Clothing exchanges are hardly a new idea, but they are becoming more common. In the last year, I was invited to four swaps, and hosted one of my own. Of course, one can only participate in so many of these events before running out of items to contribute, so twice a year is probably the limit for most people. Planning according to season makes the most sense, e.g. summer and winter, or spring and fall. This gives everyone a chance to take stock of what they did and didn't wear over the last six months, clearing out their closet to make room for the next season's attire. To take some of the pressure off, I recommend teaming up with a friend to co-host, holding one of the twice-yearly events at your house, and the other at hers.
The Guest List
I like to cast a wide net, inviting people I know are receptive to the swapping concept, as well as some conspicuous consumers whom I hope to convert to a different way of thinking about acquiring new stuff. I believe the general rule of thumb for event attendance is to expect a 20 percent decline rate. But an exchange requires more of your guests than a typical party, and some of the people you invite may frankly be uninterested in trying on other people's clothes (or contributing some of their own). For these reasons, I'd peg the decline rate at closer to 40 or 50 percent. That said, you should be prepared to accommodate almost everyone you invite in case you end up with a terrific turnout.
When I told my husband about the event, he pointed out that I could run into problems if the people who showed up weren't similar in clothing size. I wasn't concerned, nor, as it turned out, did I need to be. My friends come in all shapes and sizes, and pretty much everyone found at least one item from someone else that worked for her. Some people wear things tight, others wear them loose, particularly when it comes to articles like sweaters and tees. My advice is not to waste time worrying about clothing compatibility among your guests. The point of the event is to have fun, and as long as you present that attitude yourself, nobody is going to take the exchange over seriously.
I sent the invitation using the old paperless standby Evite. Your invite should clearly communicate what to expect from the event so that your guests come prepared, but also present it as something fun, not to be missed. Here's how I worded my last clothing swap invite:
Clothing Swap and Potluck
De-clutter your closet and have a good time while you're at it! Bring any old clothes you don't wear anymore and food or drink to share. If you just did a drop at Goodwill and don't have anything left to offer, come join us anyway - I have a feeling there will be plenty of clothes to go around. And really, it's just an excuse to get together.
Note: I knew that I had a good dozen items to contribute and that a couple of my friends had a lot of stuff to bring as well, so I wanted to encourage people to come even if they didn't have a big ol' bag of clothes in tow. If you prefer that everyone bring enough for a fair trade, you could leave off the bit about coming empty-handed.
You have a lot of flexibility when it comes to serving food and drinks at your clothing exchange. I'd avoid serving a heavy meal because no one wants to try on clothes after stuffing herself. Of course, what you serve will depend on the time of day. A light brunch buffet is a nice, easy option if you're doing it in the morning. Mid- to late-afternoon is a good between-meal time when you can get away with a few light snacks and possibly beer and/or wine. For evening swaps, I recommend starting after the dinner hour and serving wine or cocktails and a couple of sweets.
Morning: Bagels, fruit, pastries. Coffee, orange juice, sparkling wine (for mimosas).
Mid-afternoon: Chips and dip, crudités, fruit, crackers and cheese, cookies. Iced tea, soft drinks, beer, wine.
Late evening: Fruit, cookies, cupcakes, nuts. Sparkling water, wine, cocktails.
A word of warning about serving alcohol: If you or your friends are drinkers, you'll probably serve some libations at your swap. This certainly helps everyone to relax and contributes to a fun, lively atmosphere. Be prepared, though, to experience some "swapper's remorse" the next day if you imbibe a little too much. I, for one, have ended up with a few items that looked a lot better on me when I was wearing my "wine goggles." Fortunately, unlike "shopper's remorse," it didn't pack a hit to my wallet.
Think of your home as a pop-up boutique; you'll want to make it easy for guests to display and sort through the clothing on offer. Chairs, curtain rods, clothes drying racks, and anything else you have on hand for draping and hanging should be put to use. A coffee or dining room table is a good place to lay out folded clothes. Make any extra hangers you have available for guests to use, and encourage them to bring their own as well.
A friend of mine had the brilliant idea to borrow an actual clothing rack to use at my last swap. She found it through the borrowing website Neighborgoods.net. To use the site, one need only fill out a brief registration form, and then search for items to borrow, as well as list items she is willing to loan out. It's easy and free.
You'll need one or more full-length mirrors. Again, consider borrowing or asking a guest to bring one if necessary. You should provide at least one private space for guests to try on clothes. Some people may feel comfortable changing in front of the group, so if you have an extra mirror to set up in the main gathering area, do that as well.
The last item you'll need is sticky labels. I picked up a pack of 2" by 4" labels at Target and cut each one into five strips. Each guest got a stack of label strips to write her name on and use to tag the items she was interested in taking home.
Execution and Etiquette
Serve food and drinks for the first hour of the event. This gives everyone a chance to arrive and lay out/hang up her offerings. You may want to designate certain areas of the house for specific items of clothing, e.g. dresses and skirts in the living room, pants and tops in the dining room, etc. Once everyone has arrived and set up, take another hour or so (depending on how many guests you have and how much clothing is available) for trying on clothes. Tell each person to place her labels on the items she likes and then place them back wherever she found them.
When everyone is done trying things on, it's up to the host to divvy up the goods. For each item with more than one sticker, you'll need to pick a name out of a bowl or hat. Fold the stickers in half (sticky side in, so that they don't all get stuck together), making sure the names are still legible. Any item with only one name will naturally go to that person. Unclaimed items can either go back home to the people who brought them, or you as the host can collect them all to donate to charity.