Thrifting while plus-sized: a primer
Anybody who has been reading this blog for any time at all knows that I am a voracious thrift shopper (in fact, I have a whole blog archive of thrift-related posts). However, something I may have been less-than-forthcoming with here recently is that I haven’t, for the last few years, thrifted much in the way of clothing for myself.
Why? Well, there is a simple reason and it’s one I’m not proud of: It just got too hard. Not only did finding clothes in my size in thrift stores take forever once I passed size 14, but sifting through rack after rack of clothes too small for me made me feel bad about myself. And though there was no moment at which I decided to stop trying to find clothes for myself at thrift stores, I slowly did stop trying. I still thrift shopped as much as ever, I just bought other things.
All of this would have been fine, of course, except that it didn’t translate into me not buying clothes. It translated, instead, into me buying new clothes. For the last couple of years, most of my clothes (and they are significant) have come from Ross, Target, and New York & Company. I’ve even ventured to Old Navy and the Gap more often than I’d like to admit.
I have kind of a moral problem with that. I’ve been buying clothes that were made under bad labor conditions of chemically treated fabrics, then sold for less than they would be worth under a real wage system. And I’ve been doing it, basically, out of laziness and inability to deal with my own body.
It needs to stop.
And now there is another impetus–finances. It’s been years since I’ve thrifted for solely financial reasons–I mostly do it for environmental reasons now, and because I enjoy it. However, yet another thing you know if you’ve been reading here long is that I am in debt. A not insignificant amount of debt. And I am committed to curbing my spending and paying that debt off in 2008. To do that, I simply can’t afford to buy new clothes. In the past, when I’ve had a hate-on for my wardrobe, I’ve thought nothing about finding a sale coupon for NY&Co.; and going to drop $200 or so there, or doing something similar at Ross. That can’t happen now. If I want “new” clothes, they have to be thrifted. Because it’s the right thing to do, and because I can’t afford anything else.
Betsy Smith, the Resale Queen, who makes her living buying things secondhand and reselling them on Ebay, theorized on one of her podcasts that women who are what she calls “chubby” hang on to their clothes until they are good and worn out, since they are likely to have had trouble finding them to begin with. Because of this, there is a dearth of quality plus-sized women’s clothes in thrift stores. Except, she adds, for clothes in “pre-gastric bypass” sizes, or very large sizes. Those you can sometimes find. This has been more or less my experience as well, and was part of why I stopped trying to thrift clothes for myself to begin with. I started feeling like it just wasn’t really possible. I found lots of things up to size 12, and a few size 24 or bigger, but not much in between.
Given the memory of this lack of clothing in my size, it was with apprehension that I set out this weekend to try to thrift myself up some new wardrobe pieces. After all, I am actually bigger now than I was when I stopped thrifting for clothes for myself. However, I felt both resigned to doing it and compelled to prove myself wrong and actually find some nice things that fit. So, I laid some ground rules before ever leaving the house:
1. Actually look. Don’t just skim the racks; take the time to look through them thoroughly. Rifling through them and pulling out things that look interesting for a few minutes at a time may have worked at a size 10, but it’s not going to do the job now.
2. Look only for myself. Do not get distracted by things I could buy for other people (for me, this is really key). No matter how great something is, if it won’t fit or work for me, it’s not of interest.
3. Giving up and going to buy new stuff isn’t an option. If you don’t thrift it, you can’t have it.
On Saturday, I made my first try. I spent three or more hours at my second-favorite local Goodwill. When this store first opened, I didn’t like it at all, but it has grown on me. It’s very large, and that helps. When I entered the store, I identified the sections that might have clothes I could use: sweaters, jeans, pants, skirts, dresses, knit shirts. I skipped the sleeveless shirts, capris, shorts, button-down shirts, and jackets, as those are things I don’t wear or won’t wear this time of year. The rest of the sections I took one by one, methodically making my way through the aisles. My initial goal was just to get as many things I could reasonably try on as possible into my cart.
Let me break here to say a word about what is reasonable to try on. This is, in my opinion, a very delicate balance. You don’t want to leave things that might work for you on the rack, but you also don’t want to frustrate yourself trying on tens of things that don’t fit. For me, what works is to set a size range. In general (and if you know anything about women’s sizing you know this is very general) I wear a 14 or an XL on the top and a 16 or an XL on the bottom. When I’m thrifting, I’ll try on anything for the top that is 14-18 or XL, as well as big-looking larges. On the bottom, I’ll try on 16-20 and XL, as well as the occasional 14 or big looking large. Dresses that aren’t cut close I will go down to large or 14. If something just looks like it will fit me, I’ll also throw it in the cart, as things can be shrunk or mismarked.
It took me about 3 hours to methodically go through the relevant sections in this large store. Yes, that’s a chunk of time. If you don’t enjoy thrifting, it’s a big chunk. But once you get into it, it can be very meditative, plus you always see occasional funny stuff. After going through each section, my cart was piled high with maybe 30ish things to try on.
Now on to the dressing room. There are rules here as well:
1. Not matter how great a deal something is; if it doesn’t fit you, it’s not worth it. There is no price small enough to be worth subjecting yourself to having yet another thing in your closet that doesn’t it. Same thing if it’s just not flattering.
2. Unless you are a person who both can sew and actively does, do not buy things that need adjustments or alterations. You’ll just end up with things that don’t fit. There are a few exceptions to this, as in pieces that are really high enough quality to take to a tailor, but generally, thrift clothes should be wearable as-is.
3. If you don’t like something, it doesn’t matter how cheap it is, how great of shape its in, or what brand it is. There is no profit in having clothes you don’t like. And you don’t have to justify why you don’t like it–just not liking it is enough.
4. Even if the first 20 things you try on don’t fit you, the 21st might. You can’t stop trying things on until you’ve given everything in the cart a chance.
5. Yes, thrifted clothes can be overpriced. Just because something fits you doesn’t make it not stained/worn out/faded. The object here is to buy things you’ll actually feel good about wearing, so skip the crap.
Using these rules, it took me about 20 minutes to try on everything I found. At the end of the marathon in the dressing room, I came out with a great pair of Seven7 jeans (size 14–good thing I tried them on!), a heavy green cotton Gap turtleneck sweater, and a black and white print vintage-style dress (size large–once again, I am thankful for the breadth of my size range). Maybe 10% of what I tried on. But all great wardrobe pieces, and at a total cost of about $20.
On Sunday, I made my second attempt, this time at my very favorite Goodwill. I went in with the same rules, but discovered that I could cut my rack-surfing time down some by skipping past things I know I won’t want regardless of size, like faded jeans and very light colored pants or skirts (I just don’t do light colors on the bottom). It took me only about two hours to get through the relevant racks, and my cart was loaded with at least 30 items when I hit the dressing room.
This try-on session was slightly less productive, if only because nothing I put on the bottom fit worth a damn. However, I came home with five new shirts (two long-sleeved tee shirts, two tunic tops, and a sweater) and a dress, for about $30, so I consider the trip a success.
Over the course of the weekend, I developed a few more tips to would-be plus-sized second-hand shoppers:
1. Do not rely on the plus-sized section. If your store(s) are anything like mine, the selection here will be spotty and weird, and most of the good stuff will be scattered throughout the rest of the store. To make matters worse, my local stores have started to mix plus-sized and maternity clothes together, as if they are the same thing. Drives me bonkers, and I have written to them to complain about it.
2. Expect it to be difficult and time-consuming. There is just no way around it. If you are above a size 12, and especially if you are above a 14, the percentage of the stuff in the store that might fit you is probably as low as 2-3%, and it’s going to take a while to seek that out. Give yourself plenty of time. If being in a store that long irritates you, maybe try wearing headphones and listening to music or an audio book while you browse.
3. Be willing to try things on. This is maybe the most important thing. You have to be willing to try a wide range of things on to find the perfect piece or perfect few pieces.
Basically, like all thrifting, thrifting while plus-sized comes down to patience. It just requires a lot more patience than thrifting-while-size-8. For me, because of my current financial constraints, and because of how strongly I feel against mass produced clothing, it’s worth it. I am re-dedicating myself to building my wardrobe this way (with a few caveats, like shoes, which really are impossible to find in my size). But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be in any way easy, and I forsee coming home empty-handed as often as not.
So, one of the things I am going to be doing in my daily clothing reports is noting where I got the things I am wearing. My hope is that the percentage of my wardrobe that was not purchased new will increase, and reporting on it publicly will help keep me honest.