The Joy Of Swapping (Clothes, That Is)

So Much More Than Just Free Clothes

Recently I hosted my first clothing swap. It’s pretty nuts considering that I loved the first one I attended a few years back, how I cycle out unworn, ill-fitting or worn-out clothing from my closets on a regular basis, HOW I AM A PROFESSIONAL CLOTHING AND CLOSET ORGANIZER AND STYLIST. And yet…

As usual, the arrival of fall meant I identified about ten pieces to recycle while doing my seasonal closet shift. Rather than simply deposit that one grocery bag straight to charity, I invited twenty female friends for a Saturday evening at my house with the promise of wine and nibbles, in addition to the swap. I suggested they use the week to set aside whatever they weren’t loving in their closets, for any reason. Ten ladies accepted, and about half were strangers to one another, being from different parts of my life.

I picked up two inexpensive full-length mirrors for the living room, and a simple spread of cheese, crudité and drink. In they came, some guests fearless and excited, some more sheepishly with what they were sure was not ‘good enough’ to share. After all, it was clothing they did not want. Wine was sipped and treats enjoyed, and chatting with acquaintances new and familiar got under way. Before long, and with only a little encouragement, the ladies poked into the piles not (yet) belonging to them.

Have you ever experienced a Loehmann’s (the infamous discount clothier) dressing room? It is a true cross-section of women young and old, from all walks of life, with a shared love of clothing and the strong desire for deeply discounted fashion. Women strip down to undergarments in an open room, with zero regard for modesty. It’s a joyous free-for-all, as was our swap. Before long, something special unfolds.

You find a pile that suits your size, and better yet, each pile comes with a built-in expert; everyone is a knowledgeable salesperson on the topic of their own clothes. ‘Oh yes, I loved to wear that with a long skirt, oh I got that at a far-flung flea market, oh how about we cut this long swatch of fabric into scarves for everyone right now?’ (Yes, this actually happened, and I’m pretty sure it grants us official #squad status.)

Kind but honest feedback flows freely as to why a certain item works for you, often better than it ever did for the previous owner. Once there is no actual cost attached to an item, the freedom to try, be adventurous, and truly hear compliments/critiques without the pressure of a salesperson (whose agenda is always somewhat suspect) emerges. If you are a high-end shopper, it is a welcome change. If you are a Target shopper, you enjoy the ‘dressing room’ company of ladies with nothing to gain but the pleasure of seeing orphan clothing get a second life, and a fellow clotheshorse look and feel great. I tell you this happens even if they had their eye on it themselves!

There is a palpable ‘retail therapy’ effect on everyone, but even better because there is zero monetary guilt. If someone is unsure of a piece, if it seems a bit daring for her, or she isn’t sure it will get great use within its season, we simply agree to bring it to the next swap. There is the joy of unburdening oneself of ‘stuff’, compounded by the excitement of the new owner. It assuages the guilt we carry for the expensive/gift/not-exactly-your-style/no longer wearable/nostalgic pieces we all have stuffed in our closets. Even if you walk away with nothing new, the thrill of seeing something that’s been weighing on you do good elsewhere is a categorical win in my book.

When I tell you that all but one swapper left with a healthy grocery, if not garbage, bag FULL of new pieces, that they enjoyed the healing and celebratory feeling of having spent a night out with new and old girlfriends, that they reveled in the victory of FREE clothing that felt miraculously more like ‘them’, and that they were relieved that I would donate the remaining five bags of unwanted clothing to charity, I am not exaggerating in the slightest.

As I have basked in the afterglow of the feedback from those who attended and my excitement around my own ‘new’ outfits, my eyes have been opened to the seemingly new pervasiveness of swap culture. Designer label Ace & Jig is encouraging its customers to host/attend swaps of their clothing to benefit the environment and build community (even giving hosts a gift card as enticement). I’ve learned about the micro-neighborhood swap economies in the Pacific Northwest. Aging Baby Boomers are downsizing and their children are disinterested in keeping their belongings, a generational change not as pervasively seen to date. I’ve wondered if the purported Millennial disinterest in shopping and acquiring stuff (and the so-called ‘retail apocalypse’) is a factor. The increased transparency around environmental issues related to clothing manufacturing and the often hideous conditions of global garment workers…it all seems to be colliding.

I remain jazzed about the concept of the swap, and invite you all to host your own. Join forces with ladies of all sizes and tastes, entice them with a ‘girl’s night in’ of fun that every wallet can afford, encourage them to participate as a gift to themselves (even if it only streamlines their closet, though it is likely to be do so much more). Be part of the movement to reduce, reuse and recycle clothing for the betterment of the environment. Most of all, feel the special ‘high’ that comes from time well-spent between women. Really, what could be better than that?