Share, don’t shop: exploring value, sociality and the ‘alternative’ at clothing swaps



Since the 2000s, second-hand clothing consumption has increased rapidly in acceptability, visibility and fashion-ability in the UK. Diversifying from informal, domestic sites like charity shops and car-boot fairs, second-hand channels now include more formalised, profit-driven retail spheres, including vintage boutiques, chain stores and online marketplaces. Clothes swaps are perhaps less visible due to their informality and ad-hoc organisation. However, within local communities swaps have begun to proliferate- from student union free-for-alls, to swap parties, to ‘gender swap’ events for trans people- and there is now at least one dedicated clothes swapping app, Nuw. This essay analyses the growing activity of clothes swapping as material-cultural practice. Drawing on interdisciplinary theories spanning cultural geography, anthropology and feminist theory, I explore three case studies in Norwich, UK. Exploring different types of swaps allows a wider view of swapping practices; the interplay of space, exchange and sociality; and the diverse journeys or ‘flows’ which garments take as ‘mobile’ matter, rather than merely the accumulated possession of individuals (Gregson and Beale 2004, p.692). Since clothing enables exploration of the self, I consider how swaps sustain collective negotiations of identity and style. At private swaps, for example, clothing’s inalienability from previous wearers can prove problematic, blurring boundaries between self and other, whereas at public swaps, the opportunity to experiment with style can be liberating. Finally, I examine swapping’s relationship to wider fashion systems, both dependent on and undermining first-hand consumption. Participants’ attitudes and motivations often imply opposition to mainstream fashion, though this is complicated by the flow of clothing into swaps and the volume of their clothing acquisition. Nevertheless, in circumventing the pressures and ethical issues of the fashion industry, swappers may find space in which to question and challenge dominant modes of consumption.


secondhandfashion studiescultural studiesclothing swapsclothes exchange
  • Issue: 17
  • Page/Article: 180-205
  • DOI: 10.18573/jomec.225
  • Published on 9 Dec 2022
  • Peer Reviewed