Thrifting our way through the pandemic

Adapting and re-styling in ever-casual Madison.

Adapting and re-styling in ever-casual Madison.

Photo: Racks of clothes at St. Vinny’s thrift store on Willy Street. In the foreground hangs a yellow skirt paired with a black shirt, shoes, and bag. Photo by Holly Marley-Henschen.

To thrift is to time travel. You’re sifting through others’ pasts and possibly your own future. 

It’s now the third consecutive spring that I, like many others, have grown tired of my winter wardrobe and combed thrift-store racks for my spring and summer collections. Methodically pushing hangers creates a soothing rhythm, like flipping through records, but it’s shirts, dresses, jeans, and belts. Eyeing bags and hoping to score a decent pair of shoes. Would this be part of an outfit I’d wear to a backyard party or a concert, exuberant in the joy that we’d made it through the pandemic, that the worst was over? Last spring, as vaccines rolled out, it seemed that way. But that glorious freedom was short-lived.

Thrifting, which used to be just fun and functional, has become a therapeutic ritual over the past few years. Masking up and escaping the monotony of my apartment into bright lights, high ceilings, satellite music (for better or for worse), and people—luckily masked, but unlikely obeying the six-foot rule. Shopping is the consumer’s conspicuous salve. I applied it as liberally as my budget would allow. 

Confession: Madison has always felt overwhelmingly casual. I’m a native Midwesterner, but I moved here after three years in New York City. First, I flew in for a job interview and couldn’t bring myself to comply when the employer invited me to wear jeans. The pandemic cut out nearly all opportunities to get cute, to be perceived, and to see my friends’ fun outfits in person. Sitting around the house stunning af just does not carry the same charge. That made the few holiday and inter-variant opportunities I’ve had to be social all the more reason to dress up. And St. Vinny’s on Willy Street (blessed be its name), Goodwill at the Northside Town Center (Febreeze’s corporeal form), and Chrysalis Closet (no scents on purpose) on North Sherman Avenue had my stylish back. 

Pandemic thrifting has become a practice of wish fulfillment for me. Buying clothes for the next season to mark the time that’s passing in a new, weird way. Less social time during the pandemic has equated to more personal reflection time (at least for the childless). I’ve been growing as a person during the pandemic and wanting to adapt my style to reflect that: My fashion sense has become much brighter, gayer, and more varied. Do I still love a good black and white print? Hell yes. Though I did score a brand new pair of lime green knee highs that read SCIENCE vertically down the sides in bright yellow lettering from a Packers display at St. Vinny’s. Go team!

Last year, thrift store shoppers like me hit a rough patch. Dressing rooms at most of my main haunts were locked for COVID safety concerns. Shoppers were barred from the little magic chambers with unflattering lighting. A spot to disrobe, slip on an outfit, examine yourself in the mirror, and decide if you would be a person who wore this. To imagine yourself in the future in these clothes. Doing the things you’ve been pining for.

Trying on a new style can mean testing a truer personality as you feel the fabric’s texture and weight on your skin. Modeling as your future self in old and new relationships and environments. With a mask obscuring most of your face, you still don’t get the full effect. Much like our plans for the future. 

No matter the state of global health, thrifting is therapy. Strolling over to St. Vinny’s on a Friday evening is the perfect way to round out a week. To create that separation between work and freedom. To find an outfit to wear out that weekend. Friday afternoon vibes, maybe with some WORT-FM shows like Mel And Floyd and Who Cooks For You? in my ears before the satellite ’90s pop radio of the store. I’m still time traveling to the future where I can confidently do these things without a mask, without a care, and in an outfit that reflects not only how I’ve changed during the pandemic, but who I want to be in the aftermath. 

May it be sooner than later. Two years’ worth of thrifting is burning a hole in my closet.  

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

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