The clothes swap: recreating the self through participation and exchange

This is what middle-aged clothes shopping looks like. You finally get to the age where you once imagined that you could walk into a store and buy whatever you liked. By this age you might have a favourite label, a favourite boutique, or even your own favourite line in Target. You might be one of those people who buys only designer gear, or anything by a favoured designer or two. You imagine that you would be self-assured, and that you could easily purchase what you need or want for a price that fits your budget. And that it would be easy.

But in reality after racing through the housework, you find yourself driving over to the next suburb early one Saturday afternoon clutching a large homewares bag stuffed full of clothes that you no longer want, but hope that someone else might just think are fabulous. The cost of the exchange is minimal – nothing really – but very public, and everyone leaves happy and full of cake. How did this come to be?

Shopping for clothes is an intimate exercise. You have so much to confront: fashion, fashionistas, boutique attendants, Chain Stores (even good ones), those bright lights, styles, colours and your own very lived-in body. Like so many things in life, when you purchase clothes you’re purchasing so much more. You have to project an image of yourself in your life from inside these clothes, such as how you will look, how you might feel, how you might see yourself wearing these to different sorts of occasions, and how you will look and feel when you interact with other people while you’re wearing this. Do you see yourself throwing back your head and laughing with gay abandon as you sip on your chardonnay hoping that you cut a fine line in your new garb while chatting effortlessly with strangers/peers, co-workers/family or whoever is important to you? It’s all in the swish of the skirt, the fit of the band around the waist, the new angle that’s carved out in silhouette, that extra little bit of fabric that shrieks ‘designer’ or even the softness of the fabric as it snuggles you.

But just like shopping in stores, clothes swaps are intimate too in their own way.
You arrive late to find a bunch of women, most of whom you know or are vaguely acquainted with who have already unloaded their bags onto racks. “Dresses and coats here, skirts folded over there, tops here, jumpers and jackets over there and accessories and shoes over there” says your hostess as she greets you and takes the cake you’ve just made for the spread for afternoon tea (this is the antidote to trying on clothes). “We haven’t started yet” she assures you.

I look around and see middle aged women like myself and wonder what I’ll find if anything at all today. I don’t believe that I’m heavily invested in taking anything much home; I’m just as much here for the company and the coffee. Who am I kidding here?

“Let’s get started” says our hostess – too late as some already have armfuls and are standing in front of mirrors. “Feel free to try things on in the lounge room, the bathroom or just where you are. I’ve set up mirrors for you” she says as we start to move around the room to see what catches our eye.

I know most of the women here. This is not your anonymous snatch and grab, take a number and head for the change rooms. Oh no. Here we do the snatch and grab, but politely offer up our gear to a friend who comments on a piece that we’ve already picked up or suggests what it might go with.

In the lounge room at the front of the house someone thoughtfully shuts the shades so the workmen outside don’t freak out. About half a dozen women claim a chair, a bit of the couch or a section of floor and start to disrobe. We are all shapes and sizes and most of us are lumpy. Off go the day clothes (careful where you put them in case someone tries them on and walks away with them…) and on go the new clothes: day wear, evening wear, casual gear, yes, but all preloved and preworn and they often come with stories.

“I bought that at a sale with a co-worker. She bought one too, so I can’t wear it to work” says one woman. “I picked that up in an Op Shop in the country and wore it all Winter, but it still looks like new” says another. “I love that jacket and I remember that I bought it in the UK nearly twenty years ago” says another. “Those shoes came from the US and they’re hardly worn; they were a little bit tight around the toe but they’re gorgeous” says yet another.

“That looks great on you” is accompanied by murmurs of approval. “I tried that on too, but the colour didn’t do much for me, but it looks great on you” you hear as you pull on a dark dress with a patterned neckline thinking that it might look OK for work this Winter with your new boots. “I’m not sure if this is my colour” says another as she valiantly fishes for compliments for an ill-fitting garment and none are forthcoming, except for “it’s a bit dark for you I think…” “Can I try that on if you don’t want it” asks another? You’re more than happy to pass something along as it saves you having to cart it back and put it on the rack. Some items are destined not to be traded today though and reappear on the rack more than three times. It’s social death to take that home with you.

We re-emerge and exchange the unwanted gear for new gear and greet late arrivals with glee as they barely get their goods onto the clothes racks before they’re whisked away by half-dressed women keen to put together a new look.

And so it goes for the next hour or so until we’re all satiated and have a big bag of gear clutched to our sides. Our eyes peruse the accessories as we wonder if we can squeeze in another scarf, or whether we really want another handbag or a pair of ear-rings. By this stage women are pushing goods on each other because no one wants to leave a whole lot of things behind. The hostess will pack up what’s left and donate it to a local charity store. And so the merry exchange continues.

But before that comes the price.

In anthropology we learn that nothing is given for no reward. Everything comes at a price. Just read Marcel Mauss’s classic essay. As you’ve noticed, I’m not much one for including a whole lot of references and these essays that I post are blogs, but am happy to include references at the end for those interested. We’re reminded that the essence of a gift is always returned to the giver, an idea that has its roots in a cultural borrowing from the Pacific. There is a rich literature on economics, trade and commodities and the idea of the gift and gift giving fits in here too.

So what’s the price? As we finish and women wander off to grab a cup of tea or coffee or champagne depending on your mood, we grab a bite to eat and sit down. As the chattering rises to a crescendo, the organiser of the clothes swap then asks each of us in turn to show everyone what they’ve found today. Each woman by turn delves into her bag, partly horrified, partly embarrassed and partly triumphant from that feeling you get when you go to a sale and you know that you’ve nailed a bargain, as she pulls garments out of her bag to show us all. The garments are held up against her body as she tells us that she found this, and this and this… The crowd of women look on, taking her into their gaze as she transforms the preloved, second hand clothing and recreates it anew as she presents us with a vision of herself wearing this – something we might have actually seen in the change room so it’s very convincing – as both she and the preloved clothing are transformed from the mundane, suburban, weekend afternoon setting in which we find ourselves.

Then, as she concludes, everyone follows the lead of the organiser and applauds. We clap her success and laud her resourcefulness in finding her treasures. We clap and appreciate the reorganisation of the unloved into the loved and newly treasured. We love the way she’s going to go home with a bagful of nice, new things that fit her and that she will feel really great wearing. We adore the fact that without financial burden or cost, but with great sociality she will both unload her old wardrobe and restock it anew. We put our hands together to show her that we love what she’s chosen, often telling her that it came from one of our own wardrobes. We love her resourcefulness in refashioning herself through her new clothes. We positively validate this exercise of dressing and adorning ourselves through our applause.

But at the time, it just feels awkward and a bit embarrassing.

Our turn comes and we take centre stage and participate in this enforced ritual sharing too. We don’t mind. We come to love it as the other women validate our choices and our selves through their acclamation. As we hold our garments up, some chime in and tell us that they remember when that garment first came through a clothes swap and put dibs on it for the next time it comes through.

This certainly is an economy, and it’s embodied within a culture of sharing and is realised through the presentation of our freshly dressed selves as we embody one of the basic observations that stem from anthropological discourse that of the inevitable variation and diversity of human life.

Photo credit:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s