As she picked up a black velveteen jumpsuit and ran her finger over the heavy fabric, considering each thickly sequined, shoulder-padded blazer carefully, Katherine Nenninger ’12 did not see a discarded relic of 1980s fashion. Instead, she saw the centerpiece of what could be a potentially killer Cruella De Vil costume. Despite her status as a self-proclaimed newbie to thrift store shopping, she fit in seamlessly with her surroundings at FISH’s costume and vintage clothing sale in the Sadler Center.
Thrifting serves many students at the College of William and Mary as a more economically sound alternative to spending hard-earned cash at overpriced outlets and malls. Students find unique and often one-of-a-kind books, bags, clothes, electrical equipment and costumes.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Nenninger said, “I never knew there were actual thrift stores beyond The Salvation Army in the first place. But I got there and found interesting, vintage outfits that in this day and age could be considered costume.”
Nenninger, not a frequenter of thrift stores beyond an occasional donation of clothes to the Salvation Army, discovered the campus FISH store. She needed to find a costume for the Running Club’s costumed sprint through Williamsburg, and FISH was her solution.
Several hours into the sale, Nenninger arrived on the scene to find a picked-over selection of antique wedding gowns, sequined pant suits straight from Tammy Faye Baker’s wardrobe, and oddly misshapen hats. Around her, seasoned shoppers smirked triumphantly and carried armfuls of early grabs.
Veterans of thrift shopping acknowledge that a keen eye and quirky fashion sense only takes a shopper so far, before luck kicks in. Paige Losen ’11 is one such veteran.
“The clothes find you,” she said. “Odd trinkets and baubles appear whenever you least expect them.”
While she keeps an eye out for older clothes like lace-trimmed vintage dresses in many of the Williamsburg area stores such as the Disabled American Veterans store, Losen finds her best buys at the local Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughter, and often while looking for something else.
For Losen, often the stories behind the items she purchases hold more value than their selling price.
“I look a set of beaded curtains with pandas patterned into them, and I think to myself: wow, these pandas were in someone else’s doorway. I wonder why they’re not there anymore,” she said. “Or maybe some funky drink glasses. Somebody else drank out of these. What party were they used for, what were they? A wedding present that someone didn’t like? Why do I have them now?”
Filled with trophies of successful thrifty splurges, her quad supports various decorations in countless colors and themes. From her doorway hang curtains depicting pandas munching on branches of bamboo. Designer handbags worth 20 times their marked-down price litter the closet floor. Wineglasses of intricate glasswork tinted to psychedelic colors reminiscent of the 1960s are an especially prized thrift store treasure Losen displays with pride.
The closest thrift store in which Losen and other college thrifters may be found is the CHKD store located off of Monticello Avenue in the Williamsburg Shopping Center. The thrift store provides aid to a children’s hospital in Hampton in an effort to help families that cannot afford insurance or the cost of prescription medicine. Students comb through the rows of women’s and men’s apparel so regularly that Theresa, a cashier, has come to expect several students a day. She welcomes each sale — from a 98-cent pair of teddy bear earrings to a 45-inch TV — as an independent act of good will in support of her store’s cause.
“Sometimes taking care of sick children takes years and years, and now the less-fortunate families of these young people can stay in a hospital without paying almost anything,” Theresa said. “Each time someone buys even the littlest thing, they’re doing a good deed.”
Experienced CHKD thrifter and director of the College’s costume department Patricia Wesp knows what a campus costume sale or a successful thrift store trip can mean to the construction of a wedding dress or ball gown or even a raggedy pair of farmer’s overalls. Wesp’s costuming of last summer’s production of “Othello” performed at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall was the product of a combination of thrifting and original construction.
“Desdemona had one peignoir ensemble for what was supposed to be her wedding night,” Wesp said. “She basically comes out at the end of the ball and stands there and looks stunningly beautiful and all the guys get a hard-on and she says ‘honey, come to bed.’ The body of the nightgown was made from one wedding gown with the sleeves ripped out. Then there was a layer overtop of that which was sort of a sheer peignoir thing that came from a thrift store. Applied to the surface of that was about $350 worth of lace that we had bought in New York from three years ago to make a decorative border.”
Wesp agrees that luck is a major factor in finding good clothes and resources from thrift stores, but she also credits the store’s selectivity in what it accepts from donors.
“When I was a child, our church had a consignment shop ,and so I remember from a very tiny age waiting in line with my mother to consign things,” she said. They were very, very meticulous. Sometimes they would reject things for apparent invisible damage to the point that the snoot factor was even in evidence.”
Indeed the snoot factor prevents many from taking serious advantage of what local area thrift stores have to offer. More so than snootiness, intimidation stands in the way of what could be successful shopping experiences.
Almost everyone has a friend who thrift store-shops with the unfathomable ability to put together high-fashion outfits from pieces of clothing to which some would never give a second glance. However, many students at the College discovered that thrifting is not designed for a particular type of person and that anyone can, at any time, benefit from resources only a bus ride away. The thrift store doors are always open.