Things I’ve Learned Shopping for Second Hand Clothes

Before September 2016, I didn’t think that much about fashion. I enjoyed looking nice, but I didn’t do a lot of shopping because I didn’t have the money to shop.  But that was OK because I spent most of my time at work wearing a uniform.

That’s one of the great things about being a flight attendant; you don’t have to think a lot about what you’re going to wear because you wear just about the same thing every day you go to work. On layovers, I always wore the same things as well.  You can only pack so much: 2 tops for every pair of pants (black trousers and jeans), a sweater for nights and a little black dress in case we ended up going somewhere nice for dinner.

My motto was: Pack black and be done with it.  I didn’t care about clothes, not when I was eating chocolate croissants in Paris or tapas in Madrid. For me, travel is all about the food.  What better way to get to know a culture than through the local food?

Then, on September 20, 2016, something happened that forever changed my life. American Airlines issued a new uniform. Since then, thousands of employees have reported serious health issues due to toxins in the uniform. Think formaldehyde, stain repellent, water repellent and synthetic fabrics. My reactions to the toxins became so severe I had to take an unpaid leave from work. I won’t return to work until the new uniform is replaced with one that doesn’t make people sick.

But I still need money to live. And to make ends meet, I started reselling clothes I buy at thrift stores.

Before I continue, I have to tell you that there was a time, not too long ago, that I thought I would never be happy if I couldn’t fly.  That’s how much I love my job. I thought, there’s no way I’ll find something else I like to do. Turns out I was wrong. I feel just as happy walking into a thrift store down the street from my house than I do flying to Paris. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true.  

I have a gift now. I can spot bad-quality fabric a mile away. Sometimes I can feel it too.  It makes my hands burn. If I’m around too much formaldehyde (which makes clothing wrinkle-free), I might even start to get dizzy.  That’s why it’s so exciting to discover anything made with 100% natural fibers. I might even feel more excited discovering something beautiful at a Goodwill than I do eating a baguette with cheese outside the Louvre. (Keep in mind when I’m in Paris, I’m stumbling around on fumes just trying to stay awake so I can sleep through the night so I don’t fall asleep on the return trip back to New York.)  

Recently, I stumbled upon an Eileen Fisher sweater and I actually gasped because it’s not only made out of 100% cotton but 100% ORGANIC COTTON.  It felt like I hit the jackpot. Like gold.

The Eileen Fisher sweater

After September 20, 2016, I spent a lot of time seeing doctors and reading about chemicals to understand what happened to me. That’s how I’ve come to appreciate natural fibers and why it makes me so happy to find them among all the inferior clothing items that may even have more exciting names on the label. Sometimes it feels like a rescue mission. Like the clothes are pets and I’ve got to save them so I can share them with the people who truly need and want them.  People who can love and appreciate them.

Which reminds me of the time somebody I don’t know well sent me a message on Facebook that there was a Free People dress at a Salvation Army Store not too far from my house. At first I laughed at the mysterious message about a dress that needed rescuing, a dress that may or may not have been made out of natural fibers. It made me happy to know somebody thought it deserved a good home and they thought of me to make it happen. By the time I got to the store the dress was gone, but I left with two pairs of pants for my son and a wedding dress.

Now for a few important things I’ve learned thrifting.

1 Size doesn’t matter. If you see something beautiful that isn’t in your size, try it on anyway. If it doesn’t fit, buy it for someone else. Good quality is hard to find. Before I started reselling second-hand clothes, I would have never thought to try on anything in a different size.  I cared way too much about a number on a label that nobody could see. I’m a size 8. A month ago I tried on something labeled XS and it looked great. Same thing happened with a sweater labeled 2X. Focus on how you look and feel when you see yourself in the mirror. Forget about the number on the label.

Goodwill. Europe Size 34 (U.S. size 6) $8

2. Designer brands. I never cared about fashion because the things I liked weren’t in my budget so I pretty much wore jeans and a black T-shirt or sweater for years. Better quality clothes can be had on a tight budget. You don’t have to spend a fortune to look great. Before September 16, 2016 my closet was filled with black clothes. Now it’s full of color, and that makes me happy.

Goodwill. Size Medium. $6

3.  Treasures, not trash.  There’s nothing wrong with wearing something someone else owned but didn’t want to keep. Think about it like dating. We don’t keep everyone we loved in the past. Sometimes we need a change. Sometimes we don’t want a reminder and an outfit reminds us of something we don’t want to think about. Everyone has a story. So do the clothes at your local thrift shop.

Salvation Army. Size 12. $14

3. Fabric matters. Have you ever heard a celebrity win an award and then go on to praise the designer of her dress? The celebrity usually says something about the female body. It’s true, some designers dress the female form better than others. I have a feeling those same designers  only work with natural fibers. Cotton, linen and silk make curves look better. I’m talking about butts and boobs. Just because something might look boring on a hanger doesn’t mean it won’t look stunning on you.

Goodwill. Size Large. $8

4. Happiness is a tape measure. Forget your number size and get to know your measurements. Know how many inches there are between your shoulder blades and around your bust, waist and hips. Men’s clothing sizes are based on actual body measurements. Women’s clothing sizes are based on random numbers. Maybe this is why most of the second hand shops I’ve visited only have a rack or two of men’s clothes while the rest of the store is for women. Learn your measurements and wear natural fibers.

Goodwill. Size small. $6

8 Replies to “Things I’ve Learned Shopping for Second Hand Clothes”

  1. Totally true…also a recycled piece can be made even better by the help of a good tailor. Awesome post.

  2. You can’t trust the sizes on the labels on clothes in second hand stores. Often the item will have been washed incorrectly and shrunk.

  3. Hello, Heather, am a FA too and a big fan of your blog and your Book. Now I feel I relate to you on an even bigger level because of the topic of this post. Thank you for another great article. Every FA I know in the industry that I talk to, feels so bad for your Uniform issues, what an unfortunate and dangerous circumstance to one’s health. We are all rooting for safer uniforms. I sure hope it gets worked out soon. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune illness at 51 and believe me toxins my dr. told me are a trigger..and on the plane over the years I have been exposed to so many.

    Always and avid thrift-shop lover my whole life, when I was off of work on a leave with my illness I too resold the fabric treasures I found from from thrift stores, and after going back to work even shopped some thrift & charity shops internationally and domestically on layovers. It helps me financial not to have to fly so much anymore.

    I never loved flying as much as you have. I was up for 22 hours the other day due to storms and delays and diverts then hours later I finally could commute home after 3 or 4 flights passed me by accommodating revenue standbys. You know the drill and it takes me 3 days to recover. I am 56 now and it’s getting harder to find the joy I used to feel.

    Today your post came to me as I was finishing up some listings. As the planes were flying high over head I was so happy to be photographing outfits instead of serving up cokes. For today anyway. Happy for you and your new adventure. You look beautiful in all your adorable outfits, and getting things for less and looking great becomes addicting! Happy thrifting! Looking forward to you sharing more great finds.

  4. Also beware of clothes moths. I suspect an item I bought at the Sally Ann introduced clothes moths to my woolens. It took perhaps nine months to completely wipe them out in my house. They did a lot of damage- they particularly like cashmere.

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