Sartorial Observer: thrifty threads

We’ve all heard someone claim to “love” thrift shopping for one reason or another. Yes, the fun exists in the thrill of the hunt or that inescapable originality in clothes that may have decades under their belts. It’s also about the satisfaction of scoring vintage vestments on a budget and maybe even the do-good feeling that results from saying no to firsthand goods and approaching “reduce, reuse and recycle” from a creative, fashionable standpoint. But most thrifters I’ve met in my shopping career are “accessorizers,” meaning that they mix in the occasional thrift piece with their firsthand duds. But in fact, I believe it is possible (and of course fun) to build entire outfits from thrift store finds. So I went out to do just that – scrounge together a thrift store outfit for under $20.

In undertaking this challenge, I decided on two shopping venues: Williamstown’s very own Women’s Exchange on Cole Avenue and the local thrift stores in nearby Bennington, Vt. On a rainy Thursday afternoon, I ventured to the Women’s Exchange, a homey storefront at the end of the road – and then had to troop back to campus, realizing that I hadn’t brought money. I returned more prepared and first scoped out the shoes, which I admit are always my weakness. I browsed through the blue-painted wooden shelves tucked away in the back of the store and came across a summer staple: strappy brown flat sandals. An added benefit: In my several-minute walk around the store, my feet didn’t hurt. At the time, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to use them for my budget outfit, but at $8, the shoes seemed well worth their near-double-digit price tag.

The second stage of my shopping included a trip to Bennington, Vt. A friend and I made a day out of it, stopping for brunch and hitting up the shopping scene at two local thrift stores: Second Hand Rose and Goodwill. With the goal of an under-$20 ensemble in mind, I had to say no to our first store’s selection. While I ended up snagging a pair of $7 neon denim shorts for my own purposes, I couldn’t reconcile my thrifty mission with Second Hand Rose’s firsthand prices, so I moved on to Goodwill which, in my experience, always guarantees a bargain.

The Bennington Goodwill venue is small and quaint, like the town itself, but also earns points where variety is concerned. Not only does this thrift haven offer the usual clothing, shoes and accessories, but it also houses a decent supply of housewares and knickknacks worth looking at (I found a tiny Niagara Falls souvenir bell for $1.29 and simply couldn’t say no, but I managed to maintain my sartorial focus, nonetheless).

Keeping in mind the increasingly warm weather we’ve been so lucky to experience, I headed straight for the dresses. As I neared the end of the rack, my prospects still looking dim, I happened to stumble across an interesting blue and white patterned skirt and shirt set. The two-for-one looked as if it would appeal to someone at least twice my age, but I’ve worn aprons in public. The soft, flowing fabric of the cotton skirt was exactly what I was looking for, so I separated the two-piece set (don’t ever be ashamed to do it!) and took off with the bottom half for $4.

Since I knew the skirt was longer in length, I figured I’d do a high-waisted number, but for that I realized I would need a belt. It wasn’t hard: The belt section was bountiful that day, and I quickly came across a baby blue suede fringe belt with silver hardware, adorned with cerulean stones that perfectly matched the blue shade of the skirt. A good investment – both for this ensemble and for those of the future – at just $3. And while I was in the accessories section, I spotted a fun floral scarf for about $2 that I wasn’t sure exactly how would work into the outfit, yet wanted to see it appear somehow.

Shoes were the struggle of the day. I didn’t see anything particularly appropriate for the spring season; this winter’s donations dominated the shelves. Even though I knew they would jack up my price total for what was supposed to be an under-$20 outfit, those sandals from the Women’s Exchange started to look like a better prospect by the minute.

When I finally left Goodwill, I was nervous. I wasn’t sure if I had enough to work out an entire outfit, and I wasn’t sure if it would turn out to be under $20. So I did the impossible and put shopping out of my mind for a few hours; my friend and I took our remaining time to explore Bennington, take pictures of dandelions and drink apple cider. But the next day, after some rumination, I had my second-hand outfit planned to a tee. There was the skirt, $4; the scarf, which I planned to wear as a headband, $2; the belt, $3; a rainbow-hued bangle, $1.50; and of course the sandals, $8, from the Women’s Exchange. I threw in a white oxford top that I had already owned ($5 and thrift-found, of course).

I took the outfit for a spin recently and received compliments aplenty, but beyond that, I was impressed by how comfortable I was in this get-up, not wanting to change my shoes or don sweats midway through the day. And I managed to pull off a unique, boho look with a price to match the ensemble’s down-to-earth feel.

Even I can do the math: I was at $23.50, three dollars and 50 cents over my budget, if you include the top I mixed in. But I think I succeeded. Think about it this way: If I had said my budget was $25, the feat would still be pretty amazing. Yet it shouldn’t be impossible. I used to visit thrift shops only for quirky tee shirts; now I virtually never shop firsthand. It really isn’t difficult to find articles of clothing under 10 or even five dollars, and even if it takes a few goes, just finding something original and unique is half the fun. Imagine knowing that the chances of someone else owning the same shirt or pants as you are next to nothing. And if that sounds appealing, so is the price tag.

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