Moving Away From Big Box Fashion

by Katy on November 6, 2011 · 76 comments

For The Frugal Girl, who wanted a photo of the sweater.

Because I do all my shopping at area thrift stores, I have a unique view into the clothing brands that Portlanders buy. (Or at least the brands that Portlanders are donating.) And for the most part, it’s a sadly narrow selection. I stand there flipping through the racks muttering to myself, “Target, Target, Old Navy, Gap, Dress Barn, Target, Gap, Target, Old Navy, H & M.” So when I see a brand I’ve never heard of before, I’ll give that garment some extra attention.

Hmm . . . was this sweater/T-shirt/blazer possibly not mass produced?

Earlier this week I was on the hunt for The Perfect Cardigan, (it goes hand in hand with the Less Heat Challenge) and my attention was grabbed by a lovely green sweater with empire waist detailing and 3/4-length sleeves. The brand, Laurie B was something I’d never heard of, and miracle of all miracles it actually fit. And dare I say it — actually looked good on me?! So after going through my internal tirade about how Goodwill charges too much money for their clothing, (What, $7.99 for a used sweater that they got for free?!) I took the sweater to the register and paid.

After after a day or two of bonding with the sweater, I finally took the time to do a web search for the brand, and discovered that Laurie B Knitwear is sold at fine retailers such as Bloomingdale’s from $145 – $200. (So I guess I should stop feeling bad about paying $7.99.) Cool.

I started thinking about how what initially drew me to this sweater was the simple fact that it wasn’t from Gap or Target.  I remember a friend-of-the-family high school teacher talking about how the students at his school all looked the same because they all shopped at the same mall. This stuck in my teenage brain, because A: I was a hopeless snob and his high school was in the *gag* suburbs; and B: Because it had never occurred to me how everyone shopping at the same stores would result in a homogenous aesthetic. 

My sister just moved back to New York City after five years of being away, and one change struck her, which was how Big Box Stores had invaded Manhattan in her absence. These category killers cropped up while my sister was innocently following her master-degree-getting husband around the country. Sure, the Macy’s at Herald Square is the original Big Box Store, selling everything from kitchenware to clothing to confirmation of the existence of Santa Clause, but for the most part, Manhattan has always been a place for small to medium-sized shops. And with Target, Staples, Bed Bath and Beyond and Ikea now dominating the market, the aesthetic homogenization had firmly hit Manhattan.

Why should there be any difference between the mall in Dubuque, Iowa and midtown Manhattan?

But a more important issue, is that a significant number of these mass produced garments are manufactured in dangerous overseas factories where working conditions run the gamut from sweatshops to actual firetraps. It wasn’t even a year ago, when news of a garment factory fire in Bangladesh resulted in 100+ deaths as locked-in workers jumped from the windows of their factory workplace. And who did this factory produce for? “Gap, JCPenney, H & M and Wal Mart.”

I know that when I buy used, I am not supporting the consumer culture of cheap-at-any-cost fashion, and I would still rather buy from small, hopefully ethical manufacturers. Even when I’m shopping at thrift shops.

Do you jump at the great prices from Big Box Retailers or do you try and shy away from them? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

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{ 76 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather November 6, 2011 at 9:51 am

What a great find. A sweater that fit and looked good. The added perceived value is just another bonus. I bought a pair of jeans one time while thrifting that ended up being a very high-end limited release brand. I just liked that they looked good. I try to avoid big box stores and strive to buy local and unique. I just shopped for my youngest son for the fall – $17 at GW and a consignment sale. He is set.


Jinger November 6, 2011 at 9:57 am

Well, since I stopped shopping at all, even thrift stores, maybe I should not be commenting. Last month I made my final clothing purchase, until summer comes again, at Target. I happened to walk through the clothing section and spotted a soft red long sleeve cotton pullover, perfect for Austin winter days. I had my own internal discussion on the price, but I loved it, it fit well, looked nice and would be in my wardrobe for a long time. So I bought it.


Green Bean November 6, 2011 at 10:18 am

I completely agree with you! Even at thrift stores, I much prefer non-Big Box clothes. Seriously, who wants to look like everyone else. I’ve been frequently clothing consignment stores and also come boutiques. I generally like to buy used by my recent thought has been that I can splurge on 1-2 clothing items per year that are Made in America. Those items usually cost quite a bit more but there are less emissions, they keep jobs in our country and keep creativity flowing.


Carolyn November 6, 2011 at 10:29 am

It is so easy to be sucked in by the cheap prices of clothing at your local big box store, but I find the quality so bad when I do buy something cheap. Better to have few good quality items than a ton of junk. Now convincing my clients of that is another story, but slowly slowly more are convinced.


Linda in Indiana November 6, 2011 at 10:43 am

Hadn’t given some of the things you mentioned a thought yet. So glad you brought them to mind. I, too, have been aware of the Made in America thought and have been seeking to watch for that. I am trying to exclusively shop thrift shops or yard sales. Trying is the operative word. I volunteer at a thrift shop ran by our church which benefits a church-ran school. We are so luck to have so many nice things donated and appreciate it immensely. With that said, other than out-grown children’s things, it is appalling the number of cast-offs we create. Seems we don’t value things when we have so many. If you have thirty tops, none of them are extemely valuable to you. If you have one or two tops, each is very important to you. So, I am trying to rethink each thing in my closet. Way too many things. But I love! clothes and it is a journey. That said, I am also put off by the flimsy fabrics I see in the stores–can’t possibly hold up–when you hold up a new t-shirt and can look right through it–you really can’t expect it to last through many washings. So, I am trying to purchase things that I want in my closet for many years and things of quality –and if I find them used and made in America–all the better. And, yes, I have begun to watch the tags in resale shops as well!


Megyn @Minimalist Mommi November 6, 2011 at 10:43 am

I must be so used to thrifting because I go into “big box” stores and have near heart attacks at the amount they charge for almost everything. And I agree about the Goodwill prices…it’s hard when I know I could find the same item new, on clearance cheaper than what Goodwill charges. Thus is why I only clothes shop at Goodwill on their 1/2 price Saturdays. Shoes, though? They are a bargain at Goodwill! I often get nice looking Chuck Taylors and Vans for the boys for $2-4 a pair…when I know they originally cost $30+ new.

As for brands, I DO look for certain brands, but only because I know they actually fit me well (namely American Eagle- their clothes ALWAYS fit without fail). But I understand about the overabundance of the same brands over and over again. I too get a little crazy when I find a “nicer” brand at Goodwill. I once got a $3 practically new Le Sportsac bag at Goodwill when it cost $80+ new. I’ve also seen practically new designer dresses going for $5-10 when I know they easily cost over $100. I find the key to getting steals is to shop at the Goodwill or thrift stores in wealthy areas…I’ve found a lot less “big box” brands at those.


NMPatricia November 6, 2011 at 11:19 am

Great post. I am trying to not shop at all. But am not convinced I can find what I want locally, so I do a fair amount of Internet shopping – but same thing as big box.

I want to second the concern about the prices of Goodwill. I nearly have stopped shopping there because of their prices. Although I haven’t bought many clothes, my example is that they charge the same thing for canning jars as I can buy them new at Albertsons (grocery store). Something is not right about that. There is another local thrift store which usually has nicer clothes and cheaper prices. Not a great way to lure me into a Goodwill to support their mission!


Karen November 6, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Yes, I too am bothered by the excessive prices at GW. But at the same time, we have to remember they have a mission of training the developmentally disabled for employment, so they do need to raise money for that cause.

At the same time, it is often the working poor (and of course us thrifters, whether working poor or not) who need to shop at GW, so then the prices still seem too high. I guess it’s all a balancing act.

I try to go to our best GW when they have certain colored tags for half off. Then the price seems just right. I lately found two pairs of brand new jeans with the tags still on from Macy’s, and that made my day.


Laura's Last Ditch--Vintage Kitchenwares November 6, 2011 at 11:19 am

Other than home improvement stores, I haven’t been to a big box store in a mighty long time. I have a small wardrobe, and try to wear things into the ground. I get almost all of my family’s clothes from church and school rummage sales, usually at the end, when it’s “fill a bag for a dollar” (or two, or three). There are some very nice things left at the end of institutional sales, so I find it pretty easy to accomplish this. I also find things to pass along to my teen-aged nieces. They sometimes place orders, as in, “Aunt Laura, could you watch for some black pants for me?” or “I could use another pair of sandals.” Aunt Laura rarely disappoints!


Becky November 6, 2011 at 11:24 am

I’m going to be contrarian today. Something I like about “homogenized, Big Box” clothes is that they are so ordinary. Finally there are clothes I can wear that don’t say at first sight who I am, how I vote, what church I go to, how much money I have, how much education I have, how often I go to the gym, or what I do for a living. Wearing homogenized, Big Box clothing, most people (who are wearing basically the same thing) actually have to get to know me, the person, before they can form much of an opinion of me beyond the most general impression of my age and ethincity.

I find that refreshing. I admire women who make getting dressed an art form, but I’m not one of them. What I ask of my clothing is that it make me look self-respecting and presentable. Homogeneous mall-based clothing does that pretty admirably.

This is unrelated to the ethical questions involved in buying cheap mass-produced stuff. But stylistically, I appreciate the option of clothing that makes me look basically like everybody else.


Megyn @Minimalist Mommi November 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I find this quite surprising. I’m trying not to judge people on what they wear, but my immediate thoughts when I see women wearing “big box”/homogenized clothing is that they are a Midwestern Republican Christian. Obviously that is SO untrue, but if you had to ask me my gut reaction to such clothes, that would be it!


Samantha November 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm

I’m a Canadian Liberal Atheist and I wear big box fashion. My clothes are generally either Old Navy or from Costco. After finally watching “The Corporation” this week we are going to make a conscious effort as a family to not frequent big box stores, but admittedly it’s out of convenience, and a bit of rebellion against my upbringing.

Growing up the only clothes I got were from the thrift store, I always looked different (which is not always an easy thing when you’re young). And now as an adult I live in a small town with a very dismal thrift store, and with 3 children and (unfortunately) debt from past mistakes and job loss, so the amount of time required to hunt through the racks is not always there.

We’re working at changing things though, slowly but surely. But be careful how you judge people, the cover doesn’t always tell the story of the book.


Shari November 6, 2011 at 11:30 am

I started following your blog a year or so ago because I was looking for ways to live more “green”. I hadn’t shopped thrift stores until that time but given my boys need new sizes every 9 months I decided to at least check it out. I’m hooked. I’m proud to say that the only retail shopping I did for back to school was underwear, socks and shoes. My strategy? Look for the particular brands and be particular. Abercrombie and Fitch, American Eagle, Patagonia, North Face, Nautica, Polo, JCrew. Levi and Gap sometimes. Target, Old Navy, WalMart, etc are a pass for me since I don’t believe the quality of materials used are intended to last multiple seasons, multiple kids. Be particular—go regularly so you’re not trying to find something you need immediately. Be prepared to walk out with nothing. The tween and teens years for boys are a great time to thrift store shop. The grow quickly, they rarely wear out items and they’re less influenced by what’s in fashion. I’ve already built up a pile of clothes for the next size!

If I would come across an unknown brand that looked like a quality item I would do the same as you and snap it up. For the age I’m buying for I’m just not sure there’s much more than “big box” retailers—but there’s definitely a difference among them.


Megyn @Minimalist Mommi November 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

I’m surprised you say your boys aren’t into what the fashions as a tween/teen! Both my husband and little brother in law (just turned 16) were/are VERY concerned about what they wear at those ages. They had/have to have the right brands and look. It’s refreshing to hear that your boys don’t care!


Marla November 6, 2011 at 11:57 am

I hate to admit being this small minded, but I have come to the point where I don’t understand how someone can say they are a Christian (or Jewish or Muslim…) and still shop at Walmart. They have almost single-handedly killed off small businesses and small town Main Street, they pay their employees so poorly that the tax payer ends up paying for the employees that have to go on public healthcare (California did a study that showed they spend millions subsidizing Walmart’s profit because of health care), they encourage sweat shop conditions by ruthlessly pushing for lower prices, and the goods they sell are of such poor quality that they end up in the dump in very short order. And I don’t buy the “too poor to shop anyplace else” response. I worked for a poverty program for years and never, ever, EVER did I go to a home where they didn’t have a high quality TV and cell phones, yet these homes were classified as poor; poor was my grandmother, who freid hamburger and fed her kids the meat one night and the leftover grease on bread the next. If you shop at Walmart, you support their destructive ways. Period.


Trish November 6, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I love your stance Marla. I hate walmart and all that they stand for. they are now the only grocery in my small town (there used to be 3). I buy staples like dog food there but try to find local produce and meat, and take a monthly trip to a local chain that is about 45 min away to stock on on other things. It always strikes me that the workers at walmart look rather unmotivated, as if they are working in a communist country or something, where they know that no matter how hard they work, they wont make any more money.


Ellie November 7, 2011 at 6:10 am

Although I live in a high-density coastal location and have many options to avoid Walmart, my understanding is that there are parts of the country where Walmart is literally the ONLY retailer around. Not just the only retailer for clothes, but also the only place to get groceries, toiletries, hardware, lightbulbs, motor oil, whatever. If people are poor, they may not be able to drive miles and miles or order online to avoid Walmart, and so don’t really have options.

Also, if someone is living hand-to-mouth and Walmart is the cheapest retailer (e.g., even cheaper than the thrift store, as noted in this post/comments), it can be pretty hard to make a “better” choice.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl November 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

I’m just disappointed we didn’t get to see a picture. Katy, grab your camera and your husband. We want to see the sweater!!!


Ann November 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Great commentary on the homogenization of the malls…about 25 years ago, my parents retired from NYC to South Carolina. When my husband and I first visited their new home (we live in Los Angeles), we enjoyed the visit to their new mall – with its regional department stores, food establishments and individual shops. Unfortunately, in the first 15 years they were there, the department stores had been bought up by Macy’s and the malls were all managed by Weisfeild’s. Nowadays, you can’t tell what part of the country you are in if you go to a mall. Sad.


Jude November 6, 2011 at 12:35 pm

I found a gorgeous Ralph Lauren red snowflake hand-knit cotton sweater at a consignment store last year for $17. Typically, I don’t like to pay more than ten bucks for an article of clothing, but the sweater called out across the store to me from the manikin it was dressing. I fretted over the price tag, but ultimately purchased the lovely sweater. When I got home, I surfed the web to find the sweater, which had to be several seasons old. I discovered its twin on Ebay selling for nearly two hundred dollars. I considered putting mine up for sale, but I loved it too much. I can’t wait to wear it again this winter.


kim_n21 November 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm

I would love to be more socially conscious of the clothes I buy, but that can be a challenge when you’re plus sized and have very little money. Unfortunately, the thrift stores in my area don’t have very extensive plus size selections or I would buy more of my clothing there. It’s not necessarily ideal from a social responsibility standpoint, but it’s what there is. I try to be a responsible consumer as much as I can in other areas, but that’s also challenging when you have very little money. Sometimes you don’t have a lot of options, even if you do practice frugality.


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land November 6, 2011 at 1:54 pm

If you only buy what you need, take good care of it, repair it when it needs to be repaired, and don’t purchase things that are so trendy as to beg replacement in a few years, you’re still not doing badly. Used is a wonderful choice, though. Have you tried shopping online for used clothing? My friend lost 75 lbs over the last year and unloaded lots of plus-sized clothing, in large lots, and it was pretty cheap. I’m sure others are doing the same. She sold them on eBay, but perhaps even Craigslist would have things you’d like.


kim_n21 November 7, 2011 at 7:31 am

That’s a good idea. I’ll try that. The only thing is that I don’t always know what size I am and buying things without trying them on and without a way to return them might not be the best choice. But I suppose I could always resell them.


Lucy November 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Sadly there is but one thrift store within 25 miles of me, and the donations are comprised of low-end used WalMart everyday clothing or high end used dress clothing. I don’t have much use for the dress clothing, and the WalMart stuff is priced about the same as it is new. I’m terribly hard on clothes as I do very dirt work outdoors, so I’m afraid I supplement my garage sale finds of better quality everyday clothing with clearance items from WalMart. I usually hugely tear or hopelessly stain items before wearing them out.


Kris2 November 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I guess I shop big box alot. I try and shop at the base exchange when possible. The money stays on base after costs and supports morale, wellness and recreation programs. If you just look at the sheer numbers of stores(and other facilities run by AAFES), both in country and overseas, it would fit in the big box category.

I do support state artists(our state maintains a website that lists all state artists, what they sell and how to get ahold of them/site links. They also promote the products at craft shows all over the state during the year) and I also support local businesses as much as I can.


Linda in Indiana November 6, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Love the sweater–looks great on you! Can see why you had to have it and also the reason why! Thanks for posting the picture.


Judy November 6, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Katy, I like the sweater, good find! I’ve been shopping thrift stores
practically forever and my younger daughter is the absolute master at it. She has found a $180 designer dress with the tags still on $2. Her all time best purchase was a pair of jeans for $1 or $2. She was unfamiliar with the brand, but they fit her perfectly. When she came home and researched, she discovered they were custom made jeans that cost around $500.
Recently our local GW has opened up a store called “Good Buys.” They only sell clothing in that store and everything is $.99 or a particular colored tag may be 2 for $.99. I recently purchased a cozy warm LL Bean robe like new for yup- $.99 Just love 2nd hand shopping!


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land November 6, 2011 at 1:57 pm

If you don’t have thrift stores or wear an unusual size that’s hard to find, don’t forget about online shopping for used clothing. If you search for, say, “Lot women size 12 clothing” or whatever, you can find things that are sold in lots, which tend to be much cheaper. Even if you can’t use all the pieces, you could still get a good bargain.


FrancesVettergreenVisualArtist November 6, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Speaking as one of those unusual size people (actually, I’m pretty average size, just hard-to-fit proportions), I neither thrift nor shop online. It’s just not worth the time. I want to go to a store where odds are good I’ll find something that fits, and I don’t want to have to return or re-donate stuff that doesn’t. If I can’t try it on, I’m not buying it. No matter how enticing the price.

Having said that — I have found local, independent stores selling quality, interesting clothing, and because they are so hard to find, I wear pieces for a long time. I just wish I were convinced more expensive meant more ethical, but I suspect it doesn’t.


Dogs or Dollars November 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Nice score Katy!
I am all about the No Big Box for any and all purchases!
Particularly Walmart
I do end up buying their brands at Thrift Stores for lack of alternatives, but I seek to avoid them whenever possible.


Megan November 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Kinda on subject… I find that local thrift stores (not a chain like Goodwill) usually have better prices. I am surprised by Goodwill’s prices, and right now can’t justify the time it takes to go through everything.

My Grandma volunteers at one, and gets a discount. She pulls out items as she sorts and comes home with some great finds. I have bought my son hardly any clothes. I buy shoes (I have bad feet and justify the expense of nice tennis shoes that are formed to my child’s foot only.), socks, and I have had to buy jeans (he has to have the elastic waist, which are really hard to find!), and socks (I think we’ve received maybe 3 pairs that were still wearable from the thrift store?)

Now I need to get in the habit of shopping the thrift stores. I think I can get in the habit for myself once I have more time, but I’m not optimistic about finding clothes for my hubby, who is a 3XLT- but not frumpy dump, and most clothes that size are terribly stretched out. He has very broad shoulders, but not the gut you would expect for that size! I can barely find decent new clothes for him that are fitted nicely.


Linda H. November 6, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I love your “new” sweater and it looks great on you.
I agree about Goodwill. Our area just got our first Goodwill store and I was very excited to check it out. The used sweaters were priced $8.99-a buck more than your GW!! The “new” items were obviously seconds from somewhere with stains and holes. We have a plentiful amount of Rescue Mission thrift stores and Salvation Army thrift stores around here with a much better selection and better prices. Clothes are marked with colored tags and on different days, different colored tags are offered at anywhere from a 40-60% discount. There are often special sale days when the entire inventory is marked 40% off. I don’t see myself ever going into the Goodwill again.

Yes, most of the clothes are big box…Target, Wal-Mart, Kohls, Old Navy. You can find some other stuff on a good day though.


Jupe Blue November 6, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Goodwill’s pricing scheme must be working for them. They are maximizing their donations and income by pricing items for the marketplace. Higher prices (that people still are willing to pay) translate into more services and opportunities for their clients.

It’s still better to buy a used item for $8.99 versus a newly manufactured item for a myriad of reasons.


Practical Parsimony November 6, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Cute sweater at a great price! There are no thrift stores in this town that have clothing that suit my taste. The really good clothes are dressy, size 5, and not my style, even if I did need clothes to work in. I want simple clothing, shoes, and purses. Bling, new or used, turns me off when I see a purse all shining with metal. This is a small town.

Right now, standing or walking on concrete is not an option for over five minutes. Shopping for clothing in thrift stores is out. If I find a classic piece at Belk’s and it is on sale, I will buy new. As for paying full-price, I rarely need anything that badly.

Used clothing in my size is shabby and from big box. Who wants stains and stretched tshirts? At any price? Used clothing I would wear is either the wrong size or just not the style I wear or need, no matter how many times I go shopping for thrift.

Last year, I bought gdaughter (10 yrs)a $34 blouse at Belk on clearance for $3.50, better price, value, and sizing than Walmart.

Grandson wears size 13 men’s shoes. I found on clearance 3 pair at a quarter apiece. They quit stocking socks the size he needs.

But, I ran in to donate to a church-run thrift store that sells things at a decent price. I had to run to look. There was a $1 skort. Later, my daughter said it was the cutest thing I sent. When I told her it came from a thrift store, she said, “ohhhh, ummm. Okay.” I think it was better than what she thinks of as thrift store items.

I have not given up on thrift stores. Until I have three operation (torn rotator cuff, torn meniscus, and major back surgery) thrift or any stores are not high on my list of places to go.


Practical Parsimony November 6, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Run? Me? My run=hurried hobble.


Indigo November 6, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Big box retailers market their clothing to the lowest common denominator and the sizes and styles are never very tailored. The fabric fades and frays easily but because they follow trends most people tire of them by the time they wear our , which isn’t very long.

I am short, tiny, and 3/4’s legs with a short torso. Thus the cloths look like sacks on me. Especially since menswear seems dominated by baggy.

Half the time I snatch up a piece at the thrift store it seems to be from smaller boutique shops and a few bear the markings of custom made tailor jobs. The rest are higher quality stores and I tend to have to tailor them in. I have admittedly bought some articles of clothing purely for the fabric to remake into something entirely new.

In response to what another poster stated about not being able to tell much about a person due to their big box clothing, we all make assumptions and associations based on how a person presents themselves to the world, for better or worse, even when you try not to. I don’t think you get a full picture but it does give off hints since the things you buy and use express some of the characteristics of the person you bought and uses them.

For instance my clothing isn’t trendy, but it is well made, fits me well, and has a wide neutral pallet with a few punches of color to spice things up, all in all I can mix and match my relatively small wardrobe into a huge range of outfits. As things wear out and other things are added to the mix they fit together since I have a certain atheistic.

The exception being shoes. I have foot issues so I stick to the same style of new balance sneaker because they are the only ones that have not caused me pain and if I order them online I don’t have to buy 2 separate pairs since my feet are 2 different sizes.

The same can be said of your home furnishings. Yes sometimes you have an item to make do with such as my wobbly kitchen table that I would never choose but as it was free and I needed a table it will do the job nicely.


Kristen@TheFrugalGirl November 6, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Yay! I’m so pleased that there’s a photo now. Good find, Katy. 🙂


Rachel November 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Yay!!!! Shopping ethically is part of my family’s Footprints project. I agree with everything you wrote – thanks.


Bauunny November 6, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Oh my. You read my mind since I have been reflecting on my recent trip to Chicago with a group of women, most of whom spent the day shopping. Shopping in CHicago’s high-end retail store no longer interests me (nor can I afford it). Consignment and thrift shops are practically the only places I shop – I do not enjoy the mall or Target and I refuse to shop at Walmart. I always look for the high end brands and garments made in the USA – they generally look better, hold up longer and are more classically styled (so I get more years out of them). If you have the time and patience you can often find nice high end garments at Goodwill for reasonable prices. I also volunteer at an American Cancer Society “Discovery Shop” (I was such a regular that they finally asked me to train as a volunteer). The volunteers do not get price breaks, but they do get “first crack” at reserving the new items that are donated. I love it!
Back to Chicago. When I go downtown or to Michigan Avenue, I always feel like “Gidget goes to the city” in comparison to the highly fashionable women you see on the street, restaurants and stores. I don’t aspire to emulate them and on this trip found myself actually a bit sad to observe all the conspicuous consumption and ridiculous prices in the department stores. (I spent most of my day on a walking cultural and food tour of the Wicker Park neighborhood so avoided shopping until the very end of the day when I found myself in Nordstrom’s shoe department during their semi-annual sale (amazing show of consumption run amok). Literally crazy.


Molly November 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm

The Goodwill on Washington Street has a fantastic jeans selection, if you’re so inclined. They are ~$8-10, but I think that’s pretty good.


Laure November 6, 2011 at 6:20 pm

(Interesting that my post follows Baunny’s, as I live in Chicago, in the very urban part. It’s a safe neighborhood that allows me to walk/take public transit, etc. )
Like you (Katy), I prefer not to shop at Big Box stores. There are many boutiques near me, run by the designers themselves . Alas, I cannot afford 99% of the clothing, although they can be great for accessories and gifts. However, some of the clothes from these same small designers end up at T.J. Maxx, where I can afford them 🙂
As an aside, there is only 1 consignment/thrift store near me. It carries top designers exclusively, and I cannot afford them even at such a store, so no second-hand for me. (However, all the women in my family tend to pass our clothes around, so I do get a lot of second-hand for free. Plus, I rarely shop. I purposely buy mostly classic items, not so much out of preference, as out of their ability to be worn for years without looking too dated).
Your sweater looks lovely, and I’m glad you enjoy it. I feel as though I’m raining on your parade, but isn’t Bloomingdale’s a “big box”? There are multiple Bloomingdales’s stores near me, and although I rarely shop there, I imagine many of the regular shoppers there might also be wearing your sweater?
P.S. Bauunny…in defense of Nordstrom shoe sale: I understand if it’s not your cup of tea. However, living in the city, we rarely drive anywhere. So all the women I know agree: every single pair of shoes I own – including heels – needs to be able to be worn comfortably walking for at least 1.5 miles…never know when that will happen (unplanned), when you don’t have a spare pair with you. Shoes become an investment in avoiding knee pain, etc…and the cab fares they save more than pay for the shoes, plus the walking keeps us thin! Nordstrom has a wonderful selection of shoes that will actually last more than a year while putting such miles on them…


Annie Jones November 6, 2011 at 6:33 pm

I buy almost all of my own clothing from thrift stores or garage sales. My only criteria is that I have to really like what I buy, making sure I’m not buying something just because it is inexpensive or just because it’s got a designer label at a great price. I try not to pay much attention to brands when I shop second hand. I do pay attention to price and try to shop thrift stores on special sale days or with the occasional coupon I find for one. We have several options where I live other than just Goodwill or Salvation Army stores.

While my husband will buy shirts used, he buys his work jeans at one of the warehouse clubs. Yes, they are mass produced, but they last just as long as brand name jeans that cost 3 to 5 five times as much. Men don’t update their wardrobes as often as women, so by the time a pair of men’s jeans makes it to the thrift store, they are usually too worn to be worth the $7 or $8 dollars being charged, especially when the warehouse club jeans are just $14. He works construction and wears out many pairs of jeans a year, regardless of the brand, so this decision makes the most sense for us.

The clothing I buy for my granddaughter is somewhere in the middle. I try to buy as much as I can from garage sales, which here are considerably cheaper than thrift stores. I shop thrift stores next, but like the men’s jeans, I find that children’s clothing in thrift shops is often already too worn or too stained to bother with. Finally, if I can’t find what I need used (including eBay or consignment shops), I will buy new wherever I can get the best price.


Bauunny November 6, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Hi Laure,

I SO agree that good shoes are important, especially if you do a lot of walking. I have a hard time finding good shoes at thrift or consignment (although I have scored a few times). In the interest of full disclosure, I actually purchased a pair (although sadly not on sale at Nordstrom’s). I keep my shoes a long time, and wear and sometimes reheel them too. As I get older, I also appreciate the comfort of good, quality shoes……that now are more of a necessity than a “choice”. My comment about Nordstrom’s was more focused on the “feeding frenzy” aspect (I sat there, glad Tobruk OFF my feet) for a good hour, people watching, while I waited to be helped. That said, there is nothing like good pair of shoes. I generally like to buy shoes in northern Michigan (Traverse City) because the nicer shoe stores there cater to comfort first, then fashion.


Laure November 7, 2011 at 4:59 am

I love that I’m not the only one who has shoes repaired! I have a good cobbler just around the corner, and just had new heel guards put on a pair of shoes for the third time over the weekend. I laughed to recall that I paid $30 for them over 10 years ago. My cobbler cuts me a deal since I’m a regular 🙂 The guards were $3.
I also agree with your assessment that, while Michigan Avenue (the “Magnificent Mile”) shopping can be good people watching, I’m not interested in fighting crowds and waiting for an hour for service. You bring up an interesting point here. While I’m sure there are plenty of Chicagoans shopping there, most of us choose to avoid that “Tourist Trap.” While good for our economy, kind of sad that so many out-of-towners (not you) are so drawn by it…do they truly want such merchandise, or is that what they think “big city” folks wear it all the time and so want it?


Molly November 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Please, do share Laure – who is your cobbler?! (I’m in Chicago, I have weird sized feet, and I don’t want to take the time/effort to buy new shoes when really I just want the old ones fixed!)


Christina November 6, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I love clothes and have faced the reality that I’ll always be buying new ones. I do enjoy shopping at big discount stores like Century 21 or TJ’s. I’m not sure that’s so different than going to big box retailers. As for everyone looking the same, does anyone else find the idea of buying ‘distressed’ clothing laughable? The idea of thousands of people walking around with the exact same hole in their jeans is hilarious to me.


Silverlotus November 7, 2011 at 3:10 am

Generally speaking, we buy our clothes from smaller stores, but they are still national (or near-national) stores. And, honestly, for the little guy, clothes from Zellers or Wal-Mart sometimes make sense. (I think it is weird how there are so many baby clothes at Goodwill/Once Upon a Child, but so few preschooler clothes.)

I’m totally with you on the homogeneity thing. All the malls are the same, everyone is dressed the same. It is really sad that a society (both Canada and the US) that loves individuality is so willing to give it up for cheap prices, let alone all the labour issues it brings up. And, while it is neither here nor there, I have to say I’m tired of all the young girls essentially wearing slippers and pj bottoms to school and the mall. Yuck!


Riean November 7, 2011 at 4:04 am

Really interesting comments, think all of them apply equally to us in Australia.
Am surprised that NO ONE has mentioned the easiest way to have nice, hard wearing, well made clothes, Make it yourself!
It is not hard to repurpose thrift shop purchases that have good quality fabric in them, I know I made most of my childrens clothes into their teen from good thrift shop purchases.
Many quilters buy much of their fabric from thrift shops but it is easy to take that to another level and buy things to remake into clothing.


Amy November 7, 2011 at 5:36 am

I go back and forth about GW prices: 1) They have to keep the lights on in their stores, pay their employees and still make a profit to raise money for their cause 2) paying $6 for a Tshirt that’s already pilling or shrunken to a length juuuust to short for me to wear confidently rather appals me.
For you who do shop at second hand stores – you’re lucky you have the option. I live in a run down town kind of place that has said stores, but the offerings are…. well I’ll say it: awful. I dress casually for work but I wouldn’t think of wearing any of that to work.
Lots of used clothes online scare me, b/c I find it’s better for me to try on clothes before buying to assure a good fit.
If you can second hand store your wardrobe, good for you, but I’ve never had much luck with that myself.


Ellie November 7, 2011 at 6:22 am

“….when news of a garment factory fire in Bangladesh resulted in 100+ deaths as locked-in workers jumped from the windows of their factory workplace… ”

I was reading quickly, and initially thought you were writing about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in NYC, 100 years ago last March. (My grandparents were alive and living in the city then, and they all remembered that terrible incident from their youth.) Then I read more carefully and realized you were writing about something much more recent in another part of the world.

Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same…. and not it a good way.


Tanja @ Minimalist Packrat November 7, 2011 at 6:37 am

What a lovely sweater you have there, and what a great take on what it means to buy used. I read through every comment and enjoyed the whole dialogue. 😉

I’ve shopped on and off at thrift stores and yard sales for years, but recently decided to start buying everything possible used instead of new. Bras, shoes, and socks are the only things I still find better to buy brand new. Thrift stores do seem to vary around the country. We have a good selection where I’m at right now, we just picked up a small company brand of pants called Hempy’s the other day at our local Goodwill for $3.99.

I’m trying to buy second cycle goods as much as possible, and then small-business or local as a secondary goal. Awesome post, and what a fun sweater. 😉


Trish [ modern thrifter ] November 7, 2011 at 7:15 am

90% of my wardrobe comes from the thrift store. I try to be picky, and try to avoid old navy (or similar) brands because they are just so poorly constructed. Even secondhand, I think they are a waste of money most of the time. I love that the Goodwill near me hasn’t figured out that some of the smaller brands are worth more. I often find really great brands (Tea Collection, Boden, etc.) in the discount section, while Old Navy and Forever 21 items are placed in the pricier “fashion” section.

I’ll admit, my achilles heel is Anthropologie and J.Crew. I rarely buy their clothes new, and when I do, it’s off the clearance rack and usually with birthday money. I really wish they would change their production practices. I suppose I just need to stop looking at all of their pretty things so I’m not so tempted, and maybe switch to shopping for my clothing splurges on Etsy.


E. Murphy November 7, 2011 at 7:58 am

I don’t get the sense of superiority because the sweater is a Laurie B.

1. You have no idea under what conditions this brand of clothes were made, so why are you feeling superior sweatshop wise?

2. Why don’t you just look at the clothes in thrift shops and decide what is attractive and well made? Why are you looking at all the brand names? This is just convoluted snobbery, justified by thrift store shopping.


Katy November 7, 2011 at 8:39 am

If you read the post carefully, you’ll see that I was drawn by the ” lovely green sweater with empire waist detailing and 3/4-length sleeves.” And it wasn’t until a few days later that I looked up the brand.

Thank you for your helpful comment. 🙂



Kayleigh November 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Hey E. Murphy,
You are really starting to become famous. I read about you over at the Frugal Girl. Cool for you. Impressive!!!


Sharron November 7, 2011 at 8:39 am

Nice article, Katie! Love the sweater and agree with your premise. Local and/or handcrafted is ideal–gently used is even better.


Rachel November 7, 2011 at 8:50 am

Since I work with kids all day, I try to find clothing that looks nice and semi-professional but is comfortable to wear all day and doesn’t have any issues of unwanted skin peeking out. Living in a retirement community right next door to a college town, I haven’t had any luck with thrift stores as the clothing tends to be unflattering to my body as it’s either made for older women who don’t have any curves, or younger girls who want to try to flaunt them.

My family looked at me strangely when I told them I was excited to move to the city in a couple of months because of the significantly improved selection at libraries and thrift stores, and the ability to bike to work. =P


Jennifer G. November 7, 2011 at 8:58 am

I think Goodwill’s prices are pretty high, too. I live in a rural area, and most thrift stores sell paperbacks for 50 cents and hardbacks for $1 (or less). At Goodwill, it’s $1.50 for paperbacks and $2.50 for hardbacks.

Books are the only item I have a lot of experience in, but I have noticed higher clothing prices too. More than $5 for a shirt is a little much at a thrift store, if you ask me.


Allison November 7, 2011 at 9:09 am

One thing I have noticed when buying from resale stores and from thrift stores is the number of handmade items for so cheap! I am a knitter and it breaks my heart so see the number of gorgeous hand knit sweaters, hats, vests for babies and kids that sell for less than the yarn cost the maker. It is dispiriting to see items I would classify as heirlooms and in brand new condition for sale for $1 or $2. Do people really not value items made with love anymore?


Katy November 7, 2011 at 9:15 am


That’s a hard one. Especially for knit items that are made to fit a certain size, it doesn’t always make sense to hold onto them after they have served their purpose. (Like keeping babies warm.) It’s hard to think about how things that have been made with love do not hold the same emotional attachment to the recipient.

However, since you seem to be aware of the value of good yarn, maybe you could buy the occasional garment to unravel and reknit into something brand new.

This is an excellent dilemma and I may turn it into a blog post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.



Allison November 7, 2011 at 9:35 am


That’s a great idea to reuse the yarn. I tend to buy hand knit items when they are in excellent condition and will work for my boys or for a friend’s/family member’s child – I have a hard time leaving them in the store!

I knit baby blankets for all the babies in my life and I’m amazed at how many parents don’t seem to get that a blanket takes hours and hours of work, not to mention the expense of the yarn. Plus, a child never really outgrows it – they can use it as a lap blanket when they get too big for naps. Yet, often if they see a blanket at a big box store they will think nothing of spending big money on a mass-produced item for their child in order to have a name brand on the label. It is seriously puzzling! I’d love to see a blog post on this subject – you always write such thought-provoking pieces.



Becky November 7, 2011 at 9:36 am

Re those cheap handknits: though it sometimes makes me sad too, as a knitter and sewer I find GW to be a treasure trove of materials. Handknit items can be unraveled, lightly steam the yarn and you are good to go. I have this fabulous sewing book written in the early 1940’s that has a chapter on repurposing. Specifically they talk about ripping apart men’s clothes and using the panels to make smaller clothes such as children’s coats or women’s suits. This was a eureka moment for me. There is no shortage of extra-large clothing at GW to work with and good fabric otherwise can be very expensive. JoAnn’s typically has huge pattern sales on holidays (down to $1-$5 for a $20 pattern!). A free catalog from Anthropologie gives me all the ideas I can handle. Sewing can still be frugal and I haven’t had to shop at a big box store in years – heaven!


Elspeth @ paper armour November 7, 2011 at 9:26 am

I’m so glad you brought this up! The global slave trade is larger than it has been at any other point in history, and because of global trade it’s INCREDIBLY hard for any company, no matter how good their intentions, to ensure that their clothing is slave-free. (let alone all the other parameters of ethical sourcing, such as the way the fabric was processed, etc.)

I’ve been trying to buy only thrifted clothing because that’s an easy way I can make sure that my money isn’t going into the pockets of slave traders. There are companies that are making efforts though, and “free2work” is the best place I’ve found that rates companies on their labor ethics. (incomplete, yes. compared to all the other resources out there, most comprehensive.)


Geri November 7, 2011 at 9:54 am

I always struggle with the moral dilemma of buying better from the US or cheaper through WalMart. I also wonder whether the person making WalMart’s cheap clothing in China is making the same amount of money as the person making the $100+ sweater for Ralph Lauren in China (or is he keeping the rest!) I’m surrounded here in SC by Belks and outlets, which are both overpriced for the quality. Luckily, we also have GW, and lots of thrift and/or consignment shops, so I’m going to give those a try. My main comment about the mall is that while I sat watching people coming in and out of these stores, I noticed that most people looked sloppily dressed as they came out with bags and bags of stuff… thought was, where are they wearing this stuff cause they weren’t wearing it to the mall!


emmer November 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm

so many good comments. what can i add here…
it offends me to see the prices at good will because i know the regional gw ceo makes a cool half million per year!
i used to live in the high desert in eastern calif. the little town there had a safeway, a kmart, and a tiny little jc penneys which collected most of the dollars in town. the farmers market had 4 vendors. we grew a tiny garden, bought at the local bakery and market, book and utensil shopped at the 3 thrift stores, and sewed as many of our own clothes and linens as possible.
now that i live near portland, i am in heaven. walk, bike, train to anything i want. but i still shop at thrifts, esp ones that support a fine cause. my fav example is second edition, a high end resale that supports the cedar mill community library. and library book sales there are the best!


Jeanine November 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm

I can’t honestly say that Avenut, Lane Bryant, or Torrid are “big box”stores, but for all intents and purposes, we’ll go with that.

Yes, I do shop those places, because I am plus sized and..oddly porportioned to be frank.

I buy only classic items, and they carry a hefty price. The thing is, I rarely have to buy the same thing twice. Earlier this year I accidently burned a pair of black dress pants from LB that I had had for 10 years.

Thanks to your blog, and Kristen’s I now shop thrift stores and find a decent amount clothing for me (more overweight people?) and TONS for my girls.


Lisa@Granola Catholic November 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm

We absolutely love our local Goodwill. Most of the clothes there happen to be nwot – (new without tags). These clothes are donated directly from the stores, but sometimes we find great vintage finds, like the Pendleton Suit my daughter found, vintage with tags still on it. Houndstooth Check to boot which is in again this year. I am trying to teach my daughters, as my mother taught me to recognize quality and buy brands but buy styles and classics. I think my oldest has it figured out, because when we go to the thrift store she has an eye for the designer brands. Most brands are the same price at our favorite thrift store. My younger daughter is still going after certain brands, but at least it she is only spending $2 on a shirt instead of $20.


Cheryl November 8, 2011 at 3:25 am

While this may seem obvious, I think the key is to thrifting is to shop the richer areas. My local GW has a Walmart-quality selection, but a ride to the one in the wealthy area is always highly rewarding. The hospital thrift shops in the wealthy area are a treasure trove of designer clothing. For my kids, Plato’s closet and Kid to kid consignment stores satisfy the fashion conscious.

On another note, has anyone else noticed the increased traffic at thrift shops in general? They used to be nearly empty except weekends and they are now busy all week!


Cleo Smathers November 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I’d say I buy a good 80% of my clothing secondhand from thrift stores or from boutiques in town. To be more accurate, it’s probably 60/20/20 thrift stores/boutique/online. It’s hard to commit to go 100% thrift just because sometimes you need something more formal, and in my experience, that’s something secondhand stores don’t do well. But yes, Katy, to answer your question, I shy away from them almost completely (probably go to Target once a month for sheets or kitchenware or things like that). I don’t like feeling like every city in America looks the same…


J. Smith November 8, 2011 at 12:55 pm

You know I don’t prefer those type of stores because quite frankly the clothes are cheap for a reason. They don’t last. My style aesthetic is very classic (my philosophy “never trendy? Never out of style”) I would much rather have one well made cashmere v-neck than 15 cheap copy cats from the Gap. Sure I might be spending $150 on one item but if I wear that item for 10-15 years and it is still perfectly ‘classic’ isn’t that better than me having purchased 10 $35 sweaters? Not only is it really cheaper in the long run, but the item is of better quality, I thus wear it more, and if we’re going for the whole “non-consumer” angle I’m certainly buying less! I enjoy embracing any trends through jewelry or other accessories, many of which can be had for a song at thrift stores — and the “vintage” vibe is so “in”!


Kate November 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm

You never know what you’ll find at thrift stores and consignment stores. That’s half the fun/frustration!

You could kick this desire for small-label goods up a notch and organize a clothing swap “aka Naked Lady Party” at your home, too. Some of my best and most unique wardrobe staples came from a clothing swap. Who knows where the item started?


Susan November 11, 2011 at 10:09 am

New cardigan, Katy!

You know, I hate clothes shopping because I hate the same old, cheap, mass produced crap that is poorly made at someone’s expense. I’m trying to make my own clothes but its going slowly. I shop at small local shops nearby rarely with things that are not well, just like everyone else. I would rather spend the money on lunch out with my son…hence the tired old wardrobe.


Katy November 11, 2011 at 10:43 am

I figure that my life would be no better if I dressed to the nines or wore makeup and did my hair. Seriously, no different trajectory than the one that got me where I am right now.



Ren November 13, 2011 at 7:30 am

You realize Goodwill is a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities find employment, right? Your outrage about paying 7.99 for a donated sweater is kind of insulting. After paying their bills and employees, all money goes towards their mission. Remember that next time you purchase your clothing there.


Katie November 13, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Fan-friggin-tastic find! It looks perfect on you!


imelda November 15, 2011 at 9:18 pm

It’s such a strange concept to me – personally, I dress *in order* to look like everyone else. I don’t understand the concept of “style” if it’s separated from what people around you are wearing.

I live in Japan now, and I dress rather differently than I did in NYC. More lace, colors, bows, etc. If you’re not having fun with the unique styles that surround you, what’s the point?

Not that I object to thrift-shop shopping. It’s just that this argument goes totally over my head.


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