Thrift Style for Older Women – Part 1

In my survey at the end of last year several of you asked me to tackle capsule or casual wardrobe ideas for older women, aka “senior thrift style.” (FYI That last phrase is from one of y’all, not me. People have ALL kinds of feelings about terminology for “women of a certain age,” including hating that very phrase and/or the word “seniors.” I will do my best to avoid the minefield by sticking to “older women.”  Be sure to let me know if you hate that too…😁)

I’ll end this series by pointing you to blogs created by and for stylish older women. As someone in my early 30s I am far from an expert in this area, but I do know thrifting, and I think a lot of what I see in thrift stores (as well as a lot of style advice) translates well to a variety of ages.  So I’ll tackle this topic as a three-part conversation that I hope you all will join in on.

Part one: let’s talk pregame. If you want to thrift successfully, you have to do a little prep work.

  • Assess your lifestyle – and your style-style. I read several style blogs written by older women, many of whom have gone through some kind of life transition that affects their style. Think rising up the ranks at work, shifting to part time or more casual work, retirement, caring for grandkids or an aging partner, or traveling more. Or maybe as you’ve aged you’ve just decided to quit wearing uncomfortable shoes and clothes for the sake of someone else’s definition of fashion.
    As with any life transition, it sometimes takes a while for reality to catch up with our style image of ourselves. Take a minute and think about what kind of clothes you wear the most during any given week. See if your closet reflects that breakdown. Then, out of the kinds of clothes you are actually wearing, which pieces are you most drawn to, and why? Here are some more prompts for figuring out your style.

If you already have a good handle on your style, skip straight to the next step:

  • Figure out where the holes are. My biggest tip for thrifting, whether your’e a newbie or a pro, is to go in armed with a list of what you’re looking for so you don’t get overwhelmed (newbie) or distracted (pro). If you know what you’re missing – say, you have one great blazer but could use one in a different color; you want a more comfortable pair of shoes – your process will be more focused and you’ll have a better chance of success.
    A lot more thrifting pregame strategy here.
  • Invest in a great bra and some underwear you love. Although I’ve bought new underwear at a thrift store, secondhand is generally not the place to buy lingerie. You need underthings in great condition to make the most of your closet – there’s nothing sadder than a fabulous top that looks funky because your bra is bunching the skin on your back or letting things sag. You don’t even have to splurge; just find a fit guide online or go to a lingerie or department store for a fitting and use that information to get something good in your price range. As we grow older our breasts change, so it’s worth it to do this periodically to keep your gals looking great and your clothes looking great on top of them. (If you don’t wear a bra, then just skip all that advice.)
    Buy some no-show undies if you have bottoms that show panty lines and make all your other undies things you love to wear. Again, no need to break the bank unless you want to. I dig cotton so I just get Hanes or Fruit of the Loom in colors/patterns I love. Your mileage may vary. (And if you can afford to buy ethically made underthings, all the better!)

Next week we’ll talk about strategies once you get in the store.  In the meantime, scroll down to share any particular questions or issues you want me to tackle during this conversation.


10 thoughts on “Thrift Style for Older Women – Part 1

  1. I’m 69 and thrift almost all my clothes. I absorb a lot of information about style rules, how things are worn, etc but I find that the women I know who are around my age do not. When we were growing up, there wasn’t all this information, especially as regards options. Things were more
    rigid and inflexible. In a small town, my main source of information as to new styles were the big patterns books that appeared from time to time. Choices far less varied. I think this mindset stuck with many who are now older and not necessarily a bad thing. I would think that trying to radically change your style because your lifestyle has changed can be difficult for anyone. I really like your suggestion to observe what you’re actually wearing during a week. If they then pinpoint what features they’re drawn to, they can translate that to their “new” wardrobe. Otherwise, you get that situation where the reality show makeovers don’t stay made over because it’s way too foreign to them. Contrary to this, fashion advice is always saying to avoid buying for a fantasy life. Good as far as it goes but sometimes we do want to clothe aspects of ourselves in a radically different way not at all consistent with our daily lives. One of my favorite style icons is a retired woman, tallish and straight built with short hair, who wears masculine-derived clothing during the day – chinos, bomber jackets, even a baseball cap. I think she looks wonderful in these – I can’t wear this kind of clothing as I just look stumpy and haggard in them – but I’ve seen her thrift Hollywood-style glam sequined dresses that she will wear to the casinos with her boyfriend and she really pulls it off. You would be hard pressed to know these “two” were the same people.

    1. Great comments, Vildy! I have heard women raised in certain generations talk about sticking with the style rules they learned at a young age for longer than you might expect – what was ingrained in you as a child can be hard to uproot, especially when the style norms/rules you learned were particularly homogeneous or inflexible. I think especially of women who had their personal color “season” done as a preteen or teen and stuck to those rules for years and years even though it didn’t feel right to them. I’m glad the internet has become a place not only to share more diverse style norms but also to help leverage people out of style regimens they’ve come to dislike.
      I love the story about your style icon and the visual picture you paint. One reason I love thrifting is that it’s a great way to make more than one style “personality” work for your budget!

      1. BTW, maybe talk a little about the awful lighting that many thrifts stores have and how to deal with that. The church thrifts that are my favorite have dim yellowed lighting so bad that what you think is brown turns out to be purple when you take it over to a window. Some larger stores like Goodwill have glaring unnatural lighting. I always take reading glasses to see size and fabric composition and lately I have brought a flashlight! Also, the church thrifts have nowhere to try on but the ladies room and these often have funhouse style mirrors. :D I often take a small hand mirror with me so I can check a color against my complexion over by a window or see a rear view in the funhouse mirror.

        1. You have much better ideas than I’ve had – mostly I just complain to myself about how bad the lighting is! (I’ve noticed consignment stores have MUCH better lighting – probably because they’re asking you to drop more cash.)
          If you don’t mind I’d like to highlight some of your suggestions in Part 2, with credit to you of course. Let me know what you think!

          1. Use anything you’d like of mine, credit doesn’t matter. I’m sure devoted thrift shoppers have much the same experiences and ideas! Here’s another idea: even if you shop where prices are really low, often the volunteers miss out on easily repairable damages (that low light coupled with sometimes advanced age) like missing buttons which you’d have to pay to replace or a torn lining inside that you’d have to sew up, moth holes – in plush garments like camel’s hair coats you can tease the pile back through with a needle – and will gladly reduce the price or give it to you for free. The flip side of that is the volunteers are only human and they often have notions of what is much more valuable (“it came from my daughter and she only buys good things”). I never argue against their preconceived ideas and they give me deals elsewhere. My friend and shopping buddy often argues and they will never drop a price on anything for her.

  2. I think part of the joy of thrifting is trying out different clothing items without too much of an investment. I just came back from one of my favorite consignment stores after scoring a pair of dress shoes and a dress. I stood in the dressing room debating as to whether the dress was too formal for everyday wear. It is navy blue with a fitted bodice and a fuller knee-length skirt which is not only my favorite color, but my favorite dress style. I finally got over my hesitation, admitted (immodestly) that I looked pretty good in it and home it came with me. It is an issue with me as I hit my late 50s as to whether a garment can be considered too young. I don’t think this dress is guilty of that, but I sometimes do wonder since I do not want to appear frumpy either. Those lines of demarcation between appropriate and overly practical seem to get ever finer as I get older.

    1. The dress you got sounds lovely, Jill – any chance you’d want to share a picture? :)

      I see a lot of style advice re: not saving the “good stuff” for special occasions, so I hope you find reasons to wear your new find as regularly as you want. In fact, today a coworker of mine wore something that sounds strikingly similar to your find – navy blue, fitted bodice, full skirt – while it does looks “dressy,” she looks so great in it that it makes me smile every time I see her.

      I hear you on the “too young” vs. “frumpy” fault line. Part of me wants to rail that it’s ageist (probably with a touch of sexism thrown in for good measure) to ever tell a woman she’s wearing something “too young;” but I can’t deny how I’ve changed my style over the years to be a little more mature, a little more conservative (cut-wise and hem length at least), a little more “business” than “casual” – all as a function of feeling like my clothes should reflect how *I’ve* grown and matured in the last 10 years. But then I throw in snakeskin print or multiple patterns to keep from feeling too serious…! You’re right, it’s a pretty fine – and personal – line to walk.
      Thanks for sharing!

  3. Owe you ladies a debt of Thanks. Going to Goodwill this week armed with flashlight ,
    mirror and list of what I am looking for. Great tips. Will look at clothes by window.

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