The first thing one notices upon entering a Goodwill thrift store is the smell.  It’s been variously described as “a funky, musty odor” and “a smell of decay.”  Research (yes, there’s actually been research) has shown that the bouquet is mostly derived from body “soils,” which is a gentle way of saying skin, sweat, and oils that we humans leave behind on our clothing.  It is an aroma that lingers in the air of any vintage, consignment or used clothing store, no matter how high- or low-end. Every Goodwill store smells exactly this way.

Although some may find it unpleasant, that characteristic smell never fails to elicit in me an eager anticipation of the shopping adventure that lies ahead.  I’m like a kid entering a candy store or hunting for Easter eggs, but in this case, it’s a huge treasure chest brimming with an enormous assortment of women’s clothing and accessories, just waiting to be discovered.

I always shop at Goodwill in guy mode, and my initial forays were filled with intense trepidation.  I waited until other shoppers moved away before looking at the women’s clothes and made sure no one was watching before sneaking into a dressing room.  I convinced myself that the person running the checkout would either frown with disapproval or tell me to have a good day with a knowing, condescending smirk.

Over time, I have learned to let go of the anxiety, because the truth is that no one cares.  I’ve never been confronted or, as far as I know, even received a second look.  Goodwill patrons, like people everywhere, are occupied with their own business.  Way too self-absorbed to notice, let alone care about, the man entering the fitting room holding four dresses, a pair of 5-inch heels, and a frilly nightie or two.

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The Goodwill display racks are always crammed beyond capacity.  Garments must be pushed apart, often forcibly, to examine any one of them properly.  Adding to the challenge, the hangers are made of clear, break-resistant plastic, with notches on the shoulders that are highly efficient at ensnaring several dresses simultaneously.  Extreme patience is needed to untangle the resulting chaotic fusion of straps and sleeves.  On more than one occasion, I’ve reluctantly parted ways with a promising dress after repeated failed attempts to free it from an ugly snarl.

I always shop on Wednesdays to take advantage of the 25% discount given to those age 55 and over.  My standard routine involves an initial pass through the shoe aisles in search of the ever-elusive lady’s size 12.  Although these quests frequently prove fruitless, I’ve gotten to the point where I can reliably gauge the size of a pair of women’s shoes by sight alone, reducing the amount of time that would otherwise be spent hunting for the faded, microscopic label stamped in some random location inside just one of the shoes in a pair.  As an aside, I often wonder if the shoes I end up purchasing had been donated by a fellow CD who has recently purged.

After scanning the shoes, I make a quick pass through the “intimates” aisle, with its usual assortment of slips, camisoles, nighties and pajamas.  While the idea of wearing second-hand lingerie may be a turn-off for some, I take great pride in my most memorable $5 purchase: a brand-new, off-white, satin bustier by Elomi costing upwards of $70 if purchased online or at a specialty shop.  Major score.

Finally, I arrive at the rows of dresses.  Every major (and minor) brand is represented, and the variety of styles is endless.  LBDs are so ubiquitous that I must force myself not to buy one on every visit.  I shop by size first, looking for either a 14, 16 or plain old size L.  I’ve learned that unless a dress has some stretch, it’s likely not going to fit, not matter how much I struggle to pull it down past my broad male shoulders.

En Femme Style

This need for some stretch was driven home one afternoon when my head and upper torso became trapped inside a dress that refused to budge another centimeter in any direction.  As I struggled to free myself from this homemade straitjacket, my oxygen-starved brain began filling with panicked thoughts of paramedics dragging my prone, unconscious body out from under the locked dressing room door, clad only in my boxer shorts and the murderous dress, still wrapped tightly around my head.

Allow me to pause for a moment now, dear reader, as I invite you to join me in giving silent thanks to Joseph Shivers, the chemist who in 1958 invented the polymer which has since become known and loved throughout the world as the miracle fabric called Spandex.

Because the Goodwill stores that I frequent do not provide size tags on the outside of the dresses, it’s necessary to look at the labels inside which, like those in women’s shoes, can be impossible to find and even more difficult to read.  Goodwill newbies are advised not to expect much help from sales people, because they don’t exist here.  It is necessary, therefore, to devote a great deal of time to physically handling the merchandise.  Yes, this is a downside of the Goodwill shopping experience, but what do you expect at these prices?

In addition to their characteristic smell, all Goodwill stores apparently share the exact same soundtrack of about 20 songs, playing in an endless, continuous loop. It’s an eclectic mix of upbeat tunes spanning the decades from ‘60s through the ‘90s. To younger folks, most of the songs are probably unfamiliar oldies, but the playlist sure does manage to hit the sweet spot for me and no doubt many of my fellow Baby Boomers.

Exceptional Voice

I might find myself trying on a pencil skirt accompanied by Wilson Pickett’s 1965 hit “Midnight Hour,” eyeing a cute pink belt while quietly singing along to The Bangles’ 1986 release “Manic Monday,” pausing in the swimsuit aisle to puzzle about the line “the Dolphins make me cry” in Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1994 song “Only Wanna Be With You,” or swaying in the checkout line to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” released in 1973 by Stealers Wheel. Overall, I enjoy listening to these catchy, familiar tunes during my relatively brief shopping sojourns, but I imagine that store employees forced to listen to them day after day might not share this same happy feeling.

I buy about 90% of the items in my women’s wardrobe at Goodwill.  Over the past three years, I estimate that I have purchased and worn well over 300 dresses, skirts and tops, at prices ranging from $5 to $7 apiece.  With the exception of those precious size 12 shoes and a small handful of all-time favorite dresses, I don’t hold on to the clothes, but instead donate them back to Goodwill after wearing them once or twice.

Some might think this foolish or wasteful, but it fits my style of dressing, which consists solely of private photo shoots at home.  Because I have no desire to go out, there’s really no further need for the clothes once I’ve captured the photos.  Not to mention that I don’t have the space to store them all.

I’m aware that I’m just one among millions of fellow CDs, past and present, who frequent thrift stores by choice or necessity.  My hope is that those who dislike the idea of wearing second-hand clothes might consider giving it a try.  For one thing, it’s a form of recycling that’s good for the environment, as the manufacture of new clothing has been classified as the second largest source of pollution in the world.  Patronizing stores like Goodwill or the Salvation Army also supports their mission to provide job training for disadvantaged individuals.  And finally, of course, there’s the bargain prices.

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Beyond altruism and frugality, however, what I most enjoy is reflecting on the women who once owned the clothes that I bring home.  When and where did she wear this dress? Why did she decide to part with it? I like to imagine that the garments are somehow imbued with a small piece of each woman’s spirit, some lingering female essence that serves to enhance my own embrace of femininity, as I strive to bring each article of clothing back to life once again.

I’m lucky to live in a large city that is home to over 50 Goodwill stores, as well as countless other thrift and consignment shops, offering plenty of opportunity for carefree, anonymous shopping.  Those living in rural areas or smaller towns probably do not have the same opportunity, as there are likely to be fewer stores and a greater need to keep one’s shopping habits secret.

Given my ready access to so many emporiums of second-hand fashion, I am always proud to tell others that I buy almost all of my clothes at Goodwill.  As part of my boasting routine, I usually add the quip, “sometimes I even buy men’s clothes.”  Amid the laughter that follows, I can’t help but smile and think to myself: if they only knew!

Some questions to stimulate thought and discussion:

·         Do you also enjoy shopping at second-hand stores?

·         What adventures or encounters have you experienced?

·         Are there any memorable items or irresistible bargains you’d like to tell others about?

I’d like to thank you girls so much for taking the time to read my article and feel free to send in either a response to my article or one or more of my posed questions to you above!

Love you girls!

Sincerely, Mona

En Femme Style


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Jenni Thomas
2 years ago

That’s quite a review of Goodwill! I do love shopping there too. I’ve found some amazing and classic styled skirts and blouses there. Also, I have found several awesome skinny jeans that fit perfectly. As far as the smell goes, I thought that it was old perfume or the sanitizer that they use. Definitely need to wash or dry clean before I wear them.

Well done, Mona!

Cheers, Jenni!

patty williams
Active Member
2 years ago

HI Mona I buy most of my cloths at goodwill also and your description fits my experience to a tee.
You described my experiences perfectly.
I live near louisville Ky and frequent the stores in that area regularly in drab mode.

I have been stuck in an item of clothing a few times but most times my wife will bail me

Thank you for such a great article.
huggs Patty

Jin Crocker
Active Member
2 years ago

I always find that as soon as I own up to shopping for myself, I cease being a pervert and become a customer. I always get tips from sales help and other shoppers, I often get compliments on my selections. I go to the skirts and dresses first, then the shorts, then the shoes. Then I browse through the books, crafts, and china (we have several patterns that we are collecting)
I think most of the musty smell comes from books that have been stored improperly before being donated.

Deborah Sullivan
Trusted Member
2 years ago

I have long been a Goodwill girl myself and think you described the situation very well. Good prices and an enormous selection with no one caring.Everyone here has bought something they love and brag about in these stores and an easy venue for cd shoppers to feel comfy in. I found two great corsets in the past but generally dont buy underwear or shoes there but go for it. You can easily shop even in male mode by taking several dresses or tops into the dressing booth and no one knows what youre trying on.Also somethings like bridal or prom… Read more »

Active Member
2 years ago

What a great article Mona! Really enjoyed it and can so relate. Who doesn’t love to discover a treasure for $7.

Falecia McGuire
Active Member
2 years ago

I think your summary and analysis of thrift stores in general is pretty accurate. There are a couple of things I might add: 1.) The smell is frequently not carried by individual garments, Many who donate these items wash or clean them before donating. Some almost new items smell of expensive perfume. 2.) Many items are brand new, never worn, and high quality. 3.) Lots of things are overpriced & can be purchased for less at TJ Max, Marshall’s, Nordstrom’s Rack, or Ross! Seasonal turnover can be phenomenal! 4.) I don’t buy shoes from thrift stores because there are so… Read more »

Alicen Thairms
Active Member
2 years ago

I usually do a weekly shopping run at local charity shops (doing the rounds of about 10 shops).

I shop in man-mode, I have no problems with being served or other customers; although once I had one older lady who served me and obviously was not approving – I decided to be polite and not get ruffled by her attitude.

Finding items in my size (UK 24) is a bit hit and miss – but generally I pick up a couple of things every other week or so. Always enjoyable hunting for a bargain 🙂

Jessica Pink
2 years ago

Love shopping at Goodwill. Hard to beat pricing anywhere else. It is very addictive.

Jessica Pink
2 years ago
Reply to  Mona

You are right about that Mona 🙂

Peggy Sue Williams
Noble Member
2 years ago

Mona, A well written article, very informative and witty. Between estate sales and Goodwill, my wife keeps the both of us well supplied with jewelry, and the both of us shop Goodwill for clothing items. Atlanta, Georgia is home to many Goodwill stores, so we make the rounds, continually. I have found getting to know the Goodwill staff and treating them with courtesy can sometimes be helpful, in the form of information, such as a pointer where to look for newly arrived items. As noted, senior discounts can save you even more. Atlanta area stores also offer military & first-responder… Read more »

Geraldine Mac
Active Member
2 years ago

Thanks Mona. Great article. I’ve gone hunting in charity shops (or op shops as they are called in Oz) since the early 90s. Its been an exciting compulsion. I’ve generally walked away with nothing because I’ve been too self-conscious. However, I’m now at the point where I’m confident enough to go en femme. They’re especially good for accessories. I remember one time in my 20s when I was bold enough to grab some knickers at an op shop, but was not brave enough to present them at the payment counter. So I went into the change room and put about… Read more »

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