It seemed a near-divine sign when I pulled a black cashmere Christian Dior sweater from the recesses of the men's department at Unique, my local thrift store in suburban New Jersey. I didn't know anyone who would have owned any piece of clothing from the French fashion house who would be willing to part with it, casting it aside at a donations-only thrift store. But there it was. And, $10 later, it was mine.
I hadn't started thrifting in search of labels, though it was a plus for a brand-bewitched teen. It was the clothes: the colors, the patterns, and oftentimes the starchy, worn textures that first drew me in. It was the promise that, when dressed in thrift store garb, I would not vanish into the homogeneity of my high school. When I first stepped into Unique, I wasn't in search of any particular item; I just wanted to see what lay beyond the racks of T.J. Maxx and Forever 21.
Eventually, the occasional trip to the thrift store became a weekly pilgrimage, often including visits to two of its locations on one long, scavenger hunt of an evening. The slightly musty rows of mangled clothes held the promise of a new identity, one that I could piece together using the tossed-off clothes of strangers. The yellow-tinged fluorescent lights, to my 17-year-old eyes, seemed to drench everything in a filmic haze.
With the right blazer, I could be Molly Ringwald's Andie Walsh, the quietly cool high schooler in Pretty in Pink who stuns the classmates who had collectively made the mistake of ignoring her. Pairing a turtleneck with a modest brown shift turned me into Audrey Hepburn's Jo Stockton in Funny Face, hiding away in the bookshop moments before being discovered by Fred Astaire's Dick Avery and whisked away to Paris to become an It Girl. I wanted that transformation, and these clothes seemed to be the key.
It seems to be the nature of the suburbs to create a uniform of acceptability for its inhabitants— jeans, T-shirts, and the regrettable bodycon dresses of the late aughts—yet just outside my town, I was able to find refuge in a place where I could shape my own sartorial point of view. Anything I saw and loved in fashion magazines was unthinkably out of my price range, but I could make the most of $4 dresses and $10 jackets I scrounged for by combining them with the fast fashion that already comprised the majority of my closet.
While the discounts of the thrift store helped me carry my visions out into reality, they weren't the core of its promise. It was the vintage selection that captivated me: velvet dresses with demure sweetheart necklines; tops with intricate beading and cascades of sequins; and long, flowy Gunne Sax dresses that might otherwise have been swept away for use in a local production of Oklahoma, had I not found them first. I bought them, and I coveted them—party dresses, especially—because I wanted to be the type of person who had occasion to wear them.
Growing up in the suburbs, I had few accessible points of reference for whom I wanted to be aside from the people I saw in magazines and movies. But when I went to the thrift store, I found proof that glamorous people had been here, too. They had found themselves in the suburbs and somehow gathered all the clothing they needed in order to piece together their own inimitable identities—before kindly donating it, and taking off to some big city, no doubt. These strangers, I thought, had left these tools behind so that I could someday pick up and leave, too.
I did manage to leave, and in the years since I developed my thrifting obsession I've picked up plenty more toss-offs from strangers. I'm still piecing together my personal style (and identity) as I navigate the unknowns of young adulthood, but maybe, someday in the future, I'll cast off my clothes to help someone else become the person they want to be.
In need of thrifting advice? Snap me at @rebeccadecz!