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In these tough economic times, you are probably shopping less, denying yourself that cool hat, great bag, nifty belt, smashing scarf. But I ask you: is it good for the nation if we sacrifice our fashion sense? Dowdiness is not American. (Exhibit A: The Soviets.) Plainness is not patriotic.
So, I am inviting you to an Accessory Swap at my house. Everyone should bring roughly 10 items to give away. The items should not be broken or otherwise on their way to Goodwill or the trash. Rather they should be things you are tired of, or that don’t look good on you or that don’t suit you for some reason. If all goes well, everyone should go home with about 10 new accessories— without a single dollar spent!
I hope you can participate in the Accessory Swap (also known, in honor of our new president, as The Audacity of Accessorizing).
WHEN I SENT OUT THIS E-MAIL TO 15 OR so girlfriends in and around Baltimore earlier this year, I had no idea what kind of responses I’d get. I knew that, like me, some of the gals I invited shop the local consignment stores— Vogue Revisited in Hampden or Newbury and Smith in Mount Washington, for example— and the Best Dressed Sale at Evergreen Museum and Library in the fall and the Nearly New Sale at GBMC each spring. (Newsflash: It’s May 2 through 9 this year.)
But I didn’t know how they’d feel about bypassing the middleman altogether— or, really, the middle woman, because that’s who presides over consignment stores and hospital sales— and trading face to face. Maybe they’d think it was a little downmarket or weird, kind of like a garage sale in which you don’t make any money. Maybe they didn’t want to run into someone at Rocket to Venus wearing the earrings their own aunt had given them four years before.
Not to worry. Almost immediately, the replies came in saying, to paraphrase, “yes, yes, yes.” And though one friend’s husband made fun of the idea, I could tell he was sad not to be included.
THE IDEA FOR THE ACCESSORY SWAP WAS, like most things in my life, a combination rip-off/modification of something that already existed. Back in November, I’d seen a woman named Nancy Murray wearing a beautiful dress, asked her where she’d gotten it, and she replied, “Switch ’n Bitch.” Though it’s now been renamed Changing Room Parties, the idea hasn’t changed: twice a year, a group of women get together in the Fells Point home of Megan Ryan to swap clothes. Ryan, a former chef at Bicycle restaurant and culinary teacher at Kenwood High School who is now a curriculum writer, started the swap in 2004. “A couple of friends and I used to drive up to Connecticut to go to church rummage sales. What they called junk, we loved,” she says. “We thought about our joy going to those sales and thought, ‘Why don’t we do that with our own clothes?’”
Ryan invited 10 women to the first swap, trying to ensure there would be at least two people of every size, so everyone would have at least one other person whose clothes could potentially fit them. Since then, the core group of eight to 10 swappers has convened twice a year— and they have the clothes to prove it. Ryan’s mother happened to be in town visiting during a swap and scored a vintage leopard print A-line jacket. Heather Blackwell, an elementary school guidance counselor, gets her entire wardrobe at the swap each year. Leah Cooper, who works in graduate admissions at the Maryland Institute College of Art, says there are days when she looks at her outfit and realizes everything, except her underwear, came from the swap. Her most recent prize is a maroon cashmere winter coat. “It’s as fun to find something for yourself as it is to see something of yours on someone else,” says Cooper. “It’s nice to see people walk around Baltimore in your own clothes.”
I loved the spirit of Switch ’n Bitch, but the idea of sorting through and trying on clothes— and finding space in my house for others to do so— didn’t thrill me. Plus, there’s often a painful aspect to shopping for clothes, especially for those of us who are, well, slightly more rounded than we’d like. But trying on jewelry and browsing bags and shoes sounded like the games of dress-up I used to play as a child, i.e., fun. And I was pretty sure that if I had a few (dozen) pairs of earrings or necklaces or purses that were great and good, but not getting any use, others did, too. Thus: the Accessory Swap.
On the appointed Sunday morning, I set up folding tables in my dining and living room, each dedicated to a different genre of accessory. When the first guest, my friend Catharine, arrived and set out her stuff, I immediately saw a few items I coveted: a beaded evening bag, a pair of earrings made from real hydrangea flowers and a beautiful pair of silver flats. She spied a few of my things that appealed to her, too.
“You want to engage in some back-door dealing before the others arrive?” I asked her. Though tempted, we decided to play it clean and instead went into the kitchen, where we discovered what has become a regular occurrence at my parties: my cat had helped herself to the cheesecake I’d planned to serve. No matter— I had made a crustless vegetable quiche and set out some fresh strawberries and the other guests soon arrived with homemade biscuits, banana bread and scones for our potluck brunch.
As people laid out their wares, we chatted about what it was like to comb through our closets and jewelry boxes. “I was worried people wouldn’t like my stuff,” I said. Everyone nodded in agreement, especially Shannon, who was utterly convinced no one would want anything she’d brought. I think many also felt similarly to Catharine, who’d confided to me that she had brought good stuff but not really expensive stuff. (Jessica brought a bracelet that we all decided was “real gold,” and thus advised her to un-swap and sell somewhere.)
Once everyone had brunched and browsed the tables, which were filled to capacity with all manner of earrings, necklaces, scarves, hats, bags and shoes (as well as two Chihuahua-sized sweaters that Shannon said made her dog angry), I explained that our swap would more or less work like the traditional Yankee Swap, with each gal picking a number and taking her turn selecting an item based on the number. “The difference is that no one can steal an item from you once you’ve got it,” I said, a comment that prompted a host of stories about Yankee Swaps-gone-bad. Also, since it wouldn’t be fair if one person always chose last during each round of shopping, we decided that with each new round the order would reverse.
Catharine had picked No. 1 and so she went right over and grabbed a pair of Art Nouveau sterling silver earrings with garnets. “Whose were they?” I asked. Shannon said, beaming, “Mine!” I was second and dithered a bit— the beaded evening bag? the knitted hat?— before finally settling on a choker with a rectangular stained glass pendant. “That was mine,” said Jessica, clearly proud. Then Annliese took a belt brought by Sarah (who wasn’t able to come because she had the stomach flu, but sent her stuff over anyway). Then Elizabeth grabbed a pair of knee-high black leather boots brought by Jessica. And when Jessica picked a red Chinese robe, Elizabeth said, “An ex-boyfriend gave that to me just before we broke up. I never knew what to do with it.” So Jessica made off with a robe and a story.
And that’s the way it went, round after round as each pick caused delight not only for the receiver— “Something new and nifty, for free!”— but also for the giver— “People like my taste!” (And: “Thank God I finally got rid of that!”) It was fun to see what people picked— and to note that some gals who previously didn’t know each other kept picking each other’s stuff. Some people piled their stuff in the corner, but I just put it all right on. After five rounds, I was wearing three necklaces, a bracelet and a scarf.
For most of the swap, my husband was hiding upstairs but I’m sure he rolled his eyes at what, at times, sounded like a “Saturday Night Live” skit lampooning female conversation: “Oh, that looks great on you.” “That really sets off your eyes.” “My head is too big for that, but it works for you.” But, who cares? We were having fun and recycling our butts off. And I’m proud to say that most everything got re-homed (some of it destined for re-gifting— shhhh!).
If the guests had arrived tentatively, they left happy. Catharine seemed shocked by her good fortune at snagging a pair of Dansko sandals that Jessica had worn only once because they were too big. “Those things are freaking $100, so I’m psyched,” she said. Later she told me, “I added all these pieces to my repertoire that I wouldn’t necessarily have spent on.” That’s exactly it. The stuff I got I probably never would have paid money for in a store— not just because of the price, but because it wouldn’t have occurred to me to buy it. But with no risk, I was game to try something different. And, too, each piece carried with it an additional pleasure: the memory of the swap.
A few days later, Annliese e-mailed me saying she felt guilty when she got her stuff home and saw all that she’d gotten. “I made out like a bandit,” she wrote. I told her not to worry. We all did. Besides, she could always bring it back to the next swap. 9
The Swap Scoop
>> Shoot for eight to 10 people and ask them to bring about 10 items each. Any less, there’s not enough variety and quantity. Any more, and the swap could get overwhelming.
>> Be sure to inform guests that the swap is not the place for worn, outdated, stained or broken items, but rather good stuff that just doesn’t suit them anymore.
>> Even if you don’t want to choose numbers out of a hat, decide on some structured method of swapping. Otherwise, as Megan Ryan says, “the alpha females get all the good stuff.”
>> Get creative. Swap accessories, housewares, books— even plantings.
>> Visit changingroomparties.com for resources to help you organize your own swap.