A reader recently asked us what was okay to buy used vs new. The answer is different for everyone depending on your needs, budget, and willingness to gamble on–and work on–clothing you just can’t be as certain about as something you buy from a store you trust (and that accepts returns). But the rewards of shopping on thrift and eBay are tempting–used clothing can offer strong value and niche awesomeness that shopping from the same dozen stores at the mall or online does not. Likewise, sites like eBay offer access to such finds (at at least a slight premium) to guys who don’t have gold mine thrift stores nearby.
To help out, I’m ranking 12 categories of men’s clothing on 3 attributes: the value of what you can get vs original retail prices, the ease of finding the good stuff in each category, and the potential that what you buy will be gross. I’ve scored each, based solely on my opinion and experience–explanations of my choices follow and I’ll post more categories over the next few days. I’ve also included some helpful tips for shopping in each category; some of these are more relevant to sifting through the merch at Salvation Army, some are more relevant to eBay shopping. In my final post, I’ll include some additional tips and resources for working with used clothing.
1. Dress Shirts
Dress shirts (i.e., button front, collared shirts of woven fabric) are plentiful in thrift shops and on eBay. There’s strong value in buying used here, as a nice dress shirt can easily cost over $100 new and many good examples from American, British, and Italian makers can be found on eBay for $25-$50, or even less. Likewise, once you know what style of shirts you like (like OCBDs, spread collar British shirts, etc.) and some brand names you trust, it’s easy to search online. Thrift shops are more hit and miss; it’s often best to shop in major metropolitan areas where people are more likely to be wearing, and therefore donating, nice dress shirts. That said, dress shirts are easily damaged–they can be permanently stained, and the fabrics can be relatively delicate and subject to literal wear and tear.
- Online, look for listings with good photos, including the collar and cuffs where possible, as these are often the most worn/stained areas. Of course a frayed (but not stained) collar has a certain appeal.
- Although a lot of current companies have added details that used to speak to shirt quality, like side gussets or split yokes, to cheaper shirts, those are still good things to look for on unfamiliar brands. Similarly, mother of pearl buttons often denote quality.
- It’s handy that good dress shirts are often sized by collar and sleeve length–for example, I can count on being a 16-34 (American) or 41 (European). These shirts won’t all fit the same, but they’ll probably fit as intended.
- Of course, some shirts will be baggier and some will be more fitted–slimming a shirt (from the side seams or via darts) is not an expensive alteration but some shirts are just too big and will never look right. Be sure to know the chest measurement of your favorite shirt for comparison.
Knitwear is one of my favorite categories to buy vintage. A lot of modern, even expensive knitwear is of middling quality, and the market hasn’t really caught on to the value of a really nice, but old, cashmere or shetland sweater. Note that cotton sweaters don’t often hold up as well. Seek out sweaters made in traditional sweater-wearing countries, especially England and Scotland.
- Look out for weird/nonsensical measurements. Sometimes sweaters that have been washed and shrunk will have wonky proportions. Keep in mind to that sweaters were baggier in the 1990s but slimmer in previous decades.
- Avoid anything that looks moth damaged. Yes, dry cleaning should kill any insects, and yes, repairing moth damage is sometimes possible (see Derek’s directory of repair services), but it’s not often worth the trouble.
- As with any vintage woolen clothing, dry clean or otherwise wash it before adding it to your closet–even if there are no outward signs of moth damage, you don’t want to introduce moths to your other nice clothes.
Every year there’s fewer reasons in modern society to wear a tie, so it’s as much a buyer’s market as ever. I find nice English and U.S. made ties at thrift stores all the time–although it’s still probably less than 5 percent of the ties on display. While popular tie styles change a lot, there’s always room for a knit, neat print, or repp stripe tie on anyone’s tie rack, and thrift and eBay are never lacking those designs. Plus, ties tend to be REALLY cheap at thrift stores. A new Brooks Brothers tie is upwards of $70–at thrift it’ll more likely be $3-$5.
- Tie widths of course change a lot over time. Know what you’re comfortable with and make exceptions when warranted. Around 3 inches will look “normal” today–narrower for straight knit ties. Anything above 3.5 may look dated.
- I never understand this but thrift stores often put ties on the floor that are obviously stained. A 20-year old pizza stain is going to be tough to get out of a nice silk tie.
4. Non-leather outerwear
Items like overcoats, peacoats, and parkas are high risk, high reward items. Many thrift/eBay overcoats have been kept in a closet or storage for years and are in great condition, and represent strong value vs new coats, which cost several hundred dollars minimum. Likewise overcoat styling isn’t quite as fickle as suit/ sport coat styling, so there’s a little less risk of getting an impossibly dated coat. Vintage performance outerwear, like fleece or 60/40 parkas, is much more likely to have been worn hard. Fortunately a lot of that gear is machine washable, so if it’s not in tatters it can be wearable. Thrift can also be a good place to find surplus military gear, like M-65 or M-43 jackets, or, occasionally, old fatigue pants. The risks are that people value a heavy coat so you’re less likely to find a really nice coat for $5 or $10, and old coats can have significant damage from moths, cigarettes, etc.
- As with other items, the measurements tell a story. A size 42 overcoat with a 52 inch chest is probably going to look odd today, when many coats are slim enough to wear without a suit jacket.
- A little moth damage on a sweater is usually a red flag for me. A little moth damage on an otherwise awesome peacoat? Something I can probably put up with so long as I get it dry cleaned right away.
Stay tuned for more rankings and tips throughout the week.