Thrift your prom! (Or any other event!)


“How much did you get your prom dress for?” people often asked me last year when prom dress season was in full swing.

“Oh, I bought it for $12.”

TWELVE DOLLARS?? Yes, I bought my purple, fit-like-a-glove prom dress for twelve dollars. How did I do it? Well it all comes down to the glorious philosophy of thrift.

There are so many great reasons to shop at thrift stores and consignment shops. The reuse of old things prevents waste caused by the retail industry, from the dying of fabrics, to the transportation of materials, to the packaging of the new goods. It keeps you from buying those silly new trends that you will look back on and regret (like Crocs…) because you are buying things that are a bit older—it’s a no-brainer to find the styles that last. It’s easier on your wallet and what you do spend typically goes to hospitals of animal shelters. Plus, you find tons of cool stuff you’d never find anywhere else. Think about how much people pay to buy vintage items—you can find the same stuff on lucky days at the local thrift for $5.

In addition to all those great thrifting bonuses, there are special benefits for beginning thrifters when looking for formalwear.
  • Everything isn’t worn-down. Most people wear an evening dress once, and then essentially can’t wear it for a very long time. This period of un-wearability turns from a few years to eternity when someone gains or loses weight, or when the wearer attends many events with the same people, or when someone simply knows that her facebook pictures will show her dress-repeating. That’s when a once worn quinceƱera dress hits the thrift store. The likelihood of your dress being worn more than a few times is very slim.
  • Whatever requires breaking in has already been broken in. No guessing about whether or not something will shrink or shift in the wash, no wondering if the neckline of a dress will loosen with all your dancing at prom—especially advantageous if you are wearing a strapless dress.
  • You will not have to worry about anyone having the same dress as you.
  • If you plan it out right, you will not end up one of those girls who has to scrounge the racks for something that will fit. You’ll have plenty of time.
  • The less money you spend on a dress the more likely your parents will let you splurge on something else. Put the money you save towards a new computer, college, matching jewelry, or maybe a limo.
So now that you know that you need to at least give this a shot, let’s look at your battle strategy.

Plan in advance. Whether you’re shopping for prom, a bat mitzvah, or another big event, it’s always best to plan in advance. If you know something is coming up, for example, your sweet sixteen or your cousin’s wedding, you have tons of time to prepare. Unless you’re unsure of whether you’re done growing or have serious plans to lose weight, you can probably do some good estimating. I bought last year’s prom dress in October. I was adamant about going since I helped plan mine, so I wasted no time scouting—lo and behold, an awesome find.

Make it a routine. Every so often a thrifter will come upon a gift from the reuse gods—but you can’t expect to waltz in to a thrift store and find exactly what you need. I will admit, beginner’s luck isn’t a complete myth, but statistically, going more often ups your chances of finding that perfect dress. Thrift stores work to maximize turn over. They get their abundant inventory for free so their main goal is to move things quickly to maximize profit. That means if you don’t go for a month, you’ve missed out on around four re-stockings.

Try things on. This one seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people overlook this. Whether you’re thrifting or hitting the retail sometimes a dress looks hideous until you throw it on. The shapeless ones turn out to be the ones that complement your figure the best—they needed you to give it shape. The ones with the beading you thought would be crazy turned out to look fantastic on you thanks to your skin tone. Some stuff looks absolutely ridiculous but if there’s something about it you like, it doesn’t hurt to try it on. If nothing on, they've proven that getting in and out of clothes at stores burns calories-- so maybe it's your mini workout. Don’t be afraid to venture outside of what you think is expected. Bridesmaid dresses and such can prove to be excellent homecoming or Prom dresses depending on the occasion.

Be creative. One of the great things about buying via thrift is that you don’t feel bad messing with a $10 dress as compared to the $185 version. Have you ever seen a dress you liked and said, “if only it didn’t have that bow…” this is your chance. With thrifted clothes you have license to slash off sleeves, bedazzle, un-dazzle, dye, and play with what you buy since you haven’t sold your arm for it. To see a great thrifty redesigner check out the Marissa Lynch on her blog New Dress A Day. When she lost a job, she decided on a mission: 365 new dresses (or tops) out of 365 old dresses for 365 dollars. She shows you the before, the after, and what she did in between.

Think practically. You may or may not do this the moment you fall in love with a dress, but you’ve got to think about what it is you’ll be doing. Every girl has had that major feeling of buyer’s remorse when she bought a dress that looked great on her, but the neckline shifted too much or it was too short when she sat down. “YES! I fit!” should be replaced by “okay, now, will I be able to sit in this? Eat? Dance?” There are a lot of things happening at prom, and only one of them is you looking hot. So when you try it on, try bending over, sitting, jumping, and doing a few signature dance moves. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work out. If you plan ahead and know where to look, you’ll find another one. Plus, no one will care how hot you look if you bust a panel during the Cha-Cha Slide.

Bring a friend. Preferably someone a different dress size or shape than you so that you don’t have a death match over the BCBG Grecian you’ve spotted. You guys will be able to help each other hunt for dresses and give an honest opinion. Sometimes, it just takes an outside eye to say, “Honey, you’re wasting your time with the plunging Vs,” or, “I think you’d be better in an orange than a red.” She’ll also help you with the next step.

Check for a reason. There is always a reason someone sends an item off to thrift. Many times they fall out of love with something, they out grow it, they don’t have the occasion to wear it, they move and need to downsize, or they’re just cleaning out. But sometimes you’ll find an unsuspecting hole or a mustard stain on the edge of the bust. A malfunctioning zipper or a few lost buttons—they happen. Although a handy DIYer, seamstress, or dry cleaner may be able to solve your dilemma, it might take more time and often money to fix it. Are you into that kind of commitment? If not, let it go, and on to the next.

There it is girls, your guide to finding a prom dress on the cheap and lightening your personal burden on the planet. Check out your local thrift stores, consignment stores, and online reuse venues like formalxchange and ebay. Also try trading with friends who may have something in their closet you like. Have fun and get thrifty!

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