Save money, refresh wardrobes with clothing swaps

Save money, refresh wardrobes with clothing swaps.
(Annemarie/ For the Times)

In better days, diamonds may have been a girl’s best friend. But in such dark economic times, it’s friends that are a girl’s best friend -- especially if you can raid their closets.

Clothing swaps are growing in popularity, and for good reason. The events, where people donate clothes they no longer wear and walk away with items they never even knew they wanted, provide a shopping high without the buyer’s remorse, a wardrobe refresher without the plastic. In an era when people with money aren’t spending it, and people who don’t have much are hoarding it, clothing swaps are a cost-free cure for clothing lust, which, despite the ever-declining economy, is a difficult sin to swear off, even if most of us have more than enough to wear.

The typical woman uses 20% of her clothes 80% of the time, according to Suzanne Agasi, a clothing swapper who advocates giving up some of the stuff we rarely, if ever, wear at public and private meet-ups. Agasi lives in San Francisco and is such a seasoned swapper that she has an entire website devoted to the idea ( She’s even trademarked the term “clothing swap,” which seems appropriate since Agasi has run about 170 swaps in the last 14 years. The first 12 1/2 of those years “everyone thought I was nuts,” she said. But with the economy disintegrating and “green” becoming the new black, swaps have gone mainstream.


I’d never been to a swap, but the concept seemed to be swirling all around -- in the media and among friends, one of whom had chosen to spend her 40th birthday hosting one. So I thought I’d throw one of my own. There were just a few things that confused me:

If I contributed five items, did I get to take five items? What about discrepancies in body size and clothing caliber? If I’m a size 8, should I only invite other 8s? If I give up a pair of well-maintained Charles Davids and someone else brings a pair of beat-up Payless sneakers, does that matter? What do I do with the leftovers?

I reached out to Agasi for answers. Don’t do a one-for-one-exchange, she said; let women bring, and take, as much as they like. Invite women of all different sizes. Encourage them to bring accessories as well as clothes. Let the room dictate what has value, and don’t be afraid to part with the good stuff.

“The money’s been spent,” Agasi said. “If you’re not wearing it, it’s not worth anything.”

So go ahead, let someone else have at it.

Surveying my own closet for potential giveaways, I found the usual suspects in half-assembled outfits and ill-fitting, forever-shelved rarely-worns. There was the brand-new sweater waiting for the perfect (and never found) pair of skinny pants, the sexy stilettos that weren’t so sexy when my heels kept slipping out. In all, I found 12 items I was willing to part with -- enough to form the beginnings of a swap and send an Evite.

Agasi warned me that the most time-consuming aspect of hosting a clothing swap would be explaining it to people, which was mostly true. My biggest issue was allaying fears. Though my invitation drew immediate and enthusiastic RSVPs, it also drew comments and questions: “I have monstrously large feet!” “I don’t have anything decent to give away!” “Are you sure there will be other women my size?” “Do you know anyone with a big butt?”

Yes, was my answer to the last question. As a matter of fact, I know several. And most of those women decided to haul those butts over, lured, as they were, by the prospect of free apparel.

Sixteen women RSVP’d for my swap. Only 12 of them showed up, but that was more than enough. At 3 p.m., when the party was scheduled to begin, my living room floor was strewn with a scant assortment of my own random closet rejects, all arranged next to handmade signs that stated the obvious. There were a couple pairs of heels, a smattering of sweaters, a necklace, scarves, a hat -- about $500 worth of castoffs I’d bought but rarely, if ever, worn. One hour later, those signs were straining under the heaps of textile refuse my friends had hauled in via box, bag and satchel. And my friends were champing at the bit to dive in.

I walked everyone through some of Agasi’s basic guidelines: If you intend to walk home in the shoes you wore to the swap, take them off and put them in the kitchen -- a neutral, hands-off zone. Likewise for anything else you wore to the swap. If you want to keep it once you’ve taken it off to try something else on, put it in a bag with your name on it.

With that, I let my guests start pawing through the stacks. Being the hostess, I didn’t really have time to notice the precise items my friends had unloaded onto the floor. But a few friends I’d never before recognized as fashionistas had, apparently, been eyeing what my fellow cats had dragged in and immediately pounced on the more premium items.

My friend Dash lived up to her name and headed for the pair of red “pirate pants” that had been unloaded just moments earlier. My friend Ann picked up one of my old sweaters. In no time, there were the excitedly exchanged compliments and the usual middle-aged-female-body complaints -- about muffin tops, upper-arm dingle dangle and saggy boobs and bottoms. But overall, the mood was light in the “dressing room” -- i.e. my bedroom, the only room in my house with a full-length mirror.

The dressing room is where I’d directed my guests to change, and it’s where they did change -- for a while. Within a half-hour, my friends were feeling so giddy at the prospect of turning another woman’s trash into their own wardrobe treasure that they were stripping down to their skivvies in my dining room and parading around half-naked in front of uncurtained windows, giving my 60-year-old, single-male neighbor quite the show.

But they were oblivious. We were grownup women in full-on girl mode. Clothes were flying as if we were in an unmanned Anthropologie dressing room at a going-out-of-business sale. We were high on free clothes; many of us were too preoccupied to notice our children running wild with toy guns, hopped up on cookies and sugary drinks.

My swap lasted about three hours, just as Agasi predicted. It was 6 p.m. when everyone skipped out the door with their bags of new (to them) clothes, many of them wearing different outfits than they’d worn when they arrived. Personally, I scored a jacket and a couple of skirts. I adopted a couple more items when I picked up the many leftovers and packed them into bags for Goodwill.

“Be good. Be green. Be glam.” That’s Agasi’s motto, but for one glorious Saturday afternoon, I also made it my own.