In a world that champions consumption, and in a fashion industry that thrives on overproduction, we need to find ways to wear and love the clothes that already exist, more than ever before. Clothing swaps allow us to do just that.
I remember the first clothing swap I ever attended as if it was yesterday. I couldn’t believe that I had found a way to add new-to-me clothes — which were all filled with stories — to my wardrobe without having to buy anything new. And, it was entirely free.
My first encounter at a clothing swap was an early reminder that slow fashion doesn’t have to be expensive or inaccessible, and there are so many different ways to be a part of this movement. Ever since then, I have firmly believed that clothing swaps are a vital part of the future of fashion.
What are Clothing Swaps?
In its simplest form, a clothing swap is a gathering of people who get together to exchange clothing that they no longer wear for something from someone else’s wardrobe.
Clothing swaps are a form of circular fashion because they allow us to extend the lifespans of clothing that is already in circulation.
They are a way of working with what we already have while satisfying our desire for novelty.
Why we should all try to swap before we shop
Swapping allows us to understand fashion as something much more than financial exchanges, which makes it a powerful substitute to our current capitalist fashion system.
Each season in life comes with different changes. Whether it be size fluctuations or an evolving sense of personal style, swaps allow you to add garments to your wardrobe that suit your current life season, while avoiding having to engage with the endless consumption cycles of the fashion industry.
It’s usually very cost affordable too – some swaps are free and others charge a small entry or maintenance fee. This makes swapping a financially inclusive way for people to participate in slow fashion.
Plus, if you are swapping more and shopping less, it allows you to save up and invest in a slow fashion brand that you truly believe in.
It is also a way to responsibly rehome clothing that you no longer wear. When we donate clothing, only a small percentage of it gets resold and the rest often becomes a part of the unjust global trade in secondhand clothes – making our waste the burden of those living in countries in the Global South. But when it comes to swaps, the clothing you no longer wear will more often than not find a new home with someone else.
Beyond the clothes, clothing swaps are beautiful spaces for community building, because you get to connect with like-minded people in the slow fashion community.
If you want to hear more about why clothing swaps are such an important part of the future of fashion, check out this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast with Nicole Robertson of Swap Society.
Tips for Attending a Clothing Swap
If you’ve ever been curious about attending a clothing swap, my advice is to just do it! Here are a few tips that I have found helpful when attending clothing swaps:
1. Make sure the garments you bring are in good condition.
If you wouldn’t feel comfortable gifting it to a friend, then you probably shouldn’t be bringing it to a swap shop. Be mindful about what you bring. Swap shops are not just a place to discard clothing items that are beyond wear. So, don’t bring items that are dirty or damaged.
2. Be patient.
People are continuously arriving and bringing new items, so you may have to wait a little while till you spot something you love. Take your time, spark a conversation with a fellow swapper, and allow yourself to relax into the feeling of community and slow fashion joy!
3. Make peace with letting go.
You may not walk away with as many items as you brought to the swap. Instead of feeling frustrated that you are walking away with less than you arrived with, allow yourself to feel excited that the clothing you no longer wear has found a new home and that you have a new piece or two to incorporate into your wardrobe – sounds like a win to me!
4. Be a thoughtful swapper
Make sure you ask yourself a few intentional questions, such as: When you are swapping, apply all the usual questions of a conscious consumer: Does this go with the other items in my wardrobe? Is it my size? How many wears do I think I’ll get out of it?
What If I Can’t Find a Clothing Swap Near Me?
One of the downsides of in-person swap shops is that they are limited to the community that can access them. Luckily, technology is progressing and online clothing swaps are becoming increasingly popular. Here are a few online swapping platforms for you to check out:
- Nuw (United Kingdom)
- Swopped (United Kingdom)
- Swap Society (United States)
- The Fashion Pulpit (Singapore)
Another option, if there are no swaps near you, is to try organizing one of your own!
Tips for Organizing a Clothing Swap of Your Own
There are no rules when it comes to hosting clothing swaps – you can let your creative, slow fashion juices run free. But, if you need a little bit of guidance, here are a few tips:
1. Decide on what type of swap you want to host.
There are various kinds of clothing swaps you could host. Think about who you’d want to invite. Are you limiting it to friends and family? Is it going to be open to the public? Also, consider if you’d like there to be a specific theme to the swap – is it a swap for plus-sized people? Or perhaps seasonal clothing? The options are endless, but it’s a good idea to decide on the purpose behind the swap so that people that join in know what to expect.
2. Find a location.
Depending on the type of swap you are hosting, there are many different places you could consider. If it’s an intimate swap for family and friends, hosting it at your house would be a perfect option. If it’s going to be open to the public, look into public spaces, such as parks, community halls, religious spaces, or university campuses. If you are hosting it in a public space, it would be a good idea to check if you need permission to host an event. Another idea may be to partner with a local business – such as an artisan space or café – with a similar ethos. This could be a win-win because it brings them foot traffic and allows you to host it in a public space.
3. Decide on the rules of your swap.
This is all about the finer details. Think about how many items people are allowed to bring, and what kind of items they should be. You should also consider whether you are going to charge an entry fee. The more affordable it is to participate in, the more inclusive and accessible the space becomes. But, you could consider charging a small entry fee and donating it to a charitable organization. If you do choose to do this, get in contact with the organization beforehand and make sure you communicate this with the attendees too.
4. Find a place to advertise it.
Now it’s time to let the world know! This also depends on the type of swap you are hosting, but you could consider making a poster to be shared on social media, posting in your neighborhood WhatsApp group, dropping off flyers at local businesses, or getting in touch with a local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group. Whatever avenue you choose, make sure you announce the swap a few weeks in advance, so that people can save the date.
5. Organize your swapping system.
The swapping system is basically how you are going to manage the exchanging of clothes in a fair and organized way. One of the easiest ways to do this is to hand out buttons, in exchange for the clothing people bring, which is used as a kind of swapping currency – one button per item of clothing. Once they have browsed around and found something they like, they can “pay” with one of the buttons.
6. Set up your space.
At the very least, you will need rails or tables to display the clothing on and a place that people can try clothes on. It may also be useful to include a mirror so that people can see what they look like in the clothes. It’s also useful to have some volunteers as extra help to sort, hang up, and pack up.
7. Personalize the event.
This is optional, but there are various ways you can personalize your event. Think about setting up a mending station, so that people can also bring clothes that they want to mend. Or, consider printing educational posters, with facts about the fashion industry, to put up around the space.
8. Figure out a plan for leftover clothes.
Invariably, at the end of the swap, there will be clothes leftover and to avoid these going to waste, you should have a plan for what to do with them. You could consider keeping them for the next swap you host or getting in touch with a local organization or textile recycler that may have a use for the clothes.
If you want a more extensive guide on how to host a clothing swap, check out this guide by Fashion Revolution.
The Limits of Clothing Swaps
While clothing swaps do make slow fashion more financially and socially inclusive, they still have their limits.
Based on research conducted at a clothing swap event, The Ecologist found that not everybody who brought clothing to the swap went home with something new. This indicates that sizing, style, and taste do affect the experience you will have at a swap shop.
They also noticed that there were very few men who participated, meaning that they were unable to return home with something. In general, men tend to wear their clothes longer and are less trend-focused, so there is not much incentive for swapping.
Similarly, plus-sized people may find it more difficult to participate in clothing swaps, because the fashion industry caters to straight-sized people. So, when they find clothing that fits them, they tend to hang onto it for longer.
Personal style also plays a role. If you are open to experimenting, clothing swaps are great for trying out new styles. But, if you have a very specific style and only wear certain colors and silhouettes, it may be trickier to find something you love at a clothing swap that is open to the public.
While it is difficult to find an entirely inclusive solution, perhaps hosting clothing swaps that are focussed on specific groups that cater to underrepresented clothing types – such as menswear and plus-sized clothing – could be a way to create spaces that cater to people who typically struggle to find clothing at a more general swap shop.
Final Thoughts on Clothing Swaps
Swapping encourages us to shift the relationship that we have with our clothes and learn to lean into the beauty of preloved. All in all, removing yourself from the endless fast fashion cycle is an important step in slowing down your consumption habits and to prioritize longevity and care.
About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.