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Do You Really Shop There? By grace wang and cate weiser

Photography by Grace Wang

Helen Dean stares at the empty sky above her. She is wearing a cardigan that she altered to fit her style. “When I wear something that’s unique and something I made, then everything about me just screams me,” Dean said.

Helen Dean reflects on her experiences of shopping at thrift stores out of necessity and how the current "trendiness" of thrifting has impacted her.

“Helen, do you like this?” echoed through the aisles of The Salvation Army. Huron High School junior Helen Dean was shopping with her mom—a once-treasured tradition that now filled her with anxiety. Comments from her middle school peers rattled through her mind: “Thrift stores smell like mold;” “They’re so dirty;” “I would never step foot in there.”

Dean and her mother had shopped together throughout her childhood. From living in California to Colorado to Ann Arbor, it became their bonding time. In between her mother’s long hours at work, those hours they spent thrifting allowed them to strengthen their relationship.

“Clothes helped me understand my mom more, and they helped her understand me,” Dean said. “Thrift stores gave me an outlet to get those clothes that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Thrift stores were where Dean could forget about the stressful parts of life, even if it was only for 30 minutes.

Photography by Grace Wang: Helen Dean looks off into the distance. She sat in the outdoors by her apartment in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In 2008, Dean and her family were hit by the recession—hard. They left their home in California, forcing them to bounce around to homes of family and friends before settling down in Colorado. However, her new home came with new challenges.

“In the area [that] I was living in, people are focused on surviving,” Dean said. “They’re not focused on trying to be happy — they’re focused on trying to stay alive.”

Like those in her neighborhood, the clothes she wore were the least of her worries. She barely knew how she would get to school the next day.

Photography by Cate Weiser: Helen Dean poses against a brick wall. Her thrifted tank top is tied in the back to fit the way she wants it to.

In 2009, a call from her dad brought her and her family from Colorado to an apartment in Ann Arbor.

“Coming here, I had such a hard time adjusting to this new mindset: shoot for the stars and [the importance of] education,” Dean said. “These people didn’t have to think about the price of their clothes. I would go to the thrift store [and] the dollar store, but [Ann Arbor] people would go to Target and the mall.”

The big dreams and go-getter attitude of this new city were foreign to Dean. But as she grew up, her desire to fit in grew stronger.

At Clague Middle School, that feeling was exacerbated by the comments her peers would make. They would tell Dean her clothes were cute and ask where they were from but would revert back to insults after they found out the clothes were from a thrift store. Dean believes that the bullies equated old and secondhand things with being dirty.

“I didn’t think [thrifting] was bad before people started reacting badly to it,” Dean said.

Over time, the disparaging comments drove Dean to resent her situation. It pushed her away from thrifting, and she began shopping at stores like Forever21. Dean also began to lash out at her friends and family. The then-12-year-old couldn’t identify where the new behaviors were coming from until recently.

In the spring of 2019, Dean was in the midst of a severe depressive episode. She begged her mom to take her on a trip to California; she believed it held the key to pull her out of her depression. While she was there, Dean took an extrospective look at why her middle school bullies treated her the way that they did.

She realized that those insulting her didn’t understand the weight of their words. Her experiences throughout childhood had forced Dean to mature at a young age — an experience her peers were exempted from. At the time, they were too young to understand why Dean had to thrift in the first place; too young to understand her traumatic past; too young to know to ask.

Throughout her whole life, Dean had to worry about if she would have food on the table and how she was going to keep herself clean. There was no room to worry about where her clothes came from.

Her peers had the time and money to shop where they pleased, and Dean believes it’s why they treated her the way they did; they were simply naive.

She came to the conclusion that if she let other peoples’ words dictate what she chose to wear and do, she would end up hating everything around her. 15-year-old Dean slowly started to fall back in love with thrift shopping. The low prices and content creators, like Enya Umanzor (also known as Enjajaja), helped give her the final push back into thrift stores.

Umanzor had always served as a style inspiration for Dean. In several of her YouTube videos, Umanzor shopped at thrift stores and declared that they were a cool and good place to shop. Watching Umanzor say those things so confidently made Dean self-assured in her choice to return to shopping at thrift stores.

To Dean, thrifting has always made her feel like she has endless clothing options without having to worry about money.

"I always feel like Barbie in her Dream House closet," Dean said.

“I always feel like Barbie in her Dream House closet,” Dean said. “She could look around her huge closet and pick anything, and she loved it all. Going to the thrift store feels like that. I can look around at this big place full of things that I love, and I can go [crazy]. It’s every little girl’s dream, really. Someone gives you a thousand dollars and then sets you free in your favorite store and tells you to spend whatever you want. I don’t have to think about the price. Everything there is there for me to afford.”

Dean’s dream closet consists of pieces that help her express herself. Intense intention fuels her search through the aisles, and every shirt, pair of pants and jacket she picks out has a purpose.

“Clothes should be valued by their durability and how useful they are versus [buying] brand [names],” Dean said. “That’s how I pick my clothes out. I pick the cutest, most useful thing.”

As winter came around this year, she realized she had to pick up some new clothes to keep her warm. A new pair of thick, low-waisted, corduroy, bell-bottom pants from The Salvation Army became her go-to.

However, when the perfect piece comes along, but something about it just doesn’t fit right, Dean reworks it to make it her own. She often alters her clothing by tying knots and using shoelaces to make them tighter; she also uses dollar store sewing kits to hand sew any necessary alterations.

“The dollar store has these great sewing kits that have five needles in a pack and like 20 different types of thread [with] all different types of colors,” Dean said. “So, I whip out my dollar store sewing kit, do some triangle things on the sides of the waistband to make it fit a little better, and then I’ve got pants that fit perfectly.”

Her favorite adaptation was the combination of two pairs of too-big jean shorts into a mini skirt. She patched the two types of denim into a checkered skirt, all hand-sewn.

Photography by Grace Wang ABOVE LEFT: Helen Dean wears a hand-sewn skirt while standing against a brick building. Using two denim pieces from the thrift store Dean made the perfect skirt for herself. BELOW LEFT: Helen Dean shows off her shoelace belt. This was another way she altered her thrifted clothing. Photography by Cate Weiser RIGHT: Helen Dean sits on a stool in nature. Dean is glad that she has regained her love of thrifting because it allows her to find the best clothes for her.

Reworking her clothes to be what she wants eased some stress in Dean’s day-to-day life. When she knows that she’s wearing clothes that fit both her and her personality, it removes any anxieties she has about how she looks. She loves using patterns and designs to decorate one-of-a-kind pieces.

“I think of fashion like I’m decorating myself, so why wouldn’t I want to decorate everything on me?” Dean said.

Dean finds comfort in the convenience of the thrift store. In Ann Arbor, there’s always one close enough to walk or bus to, and in Colorado, there was one just down the road.

Thrifting has been an essential part of Dean’s life since before she can remember. When she watches wealthy peers thrift as a trend, and not out of necessity, it hurts.

The romanticization of essential services for low-income families through social media makes Dean angry and upset.

“Seeing people thrift just to post and be trendy is hard to watch,” Dean said. “It’s upsetting because some people don’t thrift to be cool. A lot of people thrift out of necessity. When people go to the thrift store, even though they don’t really need stuff from the thrift store, I’m like, ‘Please don’t do that.’ It means so much to me, and it means so much to a lot of people.”

When those wealthy peers are the same ones who bullied Dean for thrifting, it hits her even harder. However, their hypocrisy and lack of empathy gave her room to accept the reasons behind their unawareness.

“Being low income is hard; it’s hard for people that aren’t low income to understand,” Dean said. “The best way I can [explain] it is to think about every single problem you have right now, but then imagine how hard it would be to deal with those if you also weren’t sleeping or eating. But I think working to understand people makes everything hurt a little less. I want people to realize that thrifting is not gross — it’s a necessity for some people.”