Thrift Store Chic

  • Posted on: 11 December 2019
  • By: Justin Patrick Moore

(This is the third in a series of articles on the theme of "Down Home Punk" by guest blogger Justin Patrick Moore.)

Financial distress and its attendant challenges in the coming Long Descent will cause a lot of people to scramble to meet their needs. Clothing is one of those needs. Most humans like to look good and feel good about themselves and others. Dressing smartly with the resources available is one to create a sense of control in your life. In a world with tight restrictions of income, expressing yourself in the way you dress is one way to be poor with style.

Recently on the Ecosophia blog and here on the Green Wizards website the topic of “Being poor with style” has come into discussion.

What does being poor with style mean?

To me it directly relates to the LESS equation outlined by John Michael Greer in his book Blood of the Earth where LESS stands for Less Energy Stuff and Stimulation. The word style itself has one origin in the word stylus, the tool engravers would use to render drawings and texts. So style is something a person can read or see; style is an aesthetic impression on the senses, primarily visual. In the modern western sense style almost exclusively has to do with how a person dresses and how they decorate their home. So for the Green Wizard who has adopted a “down home” approach to their work being poor with style is an appropriate response to the crisis of our time. This response brings together a personal sense of aesthetics in living that emphasizes cutting back on having a huge wardrobe, unnecessary plastic junk and clutter in the home, while having entertainment that stimulates the imagination rather than wrecking and distorting it, all while curbing energy consumption. All of these things can be done in different ways, all while still looking good and being presentable.

Though style does encompass home décor that will be looked at in a future article; here we will be looking at the world of clothing and dress.

A Green Wizard could be anyone, anywhere. The practical knowledge of systems thinking, appropriate tech skills, and the entire corpus of ecotechnic knowledge can be stored within any human vessel no matter their size, shape or exterior look. Nor does it matter what clothes are draped over the physical form in question. A bag lady shuffling down broken sidewalks with her shopping cart may contain within her a vast library of knowledge on how to survive through scavenging and skill. She is practiced in living outside the system and on the fringes of acceptable society. She knows how to get by under harsh conditions and could be a teacher to someone who has never been thrust into that situation. The woman in the smart business suit seen on the bus ride home from downtown may be going back to her own urban household where she tinkers with solar water heating systems, wood stoves, and backyard rabbit hatches, turnip patches, all while brewing beer in her bicycle garage. The welder or construction worker in his heavy Carhartt or Dickey’s clothes may have a system in place to heat his home by burning used motor oil and thereby cut their cost and reliance on the commercial energy grid. These Green Wizards may all be in different social classes but they are Green Wizards just the same.

Being a Green Wizard is determined by what a person does and knows more than how they look, or even what they may do to earn a living in the financial system, in as much as they are still a part of that system.

Yet there might be some advantages to adopting a Green Wizard dress code of sorts, of learning how to be stylish on the cheap. There is some truth in the saying “clothes make the man” –or woman—and depending on what your goals as a person and Green Wizard are, a certain way of dressing may further or inhibit the accomplishment of those goals. Aside from the practical considerations of appropriate clothing for the labors and weather of the day, there is also the matter of dressing to conform or rebel against the normative standards imposed by society.

Peak oil writer and financial collapse commentator James Howard Kunstler has been a devout critic of the standard dress of the typical American male. In particular he has criticized the slovenly look of fat men in cargo shorts wearing leftover t-shirt’s with corporate logos or something that says, “I love cornhole” or “I’m with stupid” –effectively announcing their own stupidity and making it easier for the rest of us to know they aren’t the kind of person we prefer to hang out with.

Back in 2011 James wrote, “Europe is arguably worse off money-wise, more broke, flimsier, crapped out, crippled, and paralyzed. Sad, because in outward appearance Europe is – how shall I put this? – better turned out than America. Europe is a fit, silver-haired gentleman in a sleek Italian suit and a pair of Michael Toschi swing lace wingtips, holding a serious-looking Chiarugi leather briefcase. America is pear-shaped blob of semi-formed male flesh, in ankle-length cargo shorts, a black T-shirt featuring skull motifs, tattoos randomly assigned (as if by lottery) to visible flesh, a Sluggo buzz-cut, and a low-rider sports cap designed to make your head look flat. In other words, he lacks a certain savoir-faire compared to his European cousin. But both are broke. Neither has any idea what he will do next – though, for the American, it will probably involve the ingestion of melted cheese or drugs (or both). When the European collapses, a certain air of delicacy will attend his demise; the expired American will go up in flames in a trailer and they’ll have to sort out his remains from the melted goop of his dwelling-place with a front-end loader.” []

He goes deeper into the subject on an episode of his podcast where he discusses tattoos. “He thinks the fierce looking tattoos on young Americas are actually a sign of how deeply insecure we are as a nation. They’re also a form of ‘non-conformist-just-like-you’ consumerism… hip hop costuming… has invaded the mainstream and has made young men look like oversized babies and violent clowns.” [ ]

Kunstler also took up this theme in his World Made By Hand novels where the religious group that came to his fictional town of Union Grove set up a haberdashery and homemade clothing store. American’s used to have a grand style copied by other countries all around the world. So how did we get so sloppy? How can it be that we do not care enough about how we look that we walk around in public wearing little more than undergarments? It seems certain sectors of America have adapted to being poor, but have forgotten how to do it with style.

(I also do have sympathy and understanding for those people whose choices in clothing are predicated on first having enough money to buy a meal. I also understand the modern primitive movement and how getting tattooed can help you belong to a modern tribe –or gang.)

I of course respect a person’s right to choose how to dress as they please, because in the end, it’s really none of my business. Yet in America today it seems that people have often forgot that one of the purposes of dressing in a stylish way is to please others. The way you look can be a source of delight for the people who encounter you. Founding father Benjamin Franklin said, “Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others.”

Brett McKay the editor and main author at the Art of Manliness website wrote, “There are many ways that dressing well will benefit you personally. When you look sharp, you feel better about yourself, make a great first impression, and interact with others more confidently, all of which helps you build relationships and become a more influential man. Research shows that when people perceive you as more attractive, they assume other positive qualities about you as well (the so-called ‘halo effect’), and even find you more persuasive. One’s style is also simply a chance to express one’s personality and taste.

While dressing well can thus be self-serving (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there are also more altruistic reasons to care about one’s appearance. Dressing for other people can in fact be just as, or an even more compelling, reason to do so.

The idea of dressing for others is not likely to strike the modern mind very agreeably. As we pride ourselves on believing we are individualists, who don’t care what anyone else thinks, the idea of choosing clothes with reference to other people may smack of conformity.

But when I speak of ‘dressing for others,’ I do not have in mind acquiescence to societal codes (which hardly still exist), where the end is merely fitting in. Rather, I am forwarding an idea of dressing well as a freely chosen service — a gift one willingly gives to others.”

[This applies as much to woman as men. The full article can be found here: ]

In a society undergoing the painful process of collapse, the added touches of dressing well, and doing so cheaply, could be a nice touch that uplifts the individual and the people around them, helping them to live a flourishing life even as we deal with problems, challenges and predicaments. Even for those of us on the strictest of budgets could afford to have a bit more sartorial flair. It might also be possible to spread the Green Wizard meme through what I will now call “appropriate aesthetics”.

What might appropriate aesthetics look like? I think for a start bioregional and economic considerations would come into play. Certain ways of dressing would be more suitable in some physical environments than others. The avoidance of man-made materials is also a consideration. Wearing plastic is hardly green. Maybe through the creation of an appropriate aesthetic it could also come to be seen as tacky. The style of punk rockers and hippie earth muffin types might also inform the look or at least the philosophy. Maybe not by what is worn, per se, but by where it comes from: Thrift stores, free benches, clothing swaps, etc.

70-75% of my own clothing comes from second hand sources. Shirts, sweaters and jackets are the easiest things to come by in thrift stores or as hand me downs. I’ve had less luck with jeans and pants in the right size but still do find some at the thrift store. The main things to buy new are socks, underwear and some shoes. A good pair of boots and a good pair of dress shoes could last decades if taken care of. The dress shoes may only be worn a few times a year for funerals, weddings and other special occasions such as job interviews. The boots if you get a good enough pair may be more of an investment, but can be re-soled when the time comes, and last just as long. I still have the same pair of nice leather dress shoes I bought sixteen years ago and expect them to continue to last.

Dressing from what is found at the thrift store can also be ethical. It is one way to curb participation in buying new material that was made by people in sweat shops. When you buy at the thrift store you also help to keep some folks from the lower and underprivileged classes employed. And as Green Wizards know it is also a way to save our own funds while enjoying the flows cast off by others. Then you can use some of the money you saved to buy new products that are American made or created in the local economy by a small artisan.

As the economy goes through its inevitable gasps, flits, and starts now is a good time to build a wardrobe that will last and serve your goals. So gather up the family and head on over to the local thrift shop, St. Vincent De Paul, Goodwill or other charity and see what strikes your fancy. It’s easier than you think to look good on the cheap. In doing so you might just give your own sense of well being a boost and bring some joy to others.


You'll have a much better experience at the thrift shop after you learn basic hand-mending skills. A missing button? No problem. Opened seam? Easily stitched closed. A broken zipper? You'll be able to evaluate whether or not it can be repaired; some can whereas other zippers must be replaced.

I think a lot of the sloppiness we see is BECAUSE clothing is so cheap and very few of us know how to do even the simplest repair work, such as darning a sock.

There's a fabulous book on the subject (about clothing and the decline of style over the generations) by a lawyer who wore the suit she sewed herself to argue a case in front of the Supreme Court. Yes, she won prizes for her sewing at the county fair. I can't remember her name or the name of the book!

People who don't sew don't appreciate how much time and effort goes into garment construction. When clothes cost NOTHING, they have no value at all.

Teresa from Hershey

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Every winter I think about taking some time to learn how to do a little mending, button sewing, patching. Maybe I will take it up this year. Great points. Thank you.

David Trammel's picture

I ran across "The Encyclopedia of Needlework" by Thérèse de Dillmont, first published in the late 1800s recently. Looking through it, the book offers a huge resource for people on how to mend and repair clothing and fabric goods though its dated, naturally. Needle and thread repairs mostly. Plenty of illustrations too.

I had a look at the "Encyclopedia of Needlework", because I'm interested in learning to repair and repurpose clothing. I was struck by how much time, care, and precision are required to do even the most basic of "plain stitching" at a skill level that used to be considered normal for even children. For a basic hem on a household article, the reader is advised to make stitches that are three to four threads wide and that follow a perfectly straight line, achieved by either first tacking in a colored thread as a guide along the horizontal thread of the article or by "drawing out" a horizontal thread. I've never even considered counting threads as I'm hemming something! The patching section was interesting, too, as I was able to see exactly how much of a hack job some of my previous efforts at patching were, and exactly why they didn't work. Most fascinating of all was the darning section, as the author showed multiple ways to use needle and thread to skillfully re-weave across holes in even patterned materials to a degree that the repair would be invisible. This is not even to mention the incredible ornamental embroidery styles that came later in the 500+ pages. I reflected on the intense time investment in even the most utilitarian of articles, which must have kept many poor women busy indeed, (My goodness! How long does a single buttonhole take to stitch by hand?), the specialized skill a dressmaker must have had in the pre-industrial era, the preciousness of fabric if one is prepared to hand-weave over every snag and hole, the need for good light, eyesight, and warmth for the hands to do this kind of work, the social restrictions on women's activities that made decorative needlework of breathtaking complexity one of few outlets for the energy and attention of upper-class women, the pride in their skill that people must have felt at achieving this quality of work... Thanks so much for sharing this. I'm quite inspired by it.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

I see that you are new here. Welcome to the family. Do stick around. Depending upon how you stumbled onto the site you may have missed that there is a forum for new members to introduce themselves if they wish to do so. Consider telling us a bit about yourself. The forum to do so is here:

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Thanks for stopping by & reading! It is a good look at how much reskilling we all need in this world. As Sweet Tatorman said, we all hope to see you around the forum.

David Trammel's picture

I wonder if sometime in the Future, we won't see intelligent robots don business suits to blend in?

There is a concept called "The Grey Man", which is popular among the survivalist/military community. Its the idea that you dress to blend into your environment. In a business situation you wear a suit. In a ghetto situation perhaps you wear non-descript clothing that looks run down and tatty. Predators look for things that are out of place, like the weak. Not standing out then is like camouflage.

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

Thanks for bringing this up David. I thought about including something along these lines, but hadn't heard the term before. Indeed, that tactic should be kept in mind as a type of situational awareness, especially if you know you are going to be in a certain type of environment.

I get that on the bus a lot. I have to dress nice-ish for work, but the people on the bus I take home are much more on the lower end of the wage class. Some the lowest end. And there is a homeless shelter across the street. I try to blend in to the area a bit more by wearing my army jacket over top of my button down shirt, and since I have long hair, I don't totally look like a suit.

Justin Patrick Moore's picture

On the subject of clothing, here is an article on how those who work in a "business casual" environment could upgrade their resilience and earnings in the workplace by wearing a tie. I think a woman could look at this article and think of an equivalent for female dressing. What is interesting in this example is how the author was kept in the workplace through a lay off because he looked sharp and because of his "professionalism" -even when lacking in years of experience compared to his peers.

"Just over a year ago, I started an engineering job at a local company where typical daily dress is a collared shirt and slacks. While scouting for something to wear on a random day in the first few weeks, I noticed a large number of ties in my closet. My wife and I had recently moved and made an ardent effort in packing and unpacking these clothing articles, so I decided to make these efforts worthwhile by knotting one on my neck for the day and determining to wear one the rest of the week. Around the office that week, I received the typical, sarcasm-laced questions of “When’s the interview?” and “Why are you dressed like that?” numerous times.

The next week, I was running late on Monday and decided to skip the tie in favor of regaining a few much-needed minutes. A peculiar situation occurred later in the day when the president of the company, whom I rarely interacted with, poked his head into my humble cube and asked where my tie was. I was floored and unable to answer, but his question made me ponder my wardrobe decisions. I had worn a tie for a single week and, as a result, the head of the company was keenly aware of my presence and appearance."

I remember John T. Molloy's 'Dress for Success' books quite well. The fashion industry hated him because he encouraged businesswomen to wear a similar uniform to businessmen: a properly fitted suit with a few accessories.

The horror! Yet a woman wearing a stylish, well-cut suit always looks good. Look at those fabulous suits actresses wore in 40's and 50's movies.

So many people dress like they're cleaning out their garage at all times. Cleaning up does take some effort but you look so much better. It's perfectly possible to dress well and not look slutty, too. I look over my fashion magazines and think, 'right, I'll walk around without a bra or a shirt and leave my jacket open to the waist.'

As if.

Teresa from Hershey