Menswear Thrifting: a Smart, Ethical Way to Shop

My menswear journey is much more recent than most people. I caught on to the #menswear pretty late and soon realized my tiny wardrobe was not going to leave me satisfied.

There’s nothing wrong with being a minimalist (in fact, I am jealous of those who are able to keep essentials only), but I knew that it wasn’t for me. Instead of buying fast fashion for the easy way out, I decided to build my wardrobe by buying through eBay and thrift stores. A lot of menswear guys don’t like the idea of buying old or second hand, but I still think it’s one of the best ways to fill out a wardrobe. Whether you’re a newbie who wants to dip his toes into high rise or a seasoned guy looking for something new, the thrift store always delivers.

IT’S EASIER TO FIND GOOD QUALITY ITEMS AT A THRIFT STORE THAN AT THE MALL

Firstly, there’s the aspect of vintage. I briefly talked about it on in my brief guide on thrifting, but the fact remains that a large part of clothing made in the 1960s and earlier were made with much more quality than most stuff made today.  Jackets (unless they were completely unstructured) contained canvassing and fabrics were almost always made of natural fibers like wool and cotton. Obviously, there are some designs that are more “dated” than others, but I’m certain that many posters on Styleforum will be able to judge a classic garment from one that looks too vintage. Stuff like ivy style sack-jackets from the 1960s-1970s are extremely versatile in classic menswear no matter the style and can be found pretty easily in thrift stores or eBay. Trousers are probably the best bet, as most stuff pre-1990 will have a high rise and/or pleats. Just make sure your finds don’t contain synthetics!

While it can be possible to thrift contemporary pieces from big name brands, it’s also important to remember that there were also small tailors that made some great garments. For example, not all of my sack jackets are old Brooks Brothers; it appears that local California haberdasheries caught on to the ivy trend and made their own suits and sportcoats. This even extends on to the early iterations of modern designers, as I’ve seen old J. Crew, Banana Republic, and GAP pieces that had pretty classic designs, made of decent fabrics. This doesn’t’ just apply to suiting and jackets; long collar OCBDs and even classic foulard ties can be found at Goodwill, all lacking that desired brand name. In any case, I always think it’s worth it to actually try on any garment that has a great design rather than just hunt for a label.

THRIFTING AS A WAY TO EXPERIMENT WITH YOUR STYLE

One other aspect of thrifting that I’ve really enjoyed is that it lets you experiment with different styles in an affordable way. I distinctly remember coming across pleated trousers from Ambrosi and B&Tailor online and wishing that I could try my hand at incorporating them into my wardrobe. At the time, all I had was skinny, flat front J. Crew pants, and I wasn’t about to spend hundreds on something I wasn’t sure about. Instead, I looked through my local thrift stores and used my honed skills to find quality pleated trousers for a cheap price. I brought them to my trusted tailor, where he was able to slim them down enough to make for a classic look. My latest experiment took the form of pleated brown cords. I’ve never worn cords before, but now that I’ve had the opportunity to try, it opens myself up to experiment further.

This use of thrifting for experimentation even applies to jackets!  As Simon Crompton said, wider lapels and a 3-roll-2 stance have been “a trend” for classic menswear. While it may be easy to get these details on something from a brand like Ring Jacket or customizing them on MTM, it’s still a little aspirational for younger guys. Thankfully, most classic menswear trends aren’t anything new, and you can find these details on garments found in thrift stores or online. Like with the trousers, the money you save on the purchase price can be used to alter the garment to fit you!

Thrifting also allows you to find statement pieces for a great price.  Obviously, while everyone should have a navy blazer and grey flannels (which are pretty easy to find), I think it’s important to have a few garments that are interesting and one-of-a-kind to spice up your attire. Most old garments have fabrics and patterns that you simply can’t find anymore, especially not at the mall. It’s much easier to try out a colorful checked tweed from Goodwill rather than go straight to bespoke for something you may not wear often.

THRIFTING IS A SUSTAINABLE AND ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY CHOICE

Lastly, I think it’s important to keep the cycle going. As I move forward in my journey and career, I’ve been able to afford quality items in a “slow fashion” rather than having an exclusively thrifted wardrobe. Instead of throwing away my old clothes, I end up giving them to my friends and acquaintances who were also getting into classic menswear. The only difference is that these thrifted pieces have now been cleaned and altered from their found state so that they can be added confidently into someone’s closet. I’ve already given some of my old thrifted suits to my friends as I graduate onto different pieces, and they accept them knowing that they will one day pass them on as well.

I know that classic menswear is “slow” when compared to other sects of fashion, but we aren’t immune to the impact on the environment. Countless suits, shirts, and trousers, flood thrift stores and eBay, waiting for their new owners to save them from the landfills. You should pass on things that are damaged or really dated (1980s fashion suits, yuck) but it’s always worth looking at your local thrift store, whether you want to build your wardrobe economically or experiment with something new. Although Classic Menswear has that odd stigma against buying things that are old or pre-worn, I hope more people will start considering thrifting an acceptable avenue to take in their menswear journey.

 

An Overview of Suit Silhouettes by Era

One of the most important things that I’ve learned in my menswear journey, is that every era has a specific silhouette.  Vintage, for most people, is all encompassing, but there really is a distinct style and shape for suits that sets the 1930’s apart from the 1940’s, and the 1920’s from the 1960’s. One of the best ways to differentiate the eras is by looking at the shoulders, the lapels, and the amount of waist suppression.  


1900-1920

Early suits from the 1900s-1920s definitely carried an influence from the 1890s due to their predilection for high button stances, odd jacket wasting, and slim “high water” pants.  Jacket shoulders weren’t as padded as you would think, but it’s a combination of other details that make for this archaic look.  


The 1930’s and 40’s

Next we have the 1930’s and 1940’s, which is my favorite era.  To contrast the form-fitting nature of the early 1900s, this era gives us the quintessential classic look that emphasizes the masculine physique.  Padded shoulders, wide lapels, drape cut, waist suppression, and a moderate button stance help place the 1930’s as the golden era of menswear; pants became wider, but were still tasteful as they were mainly flat front.  The overall styling of striped shirts and foulard ties also help hammer in the classic look.  If you look at some of the illustrations and photographs, it doesn’t look too far off of what we see in the WAYWT thread today (excepting the trouser width).  The 1940’s added to the classic look by increasing shoulder padding, lowering the button stance, widened trouser legs, and added pleats  Shirts remained the same while ties became much more bold, with abstract designs and crazy colors.  

Gallery: the 1930’s

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The post-war period was a prosperous one for America,  so suits kept going with what was learned in the 1940’s.  Button stances dropped even further and padding was again increased, to emphasize broad shoulders and long torsos.  Worsted wools stepped down from the pedestal as twilled gabardines and atomic fleck suits were used for comfort and standing out, respectively.  To add to this “bold look,” ties began showing off vertical designs, which when worn with a low-buttoning jacket, visually elongate the torso.  

Gallery: the 1940’s


Gallery: the 1950’s

 


The 1960’s

suit silhouettes by decade styleforum

A 1960’s herringbone sack suit.

The 1960’s were a direct response to the bold era that preceded it.  For the “Mad Men” era you can expect slim lapels, a roomier, un-darted front, natural shoulders, and a 3-roll-2 stance.  Trousers returned to a flat front but became slimmer.  While moderate lapels came back into fashion in the mid to late 1960’s, you’ll find that slim lapels were the norm.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gallery: the 1960’s

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The 1970’s

If you look closely, you’ll see that the 70’s looked toward the 1930s and early 1940s for inspiration with jackets that featured padded/extended shoulders, an extremely slim waist, and overly wide lapels.  However, lapels from this era cut a high-sitting notch (compared to the lower ones from the preceding decades) which only emphasized the V shape figure.  Trousers remained high rise, but opted for a slim thigh and slightly wider ankle.  Crazy bell bottom suits did exist, but most suits were much more moderate.


The 1980’s and 90’s

1980’s and 1990’s decided to make changes to throwback looks, which is why it seems that they adopted the 1940s and 1950s and made them look even more oversized. Shoulder padding and wide lapels (with low notch) was brought back while the button stance got even lower, perhaps to further emphasize the excess top half. Trouser pleats returned, but having a sharp fit was never on the table; wearing trousers at your hips grew more popular while breaks began to reign supreme.  It’s almost as if the more excess fabric you had, the more stylish you were.  

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2000-2010

The mid 2000s to early 2010s fought back against the excess of the previous two decades.  Slim fit everything seems to be the name of the game, as jackets began to be tighter with slight padding in the shoulder.  To combat the elongation of previous eras, jackets began to be cut shorter with a higher button stance and slim lapels. No doubt, this was partly influenced by Thom Browne. Trousers were also cut with a higher hem as a protest against breaks.  


 

Current Suit Silhouettes

suit silhouettes by decade styleforum

A modern suit by Camoshita.

 

Today,  we are seeing a lot of the older details come back in updated, versatile ways. Jackets as a whole are returning to older designs, with wide lapels and longer length. However, it seems that soft tailoring is the current trend.  Drake’s is a good example, as they have made ivy style 3-roll-2 jackets that are completely unstructured/unlined that work for a variety of situations.  

Trousers have widened up, and some even feature pleats after a decade of being a sort of sartorial pariah.  This style of relaxed yet elegant suiting has defined classic menswear in recent years and is one of the reasons why brands like Eidos and Ring Jacket have become popular.  

 

 

 

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I hope this overview of suit and jacket silhouette helps you learn more about vintage style and how to incorporate them into your wardrobe!  

You can keep up with Ethan’s thrifting and vintage adventures on his Instagram (@ethanmwong) or on his blog Street x Sprezza.

 

 

Beginner’s Guide to Thrifting Menswear

Ethan Wong has already shared his love of thrifting menswear with our community. In this piece, he details how he chooses the pieces worth saving, and lays out a guide for thrifting that any men’s clothing hobbyist can follow.

We created a downloadable PDF guide with a checklist that you can consult whenever you’re out shopping for thrifted goods.


It’s no surprise to anyone that I can’t afford to always buy bespoke or MTM clothing, considering how much I love menswear. Instead of buying cheap knockoffs from fast fashion retailers, I almost exclusively buy thrifted and vintage pieces for my wardrobe. With a good eye and some education, I’ve found that it’s a great way to acquire quality garments for an extremely affordable price. Here’s some a brief guide that I live by when I go thrifting.

  • Check your local thrift stores

    • You never know what you’re going to find!
    • Wealthier places may have better pieces (contemporary, designer/brand), but they may already be popular with other pickers.
    • Not all thrift stores operate on donations; some receive general shipments of clothing.
  • Stay cognizant of promotions and holiday deals

    • Some stores have rotating promotions around certain colored tags or item categories.
    • There’s almost always sales during holidays that can apply to clothing!
  • Put your education to Use

    • The amount of stuff you see at a thrift store can be overwhelming; use the “touch test” and run your fingers through the racks. If something feels familiar (wool, flannel, tweed, cotton), it’s worth inspecting!
    • Your knowledge of brands and manufacturing can come in handy. A Purple Label RL suit will be much different than a Lauren by RL one.
  • Check interior labels and tags

    • Fabric labels will let you know if there is a semblance of synthetics (ie; polyester) within the garment, as well as any other blends. I typically go for 100% wools.
    • If you’re in America, union tags will be present on anything made pre 1980s. Different union tags correspond to different years, so this can be helpful when encountering vintage suits and sportcoats!
    • Font can play a difference. “Artsy” labels are usually earlier while stiff, corporate ones usually denote the 1960s-1970s era.

 

  • Consider the design and cut of the piece

    • Shoulder padding varied throughout eras and especially from designer to designer. Make sure that the jacket you get has the right amount for you, because that is something you cannot fix later.
    • Vintage and quality made garments usually have half-lining or less; most mass produced stuff post 1970s will be fully lined.
    • Always look at button stance and configuration. If the last button on the suit is below the pocket line, the overall buttoning point will be too low and results in an extremely dated look.
    • Trousers with a long fly (11in or more) will usually mean that they feature a high rise.

 

  • Focus on Unique Pieces, not Workhorse Stuff

    • Keep an eye out for cool details like patch pockets or belted-back jackets!
    • You can always find a quality navy suit at any store, so try to find pieces with great patterns like herringbone or houndstooth since they’re pretty common in thrift stores.
  • Be Aware of What You Can and Can’t Tailor

    • Make sure the shoulders fit!
    • Inspect the garment carefully for extra fabric allowance.
    • Sleeves and chest can always be taken in, but letting them out/down depends on how much fabric is available.
    • You can shorten a jacket by less than 2”; anything more will ruin the balance and proportion of the garment.
    • Trousers are the easiest to alter, provided that you take in the waist and taper the leg. Like jackets, making them bigger depends on the fabric allowance.
    • Tailoring will always cost more than the purchase price, but it can be worth it to make something wearable!

thrifting menswear thrifted menswear guide to thrifting styleforum

  • If you like it, buy it; if you don’t, pass on it.

    • Buy it when you can, since someone may take it when you put it down!
    • They add new things everyday, so you can always come back if nothing catches your eye.
    • Normal wear and tear is expected with thrifted pieces, but pass on anything with holes or major non-seam rips.

This is typically how I approach thrifting. It takes some time to get used to, but it’s really fun if you have the education, eye for detail, and a great tailor. It’s how I’ve gotten great stuff like a 1960’s olive green ivy jacket, the infamous 3PC brown chalk-stripe suit, or even a Camoshita suit. Whether you want to build a wardrobe or find some statement pieces to experiment with, it’s always worth it to check out your local thrift store from time to time!


You can keep up with Ethan’s thrifting and vintage adventures on his Instagram (@ethanmwong) or on his blog Street x Sprezza.