How to Make Thrifted Clothes Look Spendy

How to make thrifted and secondhand clothes look expensive

I’ve been thrifting since I was in middle school. I remember rifling through the racks of moth-eaten sweatshirts and paint-stained jeans as a girl, hoping to unearth something marvelous. And I nabbed my Pentagon Officers Athletic Club running shorts and hilarious red twill mechanic’s jumpsuit back then, so treasures did come to hand. But the shops were disorganized, the merchandise was a bit shabby, and it took loads of patience to find anything worthwhile. I think that many thrift shops have improved conditions and become more discerning about what they’ll sell, but some are still messy and packed with damaged garments.

Additionally, my experience leads me to believe that thrifting conditions vary WIDELY by geographic location. Some areas have great merch, but it’s all relatively expensive because thrifting is experiencing a renaissance. (Think Los Angeles and New York.) Some areas just don’t have any thrift stores because the population is too small or widely dispersed. Some areas have thrift stores, but they’re filled with used items that are close to the end of their “wearable” phase. I am fortunate to live in an area where thrifting is popular, but clothing is relatively undervalued, which means I can nab great goods in prime condition.

But regardless of your location and situation, if you’re gonna thrift you may wonder how to make thrifted items look … well, not-thrifted. How can you take something used, and possibly a bit worn-out, and make it appear fresh and stylish?

New shoes, old clothes

If you’re wearing a thrifted skirt that’s getting a bit threadbare, distract with a shiny pair of new shoes. Not right-out-of-the-box new, but on the newer side. You might think that the contrast would make the skirt look even older but surprisingly, a great pair of shoes simply elevates the rest of the outfit to sparkly-new status.

Eye on trends

As I’ve said before, no trend is ever truly new. The thrift store is a fantastic place to shop for of-the-moment pieces. And when you do, no one will be checking the tags to make sure you’re the first to wear it.

Color choices

An old, used olive green sheath will generally look more chic and expensive than a brand-new kelly green one. Muted and jewel tones exude classic chic, so err on the side of subdued colors when you thrift.

Groom thyself

If you’re going for a sleek, pulled-together look and want your thrifted garments to blend, pay a little extra attention to your hair, makeup, and overall grooming. If your body and face look fresh and pampered, you’ll be amazed by how your clothing falls in line. (This isn’t as much of a priority if you’re going for a casual, boho, or super trendy look.)

Layer, layer, layer

Buying truly damaged items is never a good policy, but exceptions can always be made. If you unearth a gorgeous dress that fits perfectly, but doesn’t zip the last two inches, just throw a cardigan over it. If you can’t bear to pass up that blazer with a stained lapel, tack a big brooch over it. Layering is a fantastic way to add depth to an outfit, but it can also make every garment involved look more sophisticated.

If you aren’t much of a thrifter because your options are limited, I can totally dig. But if you avoid the secondhand shops because you worry you’ll look shabby and unkempt in used goods, consider employing some of these tips. I promise you’ll be amazed at how spendy your cheap duds will look.

Originally posted 2010-07-15 05:41:00.

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27 Responses to “How to Make Thrifted Clothes Look Spendy”

  1. Courtney

    If you have sewing skills, simple repairs or alterations can work wonders. Fixing and reinforcing split seams or fallen hems, re-attaching or replacing buttons and sewing on embellishments can be done by hand by just about anyone. (A bit of ribbon can cover up frayed edges on the neckline of a collarless blouse. You can alter the length of a skirt or dress if there is damage near the hemline–even turning some dresses into tunic-length. (My mom once made a hand-me-down sweater dress from a much taller friend into a tunic for me, and I adored it.) You can also shorten or remove sleeves to get rid of damaged parts.

    If you don't sew at all, sometimes you can cover up stains with dye. I wouldn't try it with a dark item that has bleach spots, but I have seen clothes rescued by Rit.

  2. eek

    I totally respect peeps who uncover amazing treasures at thrift stores. One would think here in Houston we would have some decent thrifting but I haven't found anything worth my while (and I don't have the patience for it!). I also don't feel that the thrift stores here are all that much of a bargain so I just buy on sale instead. I would love to go thrifting with an expert like you, if you are ever in Texas 😉

  3. maria costa

    I am lucky enough to have found a fantastic thrift store within walking distance of my house. Of course, that means I'm there more often than is needed. This thrift store marks everything down 25% on Mondays, so I'm usually there early.

    I recently bought a pair of Jill Sander yellow pumps for $3.99 and a real Chanel jacket (I googled info while in the store) for $4.99. The Chanel jacket is a dark pink that doesn't suit, but I'll either give it to somoene who'll appreciate it, or mine it for parts.

    My store is one of those that undervalues designer/quality labels, which is great for me. Recently, a London Fog raincoat was cheaper than an Old Navy raincoat, both in good condition.

  4. Rachel

    I've heard that if you carry an expensive purse, the rest of your outfit will look chic, but have never tested this idea since i don't own an expensive purse 🙂

    Also make sure everything fits. I know it's a thrifting cliche, but tailoring will make a cheap piece look expensive.

  5. Rad_in_Broolyn

    I'm also a fan of minor alterations. I'm just a novice sewer, but a few key alterations- taking off a few inches, taking a dress or skirt in at the side seams- make a big difference. I've also added patches to sweaters (you can hand sew these, Dritz makes these old school sueded elbow patches).
    I also believe that you can just go with a slight shabbiness too, and embrace the thrifted qualities, if you wear with confidence. Older clothes have some wear, but if style this way on purpose (with some scuffed shoes), you can get a Mary-Kate hobo chic thing going on.

  6. Artist without a Muse

    You were great on TV! I love to go "Attic" shopping once in a while, where I store clothing and forget about them, I have things up there from twenty years ago, and it can be as much fun as shopping at Goodwill!

  7. Leanna:

    Perfect timing with this post…as I was planning on writing something similiar this morning! 🙂
    By way of tips to add in:
    Simple alterations are a wonderful way to breath new life into a thrifted item. New buttons or changing hemlines or necklines are relatively easy fixes, as is a simple dye job.

  8. Future Lint

    Tiny things like cleaning up shoes and replacing the laces make all the difference! I agree with all the replace the button comments too! Plus I often buy better quality items at thrift stores than in new stores ($6 thrifted Nanette Lepore sweater vs. $25 Target sweater… I'll go with thrift every time!)

  9. tinyjunco

    starch can rejuvenate a drooping cotton dress shirt. use dye on faded black trousers, colored polo or tee shirts, etc. to freshen them up. definitely make repairs, but think it out before buying – some repairs are easy, others a huge project, others will be very obvious.

    alterations, trim, and new buttons will make a difference in ANY garment. as maria costa said, you can thrift a cheap garment to mine it for the buttons or trim.

    or the label ; )

  10. Clare

    Ah, this totally takes me back to back-to-school shopping at ARC. As a kid, I didn't really know what a thrift shop was as opposed to other stores, because we only ever went to second hand shops. Our small town only had one (called "two-time teddy", which I think is adorable), so when we went out of town over the summer and got to go to ARC, I thought I had hit the mother lode.

  11. leah

    Give your thrifted items a really good iron. Even things you wouldn't usually iron like knit tops look great with a really finicky pressing. Pay particular attention to sleeves, inside of hems and linings.

    Also, San Francisco is a treasure trove for thrifters. I buy most of my clothes from thrift stores and I rarely spend more than $3 on an item. If you visit, make sure to add an afternoon of thrifting to your schedule after the cable cars or Golden Gate Bridge. You won't be disappointed.

  12. Corrine/Frock And Roll

    Oh, Sal. I love this and I love you – THANK-YOU!

  13. Steph

    Great tips Sal! I haven't thrifted at all in the past, except for a few times in high school for plays and musicals and such. The thrift stores in my area are only so-so. But a huge, shiny new Goodwill opened near my home that I've been meaning to stop by and check out. Maybe now I will!

  14. Sarah

    really great tips!!!

    and those shoes are incredible- love the heels xxx

  15. Lesa

    I love the advice about the label and pin and putting a cardi over a zipper that won't zip. never thought that way and would have put these things back. Thanks for the advice.


  16. Jamie

    That is a great outfit and great post. Once we live on our RV full time and traveling the country teaching Green living, we will be doing mostly thrift store shopping ourselves when needs arrive. I will let people know about this post too!

  17. Una

    What Courtney said! I have chopped up and altered with abandon, because for a few dollars it's worth it to experiment and improve. Embellishing t-shirts or changing pant leg length are just two examples. I am a die-hard thrifter and an attorney who has to appear presentable all day, but I try to thrift most of my clothes just for the fun and challenge of it! As you said, a couple of high end items can dress up all your thrifted finds.

  18. fashion herald

    I love #5, I do that all the time with zippers, holes, stains!!

  19. Eliza

    Ask your local cobbler for suggestions of products to use on leather/vinyl shoes, handbags, and belts. Use it on anything and everything you possibly can- it really makes a difference. My cobbler recommended URAD, and it makes the vintage bags I carry look like new.

    Learn what expensive fabrics feel like. I thrift shop by touch often, because I find it the fastest way to weed out cheap garments. I always try to buy good fabrics, even for T-shirts. There is a specific brand I love but could never justify buying retail, and I can always find them by the feel of the cotton jersey alone.

  20. myedit

    I am also blessed geographically with thrifting. In my opinion, the real estate in Hamilton should go up in value b/c of the good thrift stores.
    I grew up going to second hand stores b/c finances were tight. Now it's a way to get the shopping bug satisfied for less and the best way to get trends for cheap. You are right… nothing is new in fashion.

  21. elle s'ennuie

    Sometimes thrift store clothing can look rattier than it is simply because of the way it has been stored, stuffed into bags or boxes, making it look wrinkly and over-used upon first glance, when in fact washing and ironing will make it look crisp again.

  22. All Women Stalker

    Great tips. I always follow those since I have a thrifting/crafting fashion blog 🙂

  23. Anonymous

    Unless you admit you got something at a thrift store, those slightly worn classics & other high end items simply look like a well-loved piece from your wardrobe.

    I have to be in the correct mood to go thrifting, but enjoy it as an occasional pasttime. Have been inspired by this & by 'what I wore today' as far as looking at pieces – thrifted OR new – in terms of what they could be, not just as they are in the store.

  24. B Drum

    How do you organize/store your clothing, shoes, handbags and accessories to ensure that you don’t forget about something or miss a new combination?

  25. pocahannah

    Thrifting can definitely be a challenge, especially if you are not a fan of shopping. I tend to pick a few spots and revisit them frequently. It also helps if I have a general idea of what i’m looking for if I need to get in and out. I inspect pieces carefully for signs of wear & tear but sometimes that’s the appeal of the aesthetic!

    I would love it if you checked out my blog which is all about using thrift stores to stay on trend – thrifting runway looks – and all things thrift!