I’d never loved that dress.
It was a short flowery number I’d bought on secondhand shopping site thredUP two years ago with a bunch of other little dresses, cover-ups and bathing suits for a trip to Jamaica. I only wore it twice — too short with a weird neck — before tossing it in the giveaway pile. And there it languished until New Year’s Day, when I was looking for something cute to wear for a family brunch and it caught my eye from the corner.
Voila! Just like an underperforming quarterback plucked from obscurity in a Disney sports movie, the dress that had never pulled its weight in my wardrobe was suddenly a star, paired with leggings, boots and a leather jacket. This started me thinking: What else was hiding in those boxes I’ve never managed to consign or donate in the back of my closet? And shouldn’t I find out before my next shopping spree, saving some money and maybe even the planet?
Which brings me to my newest personal challenge: to shop my own stuff, wearing everything in my closet at least once before any more big purchases.
We’ve long been encouraged to recycle our household plastics, glass and aluminum, but I’ve become increasingly passionate about a much more fun and colorful sort of sustainability — secondhand fashion from sites like thredUP, The RealReal and Poshmark, as well as my local Goodwill. According to EarthDay.org, 87% of the staggering 100 billion garments produced each year wind up in a landfill or incinerator, with the average “worn as few as ten times before disposal.”
I want to be the stylish change I want to see in the world, so I’m shopping from the well-curated collection within arm’s reach of my bed. Just like I did in my 2023 challenge to work through all of the cookbooks in my kitchen, I’ve established some rules for my sustainable fashion quest. I have to wear everything once. If I try something on and it doesn’t fit at that moment, it’s gotta go. Dresses and tops get worn just once before being taken out of rotation, but pants, skirts and jackets can be reused if part of a new outfit.
The only things I’m allowed to buy before the end of the year are replacements for unusable staple items, like boots whose soles just split. I can also get event-specific pieces, like the little something new I need for a fancy author event next month in Florida since my pandemic social schedule has been almost cocktail-party-free.
When I do buy new clothes, they’ll just be new to me. I’m dedicated to, whenever possible, adding only used items to my closet. I seem to be in good company.
According to thredUP’s recent “Resale Report,” the U.S. resale market is expected to reach $70 billion by 2027. I talked to some thrift store enthusiasts who said that secondhand clothing no longer has the same stigma it carried years ago. Toni Whitten of Woodlawn said that her frugal grandmother “forced us to wear thrift store clothes, and I hated them, until I had four kids, and my husband and I went to one and I fell in love.” She opened her own, Charlotte B. Closet, named after her late grandmother and thrifting inspiration.
Maria Blake, who grew up thrifting in Bladensburg, “had to buy an extra dresser” to hold her mostly thrifted bounty when she moved from Columbia to Colorado. She said that the Internet has given her creative ways to reuse all of her goodies.
“As trends change, I start to look at the things in my closet in a different way. I would think, ‘Only this top and these pants go together,’ but I have a fresher perspective on what’s in my closet,” she said. “I always wear something in a certain way, but then look and think, ‘I didn’t even think about putting those things together.’”
That’s the kind of creativity I need for this challenge. And I’d love if you’d follow along with me, drop your own advice and especially the names of your favorite local purveyors of repurposed pants and dresses. (I’ve heard great things about 2nd Avenue in Laurel and Columbia, and Uptown Cheapskate in Annapolis.)
I also want to remind myself to be honest about garments that just don’t work for my body and my life anymore, and donate them without immediately replacing them. For that I take inspiration from Whitten, who, to combat what she calls a shopping addiction, donated her entire wardrobe to the store’s stock and now only wears pieces from there. And even she needs some discipline.
“You can get really attached to clothing,” she said. “When people are purchasing things that were mine, I’ll say, ‘Are you sure you want that?’ If my husband’s there, he’ll say, ‘You have to let it go.’”
That’s a hard lesson, but releasing clothing you love into the wild means it’s free to become someone else’s favorite.