How I Built a Kickass Wardrobe at Thrift Stores

by Cate Linden (Kentucky)

I rarely buy my clothing new anymore, and I’ve never been so excited by my closet.

Switching to thrift stores wasn’t a momentous or even a very conscious decision for me; I was just finding so much amazing stuff that I lost the motivation to look elsewhere. A couple of weeks ago I found a beautiful Elie Tahari cocktail dress with mermaid gathers. It fits me like a glove, and I wore it to a nice dinner with my boyfriend. It was $5!

Thrift stores are carnivals of color and style, a sampling of brands both mainstream and fringe – and that makes them great for surprises. I wasn’t particularly looking for a cocktail dress, and wouldn’t have hunted for one, but stumbling into one yielded a welcome addition to my wardrobe.

I still buy pieces new from time to time, but I buy them very judiciously.

Great style has little to do with where you shop or what you spend, and while I don’t mind investing in a high quality piece (with a perfect fit and spectacular design details), I usually wait and see if thrifting will yield a better option.

Here are seven ways I’ve built a remarkable wardrobe at thrift stores:

I shop strategically

I keep an updated list of specific pieces I need in my wardrobe, and I prioritize them when browsing and buying.

I totally buy fabulous things that aren’t on my priority list, but I try not to lose sight of what I actually need – and that list is especially helpful when I’m short on shopping time.

I make snap judgments

Not my season or anywhere close to it? Next.

Design feature totally incompatible with my archetype? Next.

Those two hangers are impossibly tangled together? Next.

Don’t linger at the rack trying to make decisions, you’ll exhaust yourself before you even try anything on.

When in hopeful doubt, I add the item to my basket.

I take my time in the dressing room

I try everything.

Even if I’m 99% sure it’s perfect.

Even if I have the same dress in the same size at home.

And especially if I’m skeptical and/or hopeful.

Some of my very favorite things are only mine because I took them into the dressing room with me on a whim.

I check every item for a perfect fit – close isn’t good enough!

Try-ons can also uncover any potential flaws that you may not have noticed on the hanger, like stains, snags, and wonky zippers.

I don’t compromise

You aren’t saving money or making wise wardrobe choices if you bring home pieces that aren’t right for you, no matter how little you spend.

This is a surefire way to dilute your closet and take you back where you started.

If you know perfectly well you aren’t going to have that skirt altered, don’t buy it.

If you’ll never be able to wear that dress without a magical strapless bra, don’t buy it.

And do NOT buy that shirt you wholeheartedly know is wrong for you under the justification of “it’s so soft and it’s only $2” because you WILL wear it and you WON’T feel good in it. (Ask me how I know).

I use my imagination

I don’t have my entire wardrobe in the dressing room with me for try-ons, so I have to think creatively and envision outfits in my head.

How will this blouse look with the skirts I have at home?

Can it be tucked in or will it result in a bumpy tube of fabric around my hips?

I do purchase things without a clear partner waiting at home, but I do so carefully; buying lots of pieces that require buying another piece is a slippery slope.

The more pieces I can mix and match in my closet, the better.

I shop frequently

I personally feel less pressure to bring home a huge haul (and compromise on my ideals) if I never let my wardrobe bore me or get down to bare bones.

I thrive on a steady infusion of new pieces paired with regular wardrobe cleanouts.

Most thrift stores turn over their inventory quickly, so you can visit often and still avoid being confronted with things you’ve already passed over.

I donate my unworn clothes

I have no time for wardrobe static, so if I’m not wearing it, I pay it forward. I’m so glad all those other women did!


If you’re reading this and thinking that you have no idea:

  • what kind of pieces you’re looking for in the first place
  • what constitutes a good fit (for you)
  • how to create a practical shopping strategy
  • and how to construct outfits, in your head and in real life

Send me a message, I’d love to help!

Cate Linden is located in Kentucky. In addition to in-person Color Analysis, Cate also offers an on-line service of personalized Image and Style Analysis. Please click the link buttons below for more information.
Cate Linden