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The History of Clothing Swaps

September 18, 2020 by Natty

Clothing swaps can be defined as a social meetup where individuals exchange clothing they no longer use or need for clothing or accessories that they think they will. 

Clothing swaps are not a new concept and have existed since the Second World War, but have become more popular in recent years.

Rationing During World War II

During the war, most natural resources and goods were poured into the war effort, resulting in the rationing of food and goods in 1940. 

In an effort to preserve raw materials and factory space for war production activities, rationing was extended to the production and consumption of civilian clothing in 1941.

The rationing of clothes worked on a coupon allocation system where each item of clothing was allocated a point value in addition to money. For example, a dress would require eleven coupons, while a pair of shoes would require five coupons. 

Initially, each adult was given 66 points to use over the course of one year, but over time this number dropped to 24 points. The rationing of clothing and the points system meant that people had to find creative ways to obtain and fix their clothes.

Make Do and Mend

Governments also encouraged this through various initiatives, such as the “Make Do and Mend” campaign, whereby individuals were urged to hand-make and/or repair worn-out clothing. 

As part of this campaign, people were encouraged to learn how to sew, improve their sewing skills, and make new clothing from old fabric. 

Mending of clothing became more critical during this time because it was a cheaper alternative that saved people from using coupons.

Vintage Sewing Machines

The Emergence of Clothing Swaps

Another strategy was the exchanging of clothing.

The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) was established to assist in the aftermath of air raids, and running clothing stores was a focal point of their mission. 

Clothing was made available to people who were bombed out of their homes following air raids. 

The WVS also helped parents that were struggling to clothe their children. Parents could exchange the clothes their children had outgrown and received points that could be used to spend on other clothes.

Modern Day Clothing Swaps

In our modern era, clothing swaps have emerged as an alternative way to shop for clothing. 

Some swaps are more intimate and are held among friends, and some are held as a broader community event where larger amounts of people gather together to swap their clothes and socialize. 

A popular figure in the clothing swap scene is Suzanne Agasi. Agasi is based in San Francisco and started hosting clothing swaps in the late 1990s. She started off hosting them in her home and eventually started hosting them on a larger scale.

Clothing swaps are increasing in popularity due to the sustainable fashion movement, and more and more people are recognizing the benefits of attending a clothing swap.

Aside from becoming a fun alternative to traditional ways of buying clothes, people are participating in clothing swaps for many reasons.

Some are concerned about the negative impact that textile production has on the environment, as well as the social impacts, such as poor working conditions for those making our clothes. For others, it’s a great way to save money on clothing and a way to socialize and meet other people!

Clothing Rack (Portrait)


Although clothing swaps may seem to be a new trend, they have been around for a long time! 

The historical context and nature of clothing swaps may have evolved over time, but the idea and intent have remained the same. Work with what you have and exchange your clothes with others when they no longer meet your needs!


8 Facts About Clothes Rationing in Britain During the Second World War

10 Top Tips for Winning at Make Do and Mend

Q&A With Clothing Swap Founder Suzanne Agasi