Thrift or Grift?

Design by Alexa Druyanoff

“Do you wanna try it on?” my friend William asks with a proud smile. William requested not to be identified by name, so I’ve referred to him here by a pseudonym. He’s already unbuttoning his newest thrift find from around his neck. I watch, concerned, as he struggles to do this. Its large wooden buttons are difficult to undo because of just how old they are. The material is olive green and tarp-like, rough against the skin. It drapes heavily from his shoulders down to his knees and forms an asymmetrical cape of sorts. It smells faintly of… old wood? Basement carpet? Basement carpet. 

“I’m good, thanks.” William and I try to figure out where and how he could possibly make practical use of his new garb. Altogether, it looks like a Robin Hood costume or maybe one of those heavy duty Balenciaga parkas. Our best idea is a raincoat. What it really is is a British army uniform from World War Two, which he bought at a vintage store during his summer program in London for 60 pounds. Is this really what Macklemore was talking about?

The allure of having a one-of-a-kind or difficult-to-find piece in your personal wardrobe seems to take the place of cost-efficiency or charity as the reason to thrift at Yale. This isn’t particularly surprising. Many Yalies can easily afford to shop first-hand and, frankly, the way Yale students thrift is hardly cheap. Sure, that baby tee from Savers was five dollars, but the Uber ride there was twenty! It’s also worth noting that the term “thrifting” has evolved over time into something that includes estate sales and high-end vintage or consignment stores. I even recall complimenting my friend on her skirt and having her respond, “I thrifted it at TJMaxx.” It seems it’s more important that you can call your clothes “thrifted” than that you can call them a bargain. 

Once, my roommate Ciara, ES ’25, considered skipping class and taking the Metro-North to buy a thirty dollar shirt she found at a second-hand shop in Manhattan. She had seen it that weekend but the store-owner hadn’t technically put it “on the rack” and so it wasn’t yet for sale. She was distraught at the thought of someone else getting to it first. After all, the shirt was just so her. The cut of it, the black lace, the way the fabric moved… Ciara was in love. Thankfully, she was able to contact someone she knew in the city who purchased the shirt and brought it to her. Ciara and the shirt were reunited at last, and they lived happily ever after.

When we thrift, it’s usually in a store where there’s only one available version of any piece. This does wonders to fuel our (arguably already pretty strong) all-American individuality complexes. Yale students are certainly familiar with the pressure to appear non-conformist and unique. Social media pushes people to build a personal brand whether they are trying to or not, and it primes them to understand their peers in this way as well. People clarify who they’re talking about with the person’s Instagram handle sooner than their last name. There’s a pressure to have a special and distinct “vibe” and to maintain it. With TikTok accelerating trend cycles and BeReal encouraging a pseudo-authenticity, it’s easy to see how habitually thrifting unique pieces can become an easy way to craft and sustain a progressively more unique style in the digital age. 

Unfortunately, this lends itself to certain ethical dilemmas. Routinely buying clothes you don’t need for the sake of keeping up with faster and faster moving trends can result in over-consumption. While this is true, it’s still the case that shopping for microtrends second-hand is probably better than using fast fashion retailers, whose labor practices are often shady at best, not to mention their environmental impact. Similarly, resellers and their customers on sites like Depop contribute to the gentrification of thrift stores. Users notoriously charge steep or unreasonable prices because they can cling to some niche aesthetic category as a marketing strategy. The Cyber Fairy Punk Acid Pixies will pay anything for a Cyber Fairy Punk Acid Pixie cropped tank! Some worry these higher prices might make certain clothes unaffordable to those who need them most, which is precisely the problem thrift stores are meant to address. However, the majority of donated clothes still end up in landfills, so we’re probably not running out any time soon. Plus, we could definitely stand to give more of those clothes a second life. Ultimately, thrifting discourages fast fashion, it saves donations from the landfill, and it often results in a greater appreciation for the clothes you own—Acid Pixie or WWII-core. To that end, thrift on!

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