An old church, new clothes and fashion on a budget
Let’s swap secrets. I’ll start. You know my grey ankle booties with the black wrap-around belt? And my Ralph Lauren trousers and awesome khaki trench coat? Second hand. Both of them. Yep, my Jones New York LBD too. The truth is that I spend very little on clothing.
Down and Out in Toronto
Long gone are my days of buying two-hundred dollar pants in pairs, on the posh third level of the Toronto Eaton Centre. Back then, shopping was a past time and my large line of credit was, in a way, a lifeline. But things changed. Eventually the credit ran out and my husband and I were new parents earning a fraction of our old incomes. We were barely treading water. Spa pedicures, smart phones and preppy fashions were impossible desires I learned to suppress.
Climbing out of that financial hole meant living strictly within our means, which meant being resourceful about beauty and clothing purchases. Over time I became quite savvy at creating an incredibly low-cost seasonal capsule wardrobe. With a total of twenty pieces or less, I could coordinate many go-to outfits, which would have cost me anywhere from five to fifty dollars. My best kept shopping secrets were “hand me overs” from stylish friends like Natalie and Anya, “new to me” finds from downtown thrift stores and, my favourite, clothing swaps.
Swap ‘Til You Drop
This particular swap was organized by Vicky, a 30-something mom and Ministry of Labour worker, admittedly too lazy to photograph, post and meet-up to sell multiple articles of clothing, as was custom within the Facebook group we belonged to. And who could blame her? That’s exactly why I was going! With help from Robin, she rented a space and spread the word. I loved the idea of a large community swap and, knowing what to expect, clicked “Going” as soon as the event appeared in my timeline. More responses rolled in and a few questions from first-timers popped up in the comments, “I’ve never done this…how does it work?” After a decade of swapping, I can tell you they all pretty much work the same, but can be noticeably different experiences.
My first swap was in Ella’s cozy first floor Junction apartment. We milled about her kitchen and living room where the neatly folded skirts and shirts were outnumbered by our glasses of Shiraz. There was more socializing than swapping among the women but I maintained an equal interest in both. By evening, I was buzzed and giddy with excitement over two fabulous cropped jackets. I remember feeling guilty. It literally felt like a steal.
Then came the others. Meryl’s had the best vibe; vegan desserts baked in the kitchen while strangers removed their tops and bottoms freely in her living room. Laurel’s was the most sophisticated. The wine and cheese she served were the perfect pair to the dress and belt the stylist matched for me. I know, a stylist, right? The CAMH fundraiser was the largest. Women of all sorts kept arriving with fresh items for the wardrobe racks. The very reasonable ten dollar donation bought me two coats and a bag of fall tops. The success I had that day became the standard by which all future swaps would be measured.
Next Stop, Swapper’s Paradise
When I left for the Vicky and Robin’s event, it was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon. Families strolled the store-lined streets in long sleeves and sunglasses. I on the other hand, lugged an old suitcase packed with summer wear circa 2014 onto the empty 504 streetcar. It seemed almost ungodly to spend the first beautiful day of the season in a church basement. Nevertheless, spring was here, I wanted new clothes, and this was the prudent way to do it.
The intention, as with any swap, was to purge my closet of items that no longer fit my taste or body, and to collect a few new treasures passed on from fellow swappers. According to the event page, eighty women were attending. Eighty! Just imagine rack upon rack of colourful sleeveless tops, maxi dresses, denim jackets, and perfectly good wedge sandals. Heaven! With any luck I’d find a couple of simple dresses to slip into on hectic mornings.
The huge United Church building had several entrances. I randomly chose the open side door which led to an oddly-located vintage shop filled with must and old brass. A woman with straw-coloured hair and rounded shoulders pointed me down the dim stairs toward the gym. I mentioned coming back to check out her shop, but knew I wouldn’t even as I said it. She probably knew too.
I opened the door and my jaw and shoulders must have fallen. This was it? In the middle of the basement auditorium were just a few tables topped with clothing and shoes. The room underwhelmed with emptiness. There were no rolling racks, mirrors, no music and definitely no wine or cheese. Not quite a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping experience. Not that I expected it to be. Or that I’d ever actually been to Saks. Two average looking women perused the tables picking up items along the way. Two other women, who I presumed to be the organizers, sat on the edge of the stage with a sad jar of cash and miscellaneous things about.
“Hi, thanks for coming.” I recognized Vicky from her
profile picture. The organizers both had a mixed ease about them, split between a laid back attitude and resignation. Vicky moved about being a pleasant hostess and trying on dresses. Robin, a simply dressed, boho-chic looking type, who apparently put everything together, was standing against the stage with her hands in her pockets, appearing just as she described herself, “…a stay at home mom with time on her hands”. We all chatted as I distributed my tops, skirts and dresses among tables labeled 4-6 and 8-10 in crooked writing on construction paper signs hung from single pieces of scotch tape.
Soon enough I was perusing the tables and surveying from arm’s length dresses hung between my thumb and pinky fingers. I tried a few tops on over my strategically chosen fitted tank and used my camera phone in place of a mirror to get a look. As I did, a few other women arrived, some alone, one with her toddler, and a couple of giggly friends. Everyone had the same reaction. “Oh no, did I miss the crowd?” lol.
A few of us made small talk while sifting through skorts (seriously, someone brought at least three pairs of adult size skorts).Funny enough, even with the small turnout, I heard the same justifications and questionable advice overheard at every swap:
“If I don’t wear it I’ll take it to another swap”
“I don’t know. Is this too small? What do you think?”
“Yes, that coat is great on you!”
It wasn’t ‘great’ on her. The fuzzy white coat, on the slender brunette, looked to me like a well executed Cashmere fashion project. When my opinion was solicited, I shared it politely. “The vest you had on earlier was more flattering.” She walked around in the coat unsure but desperately wanting to like it as much as she liked the idea of it. I knew that feeling. It was not the feeling of a coat you should take home. I didn’t bother to see if she did.
In the end, my five dollar entrance fee rid me of several old items and bought me a cream handbag, a black clutch, two spring/summer tops, and a blue plaid shirt which I can’t wait to pair with ankle length denim and neutral heels (which I’ll get on Orfus Road using a Le Chateau gift card).
Vicky and Robin were left with about eighty dollars out-of-pocket for the church rental but wouldn’t accept any more from those who offered. They were happy enough knowing we all got a few good finds, the rental fee would go to the church and the remaining clothes to Oasis Clothing Bank.
Swapped before? Tell me about your best find.
New to swapping? Here are some of my personal tips to get you started.
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