I wish I could say that I have never looked at another woman and thought “Hah, I look better than she does,” but that would not be true. I’m not proud of the baseness that leads me to enhance my opinion of myself at someone else’s expense, especially concerning an attribute such as appearance, which both morals and manners teach us should be insignificant. But there it is. At least I never aim at anyone that bold, steely, measure-and-dismiss gaze some women wield like a street fighter’s stiletto.
Rivalry with other women is, however, definitely part of my fascination with thrifting—that is, shopping in thrift stores, secondhand stores where the main stock-in-trade is used clothing. Department stores, that mercantile expression of democracy, offer everything in multiple sizes and colors, so that every woman has a good chance of bringing home the same treasures as every other woman. And that presents a problem for all the other women, because how we act when we are dressed (or undressed, for that matter) depends not entirely on how we look in a certain garment but also on how that garment enables us to feel. By giving every woman access to the same clothing as her rivals, the department store also gives her access to the same feeling, the same power, no matter that her prize, to the objective eye, would better suit someone a little smaller or larger, younger or older.
But the stock in thrift stores is generally haphazard, eclectic, unique. Although certain styles predictably show up a little while after their debut (or death) on the mainstream racks, usually you find only one of any piece in a particular size and color. And it’s hard to imagine that some pieces were ever part of any mainstream collection anywhere. I number among these the hip-length corduroy vest with the snakeskin pattern, dark brown on a buff ground, that I found at the Women’s Exchange in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and cherished for several years, all the while totally oblivious to such issues as compatibility with my wardrobe or my personality. Perhaps no other woman would want such a thing; certainly very few would be likely to have it. My corduroy snakeskin won for me, therefore, the smug satisfaction of showing up in an intriguing and untraceable little item that no rival could match, even if I were to tell her where I found it.
Often a quiet intensity in the way other women are thrifting tells me that they are also on this sort of hunt. They want to check every inch of the racks as fast as they can, before someone else scoops up the only pair of batik harem pants with the abstract pattern dyed in yellow-gold or the silky black jogging suit in perfect condition.
Women hunting may ignore thrift-store protocol, which says that you must graciously yield right-of-way in the often crowded aisles to whomever wants to pass around you. I have watched and waited tensely as one of these aggressive hunters stubbornly blocks the aisle I am trying to search, holds up the one garment that I am sure will make me happy forever, turns it this way and that, frowns, holds it up to herself, and finally, glancing sidelong at me, puts it back. And then, feeling the elation of the hunter for whom need and luck and skill have suddenly aligned, I wait the respectable number of seconds and seize the prize.
As often as we hunt, though, women thrift with a sense of buoyant pleasure at being surrounded by treasure, by possibility. Women in thrift stores usually keep pretty much to themselves, but women in this giddy mood may make small-clothes-talk with other women, comment (always positively) on the treasures other women are evaluating, sometimes even offer something they’ve found to a stranger.women shopping with their friends hold things up for each other and call out “This looks like you” or “Isn’t this your color?” or “Would this fit your oldest?” or they note delightedly the amazing, practically laughable prices or they joke about the occasional truly bizarre piece of clothing that clearly deserved abandonment. I once bought a short denim skirt that I didn’t completely like (a little too tight, a funny rivet near the hem in the back) because an ebullient stranger found it and suggested it would look very good on me.
Trying different colors and styles for very little money is another reason women thrift. For a long while, I wore nothing but black, white, gray and red, but then I began to feel the brightness of red to be overwhelming, almost physically painful. All the red disappeared from my closet, to become someone else’s thrift treasures, and the thrifts helped me work my way through a wild purple phase (purple pants, jackets, t‑shirts ), a navy period, and a yellow and a brown (a color I used to despise but now find fascinating; in the thrifts, I have explored every shade from toast through deep chocolate).
And because the thrifts are so inexpensive, you can satisfy an acquisitive mood without doing too much damage to your bank account. You can cost-effectively handle the sort of bleak mood that makes all, including yourself, seem worthless, the sort of mood in which spiritual solace seems unobtainable or insufficient—which makes you feel even more desolate. Finally you concede that only material objects will comfort you. Dressed in a bright and unusual garment, you may feel and even perhaps behave like a better person.
But I think thrifting, in the end, is as much about sanctuary as anything else. A thrift store is a woman’s place: Hunting ground or not, it’s a place for women to enjoy the company of other women without the pressure of direct engagement. The men are usually left at home, because a woman with someone waiting on her cannot hunt or dream properly. Very few thrifts carry much men’s clothing anyway, and the men found in thrifts are generally of two kinds: either obvious down-and-outers who make everyone edgy until they leave, or indulgent husbands tagging patiently along, sweet-natured guys who usually end up sitting on an old couch watching the purses while the ladies work the racks.
And men, sweet-natured or not, hobble a woman with the entanglements and responsibilities that she has sought to escape for a quiet hour or two in this sweet solitude. They interfere with the woman’s work and pleasure of talking to herself about who she is and who she might become. A woman thrifting is a woman drifting and dreaming about need and possibility, practicality, rivalry, and the uncomplicated pleasures of beautiful textures, colors, patterns, the alchemy of pleats and drapes, tucks and darts that shape simple cloth into a personal response to the world.
A full closet will not keep a woman who loves to thrift from thrifting, any more than a full stomach keeps her from loving food or wanting to eat again. The thrifts are an inexhaustible source of possibility, and when interest flags or guilt over even the few dollars spent spoils the fun, there’s always the 5-dollar-a-bag sale: all the treasure you can stuff into a brown paper grocery bag. And they supply the bag. What more could you ask?
photo and text copyright elizabeth nash 2014
Categories: My Poetry & Essays About Clothes