How Thrifting In Ohio Got Me Through College
my life in vintage clothing
I grew up in Manhattan, one of the fashion capitals of the world, but believe it or not, the best shopping I’ve ever done happened in Ohio, where I went to college.
New York is great for a million and a half reasons, but one thing we lack is good thrift shops. Of course, there are tons of well-curated (and thus very marked-up) vintage clothes for sale at boutiques, but the beauty of going to school in Ohio was that I could walk into a warehouse-sized thrift shop and find the most wonderful and weird pieces of clothing—things I couldn’t even imagine I wanted. There was the additional bonus that any given piece was seldom over $10, and in fact, most were below $5.
I didn’t have the easiest time at school, struggling with depression and a host of substance abuse issues in a toxic social climate, but I treasured the time I spent at those thrift shops. Getting away from the stress and drama of campus and having fun playing dress up was the best escape.
I like Midwestern thrift shops. The way they’re organized and priced is a great equalizer. You can find an '80s Calvin Klein peacoat next to a beat up Old Navy jacket from 2003, and they both cost $8. Going to the stores is tiring and fun—picking through a mess of trash to find the weirdest treasures. Ahead are the things I dug out of the piles, and how they got me through that rough period of time.
I am a huge proponent of onesies. I own about a dozen of them and I’m always looking for more. For the better part of my freshman year of school, I searched thrift shops high and low for the right onesie, and on my 19th birthday, at a thrift shop called Unique on the outskirts of Cleveland, I found this gem.
I was driven there by Sam*, the boy I spent the better part of my sophomore year obsessing over (at the time I called it “love”). I remember he convinced me to cut class to go to Unique and get sushi. “It’s your birthday, we have to do something!” he said to me.
I always knew Sam and I couldn’t be together for too many reasons to list here, but I remember how ecstatic I felt, spending my birthday one-on-one with him, like we had our own special bond.
On our drive back to campus, the freeway was empty and pitch black. “Wanna see how fast this car can go?” Sam asked.
My recently 19 self: “Sure!” Speeding down the freeway, dangerously, at 120mph, felt exhilarating.
As I soon as I found this massively large T-shirt that read “Santa’s out. Wanna sit on my lap?” I knew great things would come of it. I envisioned exactly how I’d wear it: tight black bike shorts underneath with big platforms.
I began wearing this pretty regularly at the beginning of my junior year of college. When I arrived back at school that year, I was doing worse than ever. I had spent my summer in New York diligently spending all my savings on drugs, alcohol, and other party-related costs like cabs. My college friends weren’t too keen on this self-destructive behavior, so I came back to school feeling alone and friendless.
I could barely get it together to set up my room, never mind do any of my school work or socialize. But I remember one warm day, throwing on that T-shirt with some extra high platforms, putting on some dark violet lipstick, and strutting across campus. For that tiny little moment, I felt like things might be okay.
I also managed to buy less silly, more wearable pieces during my time in Ohio. This $2 white turtleneck is surely one of my most excellent purchases, considering how tough it can be to find a good turtleneck. I bought this right before I graduated college, when it was sticky and hot in Ohio.
That September, I traveled in Europe, starting my trip in Scandinavia where it was finally cold enough to display it. Arriving in Stockholm, I felt painfully lonely. I had had a wonderful summer in New York and even though I had this thrilling trip planned I wasn’t feeling very excited for it at all.
The day after I got to Stockholm, I posted this picture on Facebook and Instagram. I was having one of those moments where I felt like my ensemble was “killing it,” but I was alone in Europe. I had no one to share it with IRL. It was a little moment, but posting that picture, having my friends like and comment on it, made me feel better.
Upon posting, a guy who I made out with years prior sent me a “Hey how are you?” message and I chuckled to myself, “Well I still got it.”
I bought this vintage Calvin Klein peacoat for $10. I’ll give you a moment to recover from feeling jealous. Something about the vibe of the coat reminded me of my role model, Joan Didion.
I began wearing this coat the winter after I graduated, right when I got home from Europe. I’m not the most elegant person. My fashion philosophy revolves around comfort—I can’t tell you how grateful I am that sweatpants are “in”—and I’m okay with that. But occasionally I like to class it up, to feel important, and when I put on this coat I feel like a young Joan Didion and that’s the best damn feeling in the world.
I wore this coat the night I met up with a guy who I was having an on-again, off-again relationship with. We were supposed to have a talk. Since he was a bit older I wanted to look as sophisticated as possible. I understand the naiveté of that sentence: a young woman goes to meet up with her older lover, and thinks that her outfit will make her seem more sophisticated. But the coat wasn’t for him; it was for me. It made me feel more sophisticated and confident.
Despite the complexity and the drama of our relationship, the night I saw him, wearing the coat, was completely lovely.
If you see a sweatshirt that reads “I’M A REPTILE TRAPPED IN A HUMAN BODY” for under $10, you have a moral obligation to buy it and treasure it forever, right?
Now, I’ve always been a silly person. I’ve always loved gag shirts like this. (To put this in context, this is the shirt I’m wearing as I write this very article.)
Still, this sweatshirt sat in my closet, unworn, for years. Because I didn’t have the courage to wear it. That’s right: I was afraid to wear a sweatshirt that asserted that I am a reptile who is trapped in a human body.
I was afraid to wear this sweatshirt because I never felt quite comfortable being myself when I was in college. The social scene was, well, tense. There was a lot of weight on being effortlessly cool. If you put yourself out there too much (i.e. exuded any sort of earnestness or vulnerability) you were deemed “desperate.”
I lived in fear of being “desperate” in college and by god, was I desperate. Desperate for social affirmation, desperate for boys, but mostly desperate for security. I ended up putting myself out there quite a bit, and feeling subsequently very embarrassed.
I finally debuted this sweatshirt at brunch the other Sunday with some new friends I’ve made since graduating a year and a half ago. I put it on excitedly, with a smile on my face. I felt the anticipation to show my new crew—people who like me for who I am. Needless to say, it was received warmly.
I hope this is just the beginning of this sweatshirt’s story, and that it stays in my life for a very long time.