Thrift shopping for costuming

So you don’t have the skill to sew for this specific character and he’s wearing more-or-less ordinary clothes, so why not try to buy second hand? Yes! Second hand shopping solves many issues: it’s ready to wear, it’s reasonably priced, and more often than not your money serves a wide variety of charitable ventures. Thrift stores fall into three basic categories: big chains, small independent church or club shops, and ‘full retail’ consignment stores.


Big Chains
You know these names: Salvation Army, Goodwill, Thrift City. Of the three Thrift City is a business, not a charity, their mission is admirable, just understand the difference in where your money is going if it makes a difference to you.
Pros: big chains will have the biggest stores with the largest volume of stuff and they are often pretty well organized. The employees will be paid staff there at least 20 hours a week if not full time, so they will have a good idea of where to look for things. Pricing is set very clearly and daily specials are common. Because they are big their product turns over very quickly, just because you couldn’t find purple pants last week doesn’t mean they won’t have six pair this week.
Cons: People are lazy and rude, so a lot of stuff dropped on charity porches is done so unwashed, on Saturday night, in the rain. Thus the “Thrift Store Smell”. Clothes are washable, you’re getting a mans suit for $30, remember? That cost $300 when it was new ten years ago and has been dry cleaned ever since, shelling out $15 to get it cleaned to your tastes it still is a fantastic bargain. There are certain things big chains just don’t bother with: board games, sewing patterns (unless they come into the store in a box then they will hit the floor as a group) and craft kits where missing pieces mean it cannot be completed as-is. Another con is they rarely have truly vintage stuff, it’s mostly just recently outdated. If you are in college and need a muffin tin, this is the place to go.

Independent church and club shops
The Junior League is a national organization with chapters darn near everywhere and better than 60% of chapters run a shop. Even the smallest towns have at least one church that runs a thrift shop that supports various missions of the congregation. Middle sized and large cities often have thrift stores that support a specific mission, like a runaway shelter, an animal welfare facility or a senior care organization.
Pros: these are my favorite shops for vintage goods. Because the majority of donations come from congregation or club members, the things they held onto longer get donated to the organization they really care about. You feel good giving your prom dress to your club shop when your friend runs the counter. Another pro is that they tend to be a lot cleaner. When Sally hands Mavis her bag of goods, Mavis will tell everyone if she didn’t wash them first. Last, because they are focused on raising money for charity, they put out for sale everything they get, sewing patterns and games are much more commonly found at these types of shops as well as more formal or fancy home goods like champagne glasses or really nice furniture. I have kicked myself for years for not buying the Ethan Allen twin sized canopy bed I saw for $60…. At the time I didn’t have children yet and nowhere to store it.
Pro & Con: these shops are more focused in their donations and area of contributions. Which means if you live in a working class neighborhood, the shop at the church down the street isn’t going to have anything nicer that the richest guy on your block, who only makes $2k a year more than you. BUT if you are willing to drive across town to shop in the ritzy neighborhood, you are in for a treat! No, not the brand new McMansion neighborhood that just went in, there won’t be any thrift stores there at all because the rent on retail space is too high. Go to the neighborhoods with the big old houses, with white haired ladies still driving their 1995 Cadillacs. That is the shop that will have mink stoles and 1950’s taffeta prom dresses, designer men’s suits and Louis Vuitton luggage. (yes really). When I was a kid my mom went across town to shop at The Green Door. There was a song ‘green door, what’s that secret you’re hiding?’ I honestly thought the song was about that shop because they had such wonderful things. I was in high school when I realized it was a second hand store. It’s still a great place to shop, huge applause to the ladies of Saint Luke’s Episcopal for running such an incredible shop for so long.
Cons: the staff are nearly always all volunteer, and likely each only work one shift a week so they don’t know what’s in stock. There’s always one really grumpy lady, can’t tell you why but it seems an unwavering fact of these types of shops. Chances are they are all retirees, so no hope of getting help loading that new-to-you couch into a truck. Pricing may not be quite as clear and you might be face to face with the person who donated that item, keep disparaging remarks about the goods to yourself. Because they are smaller and draw from a smaller pool, these shops don’t get as much new merchandise as often as big ones.

Full Retail consignment shops
These are rarely charity driven, but occasionally you may come across one. These types of shops are much more current fashion and often high end goods, designer labels and tailored items. The standards for what is accepted into this type of shop are much higher. Things like wedding gowns and really nice suits are most common in these shops. While I frequent these types of shops, I do so for everyday wear, not costuming.
Pros: Everything will be clean, complete, and generally good quality if not full blown designer label stuff. Their vintage will be the collectible, highly-sought-after type things. My best friend in high school had a pink Chanel suit from the 60’s (the Jackie O one) that she paid $100 for at one of these type shops. I’m still jealous.
Cons: Their prices are higher, justifiably so, but you’re still going to spend more in these shops. But hey a pair of Tony Lama boots for $75? Heck yeah! You will feel more guilt buying something so nice if you know you need to tear off the sleeves and slap ‘blood’ all over it. These aren’t where you want to shop for Halloween costume stuff.

Okay, so we covered the types of shops, so now how to go about finding what you are looking for.

thrift7be kind to your fellow shopper, even if you can’t see her over the racks.

First: this is going to take time, multiple trips and possibly several locations. I live in a big city, there are twelve Salvation Army shops and seventeen Goodwills, and that’s just those two chains, there are more independent shops than those two combined. When I decided to dress as the Tenth Doctor for Halloween a couple years back it took me two separate days of shopping, at least ten stops, and a whole tank of gas before I found a brown pinstripe suit that fit me. The smaller your town the fewer options you have and therefore the more time you need to give yourself for the shops to potentially bring in the thing you need. By “more time” I mean weeks of waiting in between individual shopping trips.

Second: have a list that includes both immediate desires and long term planning. My current list is as follows: an orange shirt for younger child for a Welcome to Night Vale character (immediate), a light colored leather day planner to do John Winchester’s Journal (immediate), something than could be converted into a celery costume (yes really, it’s for a school play), anything real leather (long term), and anything non-polyester taffeta preferably in a formal length with lots of yardage (long term). You might find a jacket perfect for a character who was lower on your list and be able to bump it up to a sooner wearing because the hard-to-find piece fell into your lap.

thrift4 oh hey look, someone stashed some taps shoes in the mens section…

Third: walk the whole store. Doesn’t matter if you only need a white mens dress shirt, you might find just the right size stuck in ladies shoes. It’s a thrift store, that happens a lot. And because of your list, you might find a pan or a decorative bowl that might be a perfect base for a weapon build for that other character on your long term list. It might be inspiring as well, we made a Jedi costume for my youngest because we found the perfect pair of boots, and they fit. We didn’t go in with Jedi in mind, but the right stuff was there.

thrift10 this has all kinds of interesting potential…

Fourth: Think outside the box. This is the hardest part and I’ll do a separate blog on modifying clothes but like the Jedi example above, looking at the potential of each item is key to getting the most mileage out of your money. What does this look like? Can you cut or tuck it somewhere to make it work for something? Hem it shorter? Add a ruffle? Paint a stripe?

Last: be fearless with what you may potentially do to that item or garment. That wedding dress is at a thrift store, not a nice consignment shop, it probably has bad karma from the original wearer and she’d be happy to see you turn it into Zombie Bride. Don’t think because it was once a nice blouse or an expensive-when-it-was-new jacket that this fact in anyway prevents you from cutting, tearing, sewing, painting, or whatever else you want to do to it. You paid money for it, it’s yours to do with as you please.

Go shop!


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