I love thrift stores — and I mean love. It’s the type of love one might have for Law and Order SVU once they get to season 9, a kind of no-turning-back-I-love-this-even-though-it’s-probably-not-good-for-me-and-can’t-stop type of love. And sure, going to thrift stores might not be the healthiest obsession. I mean there are probably some negative side-effects to long-term exposure to whatever it is they use to disinfect the clothes, and I could see how there might be a downside to filling your closet with other people’s castaways, not to mention the cumulative money spent over the years. But for me it is a complicated love. It’s an escape — one that is laden with meaning, emotion and futurity.
One of the things I love most is being immersed in an uncurated abundance of other people’s things. Old things. Things that contain the smells of their previous home. The perfume of their last owner… or lover. The rip from their last escapade. I love walking down the aisles, my hands outstretched to catch every texture: velvet, silk, polyester and lace. I could walk those aisles endlessly. This is a ritual I participate in on a weekly basis, often with a friend or family member in tow. Wanna go to the thrift store? I ask, expecting accomplices. Often I get a roll of the eyes or a concerned expression. My friends and family are baffled at my desire to go to thrift stores. But it isn’t just the visceral experience of being in the store that pulls me in, no. It’s the transformative possibilities that it has for me.
As someone who is compelled by fashion, from blogs to magazines, I suppose it is not a surprise that I like to thrift. Especially as of late this pastime has become so popular that it has earned a place in top 40 radio charts. But many of the blogs and magazines that cover “thrifting” often feature the best vintage stores that specialize in high-end brands and curated selections — which is what I avoid. I specifically seek out thrift stores — not vintage stores. I am looking for a place free of the rules and limitations that the current world of fashion has. Free of someone else’s curatorial efforts. In thrift stores clothes are not pieced together according to trends or labels, they sit on a rack completely unsorted, often next to something that might seem completely out of place. And that’s the magic. It is in the dissonance. I long for a type of temporal dissonance that only thrift stores can offer. The uncurated kind.
Minnesota, where I live, happens to have a plethora of the best kinds of thrift stores. The big chains: Savers, Unique Thrift, Salvation Army. Giant warehouses segregated based on gender, genre and age. These gems often have a small section “Ropa Vieja” or “Vintage” where workers diligently separate the items they feel don’t belong to this time and era. Dresses that are stiff from years of unwear, jackets that smell like mothballs, shirts with dated slogans or strange cuts. This is where I indulge myself, carefully piecing through this collection of historical artifacts.
In this out-of time space I truly feel at home. Unlike Forever21’s and H&Ms that spew out affordable versions of the latest fashions for the millions, these moth-bitten threads are often one-of-a-kind, lonely relics of eras long past. It is not uniqueness for uniqueness’ sake that I am going for. It is experiencing past versions of what it meant to be a woman, from high-femme dresses to wide-legged trousers. It is experiencing the temporal transformation of femininity and masculinity and finding a place for myself within that space. It is about acknowledging my everyday performance even when I am wearing something considered “normal” like Gap ballet flats. Pieces like those might seem neutral, but it is all part of a performance. As Judith Butler once famously proclaimed, all gender is drag.
But the thing about thrift stores is this: gender is not a constant across time. Gender markers, items like miniskirts or platforms, change their meaning over time and come to represent entirely different things from one decade to the next. The uniqueness that I pinpoint in old clothing is that dissonance. It is not that these items were produced to stand out and be weird (although some of them definitely were!), it is that over time the meanings behind fit, cut and color change and result in a completely different product than the manufacturer intended. A loose fitting mod dress transforms to an androgynous masterpiece. A curve hugging low-cut A-line dress that used to be a norm of femininity it so out of place that it calls to attention its performativity. The magic about thrift stores is that even things that were created to be normal are temporally transformed to stand out, to make a statement — and often that statement is not straightforward.
I understand how my comfort in thrift stores is deeply privileged. I grew up with a mother who would not step foot in a thrift store. Not because she thought they were beneath her but because she grew up poor, wearing clothes that were entirely thrifted or handed down. These clothes didn’t contain her ambling limbs and awkward teenage girl body. She sees the privilege in me walking aimlessly down the aisles absorbing the touch and scents, as others are carefully choosing the outfits their children will wear for the next year. At the very least I am aware of what it means for me to occupy that space. I make a choice to be there.
I struggle with my identity and the way I choose to represent myself. I grew up with long hair, trying desperately to be normal, to not stand out — to be a Midwestern girl. When I was 22 I made a bold decision to cut my hair one weekend on a whim. And when the shears were in action, some sense of normativity fell away with my locks. I cannot express how profoundly this cut affected my life. It changed the way I saw myself. It changed the ways other people saw me. It was like a door was opened, one that called out dude what are you waiting for it’s time to get weird! After that I experimented with androgynous clothes, masculine clothes. I threw away all my heels and lipstick and started wearing button-ups and ties.
Over time I came to develop a different appreciation for femininity. When I did not feel like it was a norm I was stuck performing there was something innately fun about it. I started accumulating vibrant shades of lipstick, colors that stood out. I bought insanely high club-kid platforms and dyed my hair blonde, then purple, then pink, then blue. When I performed weirdness, and embraced a look that sometimes made people stop and stare, it was the first time I really felt comfortable in my own skin. It was like I wasn’t wearing makeup and dressing to be acceptable, but to be the version of me I wanted to be on any given day. Not dressing to fit in, but to stand out. Going to thrift stores and exploring fashions of time past, is a part of this desire to live outside of the boundaries of acceptability.
I get how some people could interpret it is strange, this compulsion to thrift. It’s even stranger when you consider that I often leave the stores without any purchases. The point isn’t accumulation, it is about appreciation. It’s about being inspired by other ways of being, about experiencing past performances and expanding my horizons of the type of “me” I can perform at any given moment. It is about longing, about desire, about being bored with things as they are. It is about diving into the past to create a pastiche of future me’s that are anything but normal – whatever that even means today or a decade from now.