Swap parties offer friendly, thrifty get-togethers
Imagine a shopping experience that's more like a treasure hunt. Tables piled with clothes — pants, skirts, dresses, shirts, sweaters, accessories.
None of it is new. All of it still worth wearing. And all of it is free.
This experience is known as a shopping swap. And more and more women are taking part.
A swap is a get-together of women who arrive with clothing, shoes and jewelry they no longer want and leave with something new — all without having to pay for it.
“This is so great for my wardrobe, because I am always getting ‘new' things,” says one swap organizer, Kate Stoltzfus of Garfield. “And I like to know who brought the item I am taking, because then when I wear it, I will think of that person.”
While most swap parties are free, some do charge a nominal fee to cover a room rental or refreshments. Participants often bring food and drinks to share.
There are some rules for swaps — items need to be clean, in good repair and somewhat stylish. And no fighting over items.
Stoltzfus held her first swap in 2012 at her house, but growing interest has forced her to find a larger venue. She found the perfect spot at Harvard & Highland, a second-floor cocktail bar above Union Pig & Chicken in East Liberty.
Clothing swap parties are about a sense of community, says Highland Park resident Jennifer Rocket, who has held swaps and attended the one at Harvard & Highland.
“We bond over the stories behind the clothes,” says Rocket, a designer, who often alters pieces she takes from a swap. “Where was this dress before I wore it? It's fun hearing about events in people's lives where the clothing was a big part of it. I know where I have worn most outfits, and I like to talk about the history of a piece of clothing. I think most women do.”
Rocket comes prepared wearing a pair of leggings and tank top under her dress so she can easily try something on without having to search for a dressing room.
Michelle Sharp of Collier brought seven bags of items to a recent Harvard & Highland event. “I know I have a shopping problem,” Sharp says. “It is hard to let these items go, but I want them to all go to a good home. I like to see what people take.”
One woman's castoff is another woman's perfect outfit, says Lisa Tamres of Squirrel Hill, who hosts an annual event called Dress Exchange. It started 18 years ago when she and some women were sitting at a dance admiring each other's dresses. They decided they were sick of their own wardrobe, so they did a dress exchange, which has turned into a clothing swap.
The increased interest in vintage items and the importance of recycling have contributed to the swaps' popularity.
But, Tamres says, it's about more than the clothes.
She and her friends contribute a food item and make an afternoon of it. People volunteer to help set up, she says. Some women act as “fashion consultants,” advising what looks good and what doesn't, Tamres says.
At Wilkins School Community Center in Regent Square, items are collected year round for the swap held the first or second weekend of October. The event is part of EcoFest in partnership with companies that recycle electronics and batteries.
“We enjoy doing it because it's a way to give back to the community,” says Patricia Doody, the director for the Wilkins School Community Center. “We have gotten some pretty cool things in the past.”
With most swaps, anything left over is often donated to a charity.
Julie Peterson of the Mexican War Streets on the North Side donated leftovers to Dress for Success and Treasure House Fashions after an event at her shared North Side studio in September.
An image consultant for House of Colour Pittsburgh, Peterson started a swap as a way for clients to find clothes they looked better in.
“It is so nice to hear someone pick up an item and say, ‘I love this!' ” Peterson says. “I say, if you aren't wearing it, give it up to someone else who might like it or look good in it.
“With these swaps, a client also may take a chance on something they wouldn't pay for. It can give them confidence. It can be empowering, especially if they get compliments on the piece when they try it on. It's also a way to experiment with new colors, too.”
Peterson suggests having the swaps during the day, with some natural light in the room to see how the item's color looks against your skin.
Peterson also urges participants to be aware of what you say about an item — you might be saying something about a piece a guest standing next to you brought.
“Only bring items you would give to your best friend and that are clean and have all the buttons and zippers that work — and no holes,” she says.
“It's transformative,” says Heather Visnesky of Brighton Heights, who attended Peterson's swap. “This is a chance to get some feedback on what looks good and what doesn't. It's ... similar to the thrill of thrift shopping, because you never know what you might find.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7889.