History of the Clothing Swap


I was recently asked by a budding radio journalist about the history of Clothing Swaps. She was particularly interested in how different generations have perceived trading clothes and if it were something that had been going on for a long time. I did some research that I found rather interesting and thought I would share with you. Clothing Swaps as they are known today (where groups of women pay a fee to get together with other women and exchange clothing) have been around longer than you might think. They recently came to the attention of the masses after a 2006 article in the New York Times profiling Suzanne Agasi. However, this was far from the beginning. (Though Suzanne claims that when she began doing them in 1996, no one had heard of them).The clothing swap as we know it today began in the early 1980s, and continued through the 1990s. The 1980s swap was in response to the increase in consumer culture and also to the women’s movement. As more women moved into the workforce, they began to need office appropriate attire.

“Can’t bear to open your closet door one more time and face that tired, lackluster, out-of-date wardrobe? Outraged by high department store prices for new clothes? Bored by traditional resale shop selections? Wondering what to do with last season’s sequined knickers or Aunt Millie’s best-forgotten feather boa gift? Don’t despair. Relief is on the way. The name of the game: the Great Clothing Swap.” (Washington Post, 1982).

In 2003 San Franciscans were throwing Swaps for their friends, and by 2006, costly luxury swapping parties (with admission fees) were becoming increasingly popular. Swapping has become an international trend (popular in both the UK and Australia). Even more recently, Lindsay Lohan has become the spokesperson of Visa Swap where by you donate clothes to earn points (to buy new clothes).(Lindsay Lohan in swapped clothes)lindsay_lohan_cleavage_visa_bigpreview.jpg

Earlier in the 20th Century, Clothing Swaps began to be reported in the popular press in response to the war time restrictions of World War II, along with the ‘make do and mend’ campaign. Initially geared towards children’s clothes (especially twins), they eventually expanded to provide used clothing for adults. These swaps were usually organized by schools or charitable organizations and were especially popular in the UK. These were specially orchestrated to keep swappers anonymous (to protect peoples identities and the embarrassing situation of needing to swap clothes).

“Today, this novel scheme has been expanded as a war conservation measure, into a full-fledged neighborhood clothing exchange. It’s a plan the people of any community might well adopt to the benefit of themselves and their country. Sales are held every Monday afternoon now, for adult as well as children’s wear, under the supervision of women volunteers from the school’s parent-teacher association. . . .To counteract any hand-me-down stigma, things are kept on a strictly impersonal basis. . . . The garments are entered in a record book and the owner is given a number. On each article is placed a tag bearing the price, fixed by the owner, the size and the owner’s number. The owner’s identity is of course, buried in this process. The garments are displayed on racks. When an article is sold, the tag is removed, put in an envelope with the money, and the owner’s name written on the outside. He collects at leisure.” (Saturday Evening Post, 1943)

The trend again appeared briefly in the 1960s. (Of course this is just 20th Century history, and the 2nd hand clothing trade goes very far back in the history of fashion – I might post on that later). That’s the basic history, but it brings up some interesting points. Such as why are they so popular now? When and why has the stigma of wearing and buying used clothing dissipated? In my conversation with the journalist we talked about how the ‘greening’ of the economy has infiltrated everything, and how swapping is yet another ‘earth friendly’ way of getting new clothes (and also plays well into liberal guilt). We also discussed how the overproduction of goods allows for this type of recycling to occur, and how the clothing swap plays into counter culture (particularly in the Bay Area with Critical Mass as well as with the DIY movement, vintage fashion, and anti-consumerism).The Sex and the City movie even came up as an example of the ultimate in label-hording and escapism (similar to the fantasy films of the 1930s used to help viewers escape from the depression). When one considers the history of consumerism and over-consumption, it could be argued that swapping may lead to a reversal of the consumerist trend.(The Ladies at Mercedes-Benz Fashion week for no reason – aside from product placement)sex_and_the_city02_ci.jpg

My feeling is though, that the economic recession has more of an impact on this trend than any other social or cultural element. As the recession’s impact is felt further up into the middle and upper middle class, innovative bargain hunting will continue to flourish in new and innovative ways.This topic has so many facets to it, that I may continue to research it for a while and present it elsewhere. I will let you know when the radio program will air.

Until Next Time,



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  • clothes swapping May 19, 2009 03.18 am

    A great post. I love the idea of clothes being recycled with the Rag and Bone man. I suppose the modern day equivalent is the colections of sacks of clothes by charities.

  • Brigitte May 30, 2009 03.37 pm

    I was doing some research for the clothing swaps that I have been running for seven years in SE Michigan. I enjoyed reading about the history of swaps. I did not know about any of this when I started the clothing swaps in my area. We started with children’s clothes and then expanded to women’s and men’s clothing.

  • Monica Sklar June 01, 2009 09.26 pm

    Brigitte–I’d love to hear more about your research from SE Michigan as that’s where I’m from as well.

  • Green Wardrobe August 19, 2009 06.53 am

    one man’s garbage is another’s treasure… hope swaps were more common in all regions.

    I still use internet for it.

  • joanna February 01, 2010 05.09 pm

    really interesting post.
    i am currently writing my undergraduate disertation on clothes swapping, if anybody knows any relevant material on the subject i would love to hear from you!


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