17 Nov 2009

“Fashion Fill” The Little Black Dress Swap

Elizabeth, last name withheld,  snags a festive grape sheath during the  Little Black Dress Swap this past Saturday. Photo by  host Suzanna.

Elizabeth, last name withheld, snags a festive grape sheath during the Little Black Dress Swap this past Saturday. Photo by host Suzanna.

If money were no object, we would pick party dresses off  gilded racks like fruit off trees, order up dresses for the grand ball from couture dressmakers  in Milan  and Paris or over at those glassy buzz-in boutiques flanking Mazza Gallerie,  but this being Capitol Hill circa 2009, both savvy and thrift prevail.  The economic downturn of the past year has made us resourceful in many things, and fashion is no exception. Some women have found a way to have their dress and wear it, too.

Enter the Little Black Dress Swap.

A fashion forward resident by the name of Suzanna hosted such an even at her Northeast Capitol Hill home this past Saturday afternoon, with the goal of sending every one of the 13 to 15 women attending home with a special, pre-owned dress  she could wear to a holiday party, formal event or just a very, very good date night.

“With the economy being what it is, I am not going to buy a new dress with six formal ones in the closet, already,” said Suzanna, [last name withheld] host of the Little Black Dress Swap. Suzanna, an architect and mother of a toddler, had attended  a couple children’s clothing swaps on the Hill, which happen periodically at homes and in church halls, which sparked the idea of an adult-sized swap, tailored to a specific item–formal dresses and accessories. She sent a message  to the Moms on the Hill listserv back in October advertising a dress swap for November.

“It was close enough to the holidays where people are thinking, ‘what am I going to wear?,’  but when there was still time to do alterations,” she said.

The deal: to bring dresses and shoes and purses you are no longer attached to or which no longer fit, to the swap, where they were sorted by size and  hung on racks.  Then the fun began. For  the first 45 minutes, participants tried on all the clothes they liked, checking themselves out in full length mirrors installed in Suzanna’s open space living/dining area.

“We just closed the window shades…everyone was comfortable. Most people wore a tank top or a bathing suit they could just throw things on…I knew about three women and all the rest were women I had never met before,” Suzanna said.

And yes, some brought a bottle of wine to share. They were all getting undressed in a rowhouse living room cum communal dressing room while the kid and the husband were out.

“We all picked numbers and whoever picked a 1 went first, ” she noted, and so on. “Everyone had a really good attitude about that,” she said. “Everyone went home with something. That was my biggest fear–someone’s going to come, bring a bunch of stuff and leave with nothing.” Didn’t happen.

“Everyone took home one or two dresses,” she said. Participants ranged in size from a 0 to a few in the 12s or 14s, so this was no mean feat. The take included  a lot of black dresses, a lot of strapless gowns, a purple number, a couple that had served as bridesmaid gear and even a blue sequined dress ready to sparkle at a soiree once more. There were some logistical issues involved.

“I had three dresses I was going to get rid of completely-but a couple of dresses I wanted to hang on to in case I had another kid,” Suzanna said, thinking of a size 12 charcoal and black dress from White House Black Market (hey, didn’t the First Lady famously wear a dress from there for a television appearance?) which  she wore in the months after the birth of her son, before she lost the baby weight. So, she gave the option of lending out a dress, but this didn’t translate well into actual practice–off-the-second-use rack formal dresses usually need a bit of an alteration for each woman.

With the mirrors and imagination, the women could envision what the dress would look like if it was brought in a bit here, raised there,  if she got a new bra, and such, Suzanna noted. But sentimentality and some practicality made some balk at the prospect of their dress being forever altered, never to return to their closet or an inauguration again.

“My first selection was one dress that I said I was going to alter to make it shorter,” Suzanna said. However, this made the woman who brought it a little nervous, she said.  She had envisioned perhaps wearing it again.

Then, after everyone made their selections, Suzanna had trouble parting with her size 12 dress that cost her $200 dress and the other woman had trouble parting with her dress she’d worn only once. In the end, each decided it was a wash, and to relinquish the rights to the beloved dress of a bygone event. Sigh.

Now, our savvy swapper has a sexy, (I saw the photo–nice fit, Suzanna!) strapless BCBG Max Azria tea length dress of bold horizontal black and white stripes which she is going to shorten to above the knee. After that, it is only a matter of days before she kicks up her heels at her husband’s swanky holiday party, rumored to be at the W Hotel this year.  But, the “best thing about a clothing swap is when somebody picks something you liked and worn and  then they try it on and like it,” Suzanna says. “It is like, Score.! I got something for free.”

“Everyone had a good time. A couple of my friends hung out for awhile afterwards. A couple people were like, ‘okay, now I have to find an event to wear it to,’ and someone was like, ‘let’s all have a cocktail party where we all wear our new dresses!'”

Now, our new Dress Swap Czar is looking forward to possibly having a larger event in a bigger, more neutral community space for the next dress swap. I say, let’s put in a runway for a fashion show afterward. Dress-wearers of all types,  sizes and shapes,  genders, and residents of the White House unite!

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  • Jen DeMayo

    Dang! I wanted to go to this!

  • This is great! Reminds me of the Naked Lady Parties my girl friends and I used to have. It can be sad seeing someone look better in something you once owned, but it’s great seeing that it’s going to get worn again.

  • Fantastic idea! I’ve heard of designer jean swap parties, but a dress party is even better: usually fancy dresses cost a bunch and are gently used, but can only be worn once or twice due to their nature.

  • Really great concept Suzzane!
    Bridesmaid dresses swap event could be next to plan.

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