Dress yourself for free: How to host a clothing swap

I spend almost nothing on clothes. According to Mint, I've spent $199.50 to clothe my family of five this year. They say the average U.S. household has spent $1258.62. That's more than six times my spending.

It's been years since I walked into a clothing store, tried on styles I liked and bought myself a new pair of jeans. That doesn't mean I'm content to dress like a slob, or wear the same tried-and-true favorites season after season. I change up my wardrobe every few months with a huge shopping spree — from my friends' closets.

The Clothing Swap

My friends and I hold clothing swaps at least once a season. We all clean out our closets of anything we don't love that's still in good condition. We get together and swap our cast-offs around. I'm a walking advertisement for the aphorism, “One person's trash is another person's treasure.”

A clothing swap is a win on several fronts, For example, it decreases clutter in your closet, and gives you a chance to freshen up your wardrobe for free.

I find the selection at a clothing swap is better than I get in most thrift stores. My friends' tastes in clothes are fairly similar to mine, so I don't have to wade through rack after rack of 1970s polyester blouses to get to the good stuff. The last swap I was at had an entire business wardrobe of designer-label stuff in my size, a lot of it still with the tags on. I also picked up half a dozen cozy, long-sleeved t-shirts and a pair of great jeans.

I feel free to experiment with my wardrobe. If something fits well but is wildly different from my usual style, I can take it home and see if I like it. If it sits at the back of my closet for six months untouched, I can just return it next time I go to a swap. No harm, no foul. With clothing swap finds, I've expanded my staple wardrobe from simple jeans and t-shirts to include a lot more adventurous skirts and dresses.

Clothing swaps are great fun. I'd much rather spend a morning hanging out with a group of friends chatting and laughing while we play dress-up than spend hours trolling a mall for the right ensemble.

I've heard these events called “naked lady parties”, but men can play this game, too. I've hosted swaps that were just for the ladies and swaps that were co-ed. Do what works for you.

Swapping is simple

Here's how to host a clothing swap:

  • Find a space. If you're hosting a small event for your friends, your living room is probably ample. If you want to make it bigger, church basements and community centers are often open to this type of thing.
  • Decide who to invite. Do you want it to be all women, or co-ed? Just your close friends, or a big group? Will your swap have a theme, like a fancy dress swap or a mother-daughter swap?
  • Make your announcement. Giving people a few weeks notice before a clothing swap is a good idea. You want to give your guests time to gather up their unwanted duds, and make sure they have open space on their calendars.
  • Set rules for what can be swapped. Decide what you want people to bring, and what should go straight in the Goodwill bin. A good first rule is that everything be clean and in good condition. You may want to prohibit donations of used underthings. Some swaps also exclude kids' clothing, athletic wear or winter gear, just because there's so much of it and the appeal is so limited.
  • Gather your supplies. You'll want a ready supply of trash bags for people to take clothes home in. Also handy: sharpie markers and masking tape for making labels. Full length mirrors are a huge bonus. You may also want to put out some light snacks and beverages, in a separate room from where the swap is happening.
  • Collect clothing. Encourage people to drop off their donations a few days in advance, so that you have time to set up and sort the loot before the event starts. This helps cut down on chaos. People will bring clothes as they arrive on the day of the swap; it's human nature to do these things at the last minute. But you can get a head start by taking things early and having piles already going when your first guests arrive.
  • Set up the swap. To help people find what they want, sort clothes into based on type. You'll want a separate heap for shirts, t-shirts, pants, sweaters, jackets, etc.
  • Donate the leftovers. When the swap is over, take the leftovers to Goodwill, Planet Aid, or the charity of your choice. It's best to have a couple of dedicated volunteers on hand to help with this. The job can be overwhelming for one person.

The best reward to hosting a clothing swap? You get first dibs on everything that comes in as you sort through the donations.

Final Thoughts

The biggest risk is bedbugs. Bedbugs are a nightmare to live with and nearly impossible to get rid of. They love to travel in clothes, but can't survive the heat of a dryer. If you're hosting a clothing swap, make a very firm rule that everything brought into the house be freshly cleaned.

Hosting a clothing swap is a great way to slash your clothing budget to almost nothing, and it's a fun way to spend time with your friends. It's also a way to live green. We don't usually think of clothes as recyclable in the same way a soda can is, but clothing makes up 5% of the municipal waste in New York City. That's a lot of clothes going into landfills.

Swapping your unwanted stuff decreases your demand for new manufactured textiles, which can be a drain on natural resources. It also helps keep more clothes out of landfills.

Got any more tips on how to host a clothing swap? Leave 'em in the comments!

For more clothing tips, also see How to Stop Buying Clothes You Never Wear and Embracing the Thrift Store Ethic: 18 Top Tips for Buying Used Clothes. Also welcome Lifehacker readers! Photo by iwona_kellie.

More about...Clothing, Frugality

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