Like much of what’s great about New York, I ended up at my first clothing swap completely by accident after passing it by on the street. The community space where the swap was being held was a block from my apartment and inside I saw the organizer and a clump of women laying out and trying on each others’ clothes. I said hi and that I’d be back, and dashed home to get the ready bags of stuff I had been meaning, for months, to give away.
This was selfish in part; my usual strategy for unwanted items is a semi-regular dump at a Salvation Army location. I figured this local clothing swap would spare me a car trip and I didn’t intend to stay long. I thought I’d relieve myself of these dresses that didn’t fit, shoes and tops I no longer had use for, and go on about my Saturday.
But then someone’s green dress caught my eye. I touched it. It wrapped and had an attractive pattern. It looked perfect for a warm summer day.
“It’s pretty great,” said a woman who turned out to be its owner. “But a gift from my ex, and I need it gone.” Soon I was taking off many layers to put on this gift from a stranger’s former boyfriend. It fit me perfectly. The woman was still nursing wounds from this relationship, that was obvious. She’d once loved the dress, sure, but looked elated to see that it and its baggage would be leaving the room, her house, her life.
Another woman and I continued to pick up each others’ items from the organized piles on the floor. We joked that we looked forward to seeing each other in our Brooklyn neighborhood, wearing these traded pieces. This wasn’t her first rodeo. She sorted through the piles like a professional. A classic red dress with white polka dots made the rounds — at least six people slipped it on and got feedback from the peanut gallery. Someone suggested it needed ankle boots. I thought a leather vest and a belt.
It was so simple an activity. It was simply women coming together and sharing stories and selves through clothes. I spent more than two hours there, and it was easily the highlight of my weekend. What remained at the end of the day was donated to a nearby halfway house.
Clothing swaps are just one offshoot of a massive sharing phenomenon that continues to gain steam. There is research that shows we’re moving away from outright buying models, opting for swapping, lending and bartering instead. Rachel Botsman documents this shift to collaborative consumption in “What’s Mine is Yours” (Harper Business) and has tried out dozens of these methods herself. If you use Netflix, you’re already a part of the change, but loads more businesses and social entrepreneurs are building on this ethos. Freecycle, the gifting network; Book Mooch, the book-trading platform and CouchSurfing, which connects travelers worldwide with free accommodations are just a few examples of this deep desire to reuse and in doing so, to connect.
These values are undeniably Jewish ones — the compulsion to leave a space better than we found it, that we work to minimize excess and to create less waste. Owning less and sharing more are also tenets of any well-run kibbutz. That is a model where it’s been clear for decades that an individual’s needs can be better met if she contributes to something larger than herself.
Of course there’s also the undeniable pleasure of getting something for what feels like nothing.
Far better than leaving a bag of unwanted goods on Goodwill’s doorstep was watching other women get excited about and take clothing that I once loved, clothing that had a story that I could share. The ridding itself was cathartic, but the interactions and shared experience was what I’ll remember in the late summer when I put on that green dress.