Winter Wardrobe Essentials

Winter is on its way!  Like it or not, the colder weather demands some wardrobe changes.  But all those pricey sweaters, coats, and boots can leave you feeling left out in the cold.  Not to worry:  we’ll show you how to shop for great winter staples at low thrift store prices.

The Basics

If you live in a cold climate, you probably have many of these items in your closet already.  Thrift stores are a great way to expand or update your winter wardrobe – after all, wearing the same coat every day for a few months can feel a little boring sometimes, and you can never have too many cozy sweaters for those chilly days.

If you live in a warmer climate, you probably don’t need to stock up on a lot of heavy things.  Thrift stores in your town might not even have a big section of winter essentials like coats or heavy sweaters.  Winter dressing for you probably means an extra layer like a light sweater and a more subdued color palette.  However, you may need to grab a couple of these winter essentials for travelling to colder climes to visit family or hit the ski slopes (or hang out in the lodge.)  This list will also be helpful if you’ve lived in a warm climate all your life but have now moved and need to prepare for a cold winter.


I used to think coats were so expensive, until I realized that you can get great quality coats for a fraction of the price at thrift stores.  You do need to factor in the cost of dry cleaning especially for wool coats, but you probably get your coat cleaned at least once a year anyway.  Some coats can be machine washed – just check the care label.

Coats in thrift stores range from about five dollars to twenty dollars and up.  Newer coats likely go for more.  At least in my area, I seem to find a lot of really big full-length coats – if you’re petite like me, it may take a little more searching to find coats that don’t overwhelm your small frame.  Coats can be tailored, but they are tricky because of the thicker fabric and the lining.

Try on your coat with a thick sweater to make sure that even on the coldest day, you don’t feel like you’re busting out of the seams.  Even if you are into the super-fitted look, the coat should fit comfortably over at least a couple of layers.  This sounds a bit silly, but make sure you can raise your arms to a comfortable height.  I’ve found that the way some coats (or other garments like shirts) are constructed, the seams can prevent you from moving a certain way or make you feel uncomfortable when you are doing normal activities.  For example, you might be wearing your coat while you are shopping in a store, so you will want to be sure you can reach to a comfortable height.  Also make sure that if it’s something like a down coat, it’s not too “fluffy” – feeling like the Michelin man will probably make you feel uncomfortably large.

It’s not a bad idea to have a few different kinds of coats.  You will want different weights – one for chilly days, one for cold days, and one for bitter hell-might-be-a-frozen-wasteland-like-this cold days.  If one coat gets dirty, you’ll want a back-up coat while it’s at the cleaners.  If you are new to buying coats, this Dick’s Sporting Goods guide might be helpful.

I’ve been buying so many coats that I hardly have room for them in my closet!  I couldn’t help but pick up some lovely vintage coats with fur collars or designer coats in warm wool designs.  I shudder at the dry cleaning bill, but it’s still better than buying these coats brand new.


Ah, sweaters – one of the greatest things about winter.

Keep in mind the weight – you’ll want a few different kinds of sweaters to transition throughout the season.  Sometimes it feels impossible to know what to wear – if you dress too warmly, you’ll go into a store that will inevitably feel like a sauna; if you don’t dress warmly enough, you’ll shiver throughout your whole work day.  If you find that your office building is always on the chilly side, you may want to buy a sweater specifically to keep at your desk.  Or maybe you need a spare sweater for your car for those “just-in-case” scenarios.

I love cardigans – they are an easy and chic way to layer.  Grab a cardigan in several neutral colors and wear to death.  They are great for the office, weekend wear, and just chilling out at home.

Get some great pullover sweaters too – they are perfect for lazy days where all you want to curl up with a mug of hot cocoa and a good book.  I love pullovers for days when I wake up shivering because they instantly warm me up.

Look for sweaters made of quality fabric like wool, cashmere, silk blends, and natural fibers.  I am not a huge fan of synthetic fibers like acrylic or polyester, but I have a few.  Pay attention to the care label – most sweaters can be washed on a delicate cycle or by hand, even if they say dry clean only, but it’s up to your discretion.

Scarves & Hats

The wintry accessories like scarves and hats can be purchased cheaply at a big box store, but often quality accessories can also be found on the racks at your local thrift store.

Look for quality fabrics and fibers like wool.  If you’re looking for gloves, you can sometimes find quality leather gloves for cheap – lined gloves are great for winter.  It helps to practice identifying different fabrics by touch since the tags/content labels have been removed from many winter accessories.  Handmade accessories won’t have any label.  You can practice by touching sweaters and then checking your gut instincts against the label.  With a little experience, you’ll learn to identify quality fibers by touch alone.

Seeking out good winter accessories can be tricky because often thrift stores pile them all together in one big bin.  Some thrift stores display them on a big rack, but even then it can be overwhelming.  The key here is simply just patience.  Dig through that big box and you may find a gem.

I found a beautiful, warm wool DKNY plaid scarf in a big unsorted bin at Mission Mart two years ago for only $1.  I found a vintage Italian-made fur hat for only $2.50 in a basket full of hats just last month, along with a Carhart knit/fleece beanie for the same price.

Do wash hats well, or have them dry-cleaned – with headgear, there is always a potential for lice so just be aware.


Boots are tough to find at thrift stores because of their expense and sizing, but do check consignment stores in your area which may have a wider selection.  Often you can find snow boots and fashion boots throughout the winter season.  It can be tricky to find a comfortable boot in your size at a secondhand store, but it never hurts to look.

If you are going to splurge on one winter essential, I say go for boots.  Boots are big this season, and they are a perpetual cold-weather fashion staple.  Just pick a high-quality boot in a classic silhouette and color so you can get your full money’s worth.

That’s it!

What are your favorite winter essentials?

4 Responses to “Winter Wardrobe Essentials”
  1. Cardigans are an absolute favorite of mine! They can even turn a summery dress winter weather appropriate. I have been hunting my local Goodwill lately for cardigans with some color to brighten up my winter closet.

  2. Megan Green says:

    You know me – all about the hats! But I appreciated your thoughts about gloves and learning to identify fabric by touch. That’s really helpful especially for thrift stores. Also, “hell-might-be-a-frozen-wasteland-like-this” made me laugh out loud! I feel that way some days!

    • natfee says:

      Thanks for reading, Megan! I *do* know your love for hats – I thought of you as I wrote about this trend! The weather’s been so warm this year already, so at least the hellish-frozen-wasteland has been delayed a bit this year. 🙂

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