My top for your pants

The Baltimore Sun

Otis Redding croons on the overhead speakers as Dionysus restaurant owner Lynn Hafner sets up shop for her biannual "clothing swap."

Her pink, girls-only invitations went out via e-mail, to every MySpace friend she has, and they were printed out on fliers to be posted around Baltimore. And she is not kidding about her "no testosterone allowed" message.

"You're not a girl," she says bluntly when a man carrying his girlfriend's backpack full of clothing comes into the Mount Vernon restaurant.

"But I'm carrying girl stuff," he replies incredulously. "Does that count?"

No, it doesn't.

Why does a restaurant owner adopt the motto of an 8-year-old girl's tree house twice a year?

"I decided to do it because ... I just want to bring strong, cool women together," says Hafner.

A chance to bond with other women, as well as to get free clothes in tough economic times, seem to be the main reasons behind clothing swaps in the Baltimore area.

Rachel Kufner of Mount Vernon, who attended the swap at Dionysus in June, held a swap in her home last spring and said it was a huge success.

"It was kind of like a nice girl's day," she says. "We had fun. ... We still wear the stuff that we got from it."

Swaps are a great way to find new pieces, says Deborah Fritz of Mount Vernon, rifling through the massive stack of clothing piled onto a row of Dionysus' tables. "It's a good way to share the wealth with other women," she says.

This wealth includes everything from casual clothing to career-wear. And depending on how many guests are invited, there can be a lot to choose from.

Each woman brings a bag (or several bags) of unwanted clothing and lays each item out for display. Once all the women arrive, the sifting begins, as everyone is allowed to find, try on and take each item they like on a first-come, first-dibs basis.

Xander Dumas, who organized a clothing swap at a charity event in February called Lady-Fest, said the event was designed to unite the women of Baltimore, as well as expand the wardrobes and de-clutter the closets of attendees.

"Everybody wants to go shopping, and everybody wants to get a new wardrobe, but it's really, really expensive, so we figured that this would be a great opportunity to get a completely new wardrobe for, like, five dollars," she said.

"We just wanted something new and fun and to give an opportunity to people to express themselves in a new way," she said.

Wendy Tremayne, founder of the national clothing swap organization Swap-O-Rama-Rama, thinks personal expression is one of the most important aspects of the events she helps organize. Swap-O-Rama-Rama events allow attendees to alter the clothing they find with the help of sewing machines, local designers and, sometimes, silk-screening experts.

While her original idea was to loosen consumerism's grip on society by turning consumers into creators, Tremayne enjoys the fact that in doing this, she's created an outlet for creativity in communities everywhere.

"When you take something as broad as creativity and then you put community together in it ... what you get is people interacting authentically," she said. "We ... don't have mirrors at Swap-O-Rama-Rama, so what happens is people turn to the person next to them - whether they know them or not - and say, 'How do I look?' "

Rosie Behr of Govans, who has been attending clothing swaps for 18 years, says when she attends her book club's biannual clothing swaps, she knows her friends will tell her the truth about what works and what doesn't.

She also appreciates the free clothes. "Because things are free, I'm more likely to try something kind of different than my usual style," she says.

Another bonus is that she can pick up items she might wear only for a particular occasion, such as a pagan wedding. She needed a dress that represented fire for the wedding. She found the perfect dress, wore it to the wedding and returned it to a later swap, without spending a cent.

Organizing A Swap

*Decide what kind of swap you want to have. "I've heard them called a clothing swap, I've heard them be called a Naked Lady event," said Xander Dumas, an organizer of LadyFest's Let Me Borrow That Top Swap. In some swaps, clothing is simply piled on the floor, but in others, you wear everything you bring and trade off pieces as you go "so [eventually] you're naked or your down to your skivvies and whatnot."

*Get the word out. Send a formal invite. Ask folks to RSVP so you have some idea of how many people will show. Make sure to give them the details of how the swap will work. Should they bring shoes and accessories as well as clothing? Be specific.

*Find a venue. It's important to find a location that will fit everyone (and their stuff) comfortably. If that means someone's living room, great, but if you need a larger area, consider a public hall.

*Employ a buddy system. "If ... between your group of friends you have five size 2/4s and you're the only size 10 ... you're not going to want to go to that event," said Dumas. So find somebody your size and invite them to the swap.

Courtney Pomeroy

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