Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Semi-Naked With Strangers [March 12]

Once every change of season I pack my bags, travel to a nearby suburb and get semi-naked amongst a group of strangers. This intimate ritual has become a highlight of my social almanac. Before you jump to conclusions, let me be clear: there’s no hanky-panky involved. The ritual of undressing is called Clothes Swap and it involves a loose collective of about twenty-five women, many of whom only ever meet at these events.

Here’s the drill: you peruse your wardrobe and haul out anything you haven’t worn for at least a year and are unlikely to wear in the near future. The jeans you grew out of and hoped you would shrink back into (now they reproach you for your non-shrinkage every time you open the cupboard). The T-shirt you bought on impulse the day you were too hot in your long sleeves (even though that colour always makes you look like you have an iron deficiency). The boots you ordered online that were never going to fit (what were you thinking?). You are ruthlessly honest with yourself about whether you need this Stuff (the phrase ‘first world problems’ can be very helpful in this process). Then you stash all the Stuff in a big bag and wait for an email to arrive from whoever volunteers to organise the next Clothes Swap.

If you are hosting a Clothes Swap you choose the biggest room in your home and clear the floor. You make sure there’s a mirror in a nearby room. Then you sit back and wait for the stream of women to arrive bearing food, wine and bags of Stuff. Once the clothes have all been heaped into a pile on the floor, the swapping begins.

There is something both liberating and reassuring about getting undressed in front of other women. All those different body shapes and sizes remind you that there is no such thing as a normal female figure, let alone an idealone. Those of us now in middle age hand over our reproaching jeans to younger women who have not yet reached the age of reproach. The younger ones learn that women of their mother’s generation can have decent taste in clothing. And we all take vicarious pleasure in seeing our pre-loved Stuff looking fantastic on someone else’s body.

There’s currently a debate trending about whether well-off middle-class people should be ‘de-cluttering’ their lives. Books are being published with titles like ‘The Life Changing Joy of Tidying Up’. There are too many objects taking up too much mental space, according to these self-help tomes. One women’s magazine is even running a de-cluttering ‘challenge’. Other commentators have countered that you should hang onto your Stuff because your memories are embedded in it.

At our Clothes Swaps we respect both sides of this ‘first world problems’ debate. Yes, we tell each other, we all have too much Stuff. But there is a reason I haven’t yet been able to give away the pleated mini-skirt my mother wore when she was pregnant with me, and that I then wore with Doc Martens as a twenty-something feminist. Our lives are inscribed in the Stuff we own and giving it away can feel like giving away our history.

On the other hand, my mother’s mini-skirt would look fantastic on the twenty-something feminist daughter of my friend who comes to Clothes Swap. Perhaps my history can merge with the history of my friend’s daughter as she treads the streets of our hometown in that little woollen skirt.

The women at our Clothes Swaps are generous, and not just with their clothes. They often compliment each other as they’re trying things on. If they find something in the pile they think would particularly suit another woman, they hand it over. If they take something home and realise it doesn’t suit them, they bring it back to the next Clothes Swap for someone else to try on.

They’re not interested in patting themselves on the back about re-using and recycling resources, about saving money and avoiding waste. There is nothing self-righteous about the mood at Clothes Swap. Mostly we’re semi-hysterical with laughter as we re-live the childhood pleasures of a game of dress-ups. New friendships are formed between strangers as we zip each other into tight frocks. Inhibitions are shed as we’re challenged to try on new versions of ourselves in front of the mirror.

In a world where women are often encouraged to judge, condemn and compete with each other, a Clothes Swap can be an oasis of intimacy and empathy. And to be honest, who doesn’t love getting Stuff for free?


(This column was published in The Guardian in March 2016)