashion and living, visit Leah’s StyleWise blog. 

Do you shop second hand? Let us know in the comments below.

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