Camille Baker: Clothing swap hostess extraordinaire
“They’re sort of like a new version of the Tupperware party of the 50s and 60s, or the lingerie party of the 80s, or the showers that women do for weddings and babies,” says Camille Baker, who’s been hosting clothing swaps for a network of girlfriends since 1993. “It’s just a different kind of home-based social activity – similar but with a different face.”
Every few months, one of Camille’s clothing swap invites appears in my email inbox. With a dozen years of experience under her stylish belt, Camille has developed a list of rules to keep everyone swapping smoothly:
- Bring clothes you don’t wear anymore but still value;
- Bring clothes in good shape, which you would try to sell or give to friends – if you bring good stuff, you’ll get good stuff;
- If you don’t have clothes to bring, please still come anyway – someone ALWAYS brings four bags by themselves;
- Bring your girlfriends – the more people, the more clothes, the more clothes, the more fun;
- Bring munchies and drinks (alcohol or not) if you want;
- Please stay around to visit and meet other women – this is an opportunity to have some female time, which many of us have less and less time to do;
- Also: it’s not nice to pre-view clothes before we start, so please wait until enough women have arrived and everyone has a fair chance to get the ultra gems.
- ****Recruits with cars are always needed to take the remaining clothing to the Downtown East Woman’s Centre - giving to the most needy women in the city.
“When I first started doing it, it was absolutely self-preservation. It was like: okay, we’re all poor-ish or have money occasionally and when we have a chance, we can go out. A lot of people at that time were going to Value Village,” she says. “At the time, we all were going over to each other’s places with small bags of things and saying: ‘I’ve got this bag of things I’m going to give away, but before I give them away do you want to have a look at them?’ So I thought: ‘why don’t we just get a whole bunch of women together like that and make it a party?’”
Everyone arrives with their bags of clothes and sorts them into piles in the living room: the pants pile, the skirt pile, the shirt pile, etc. We retreat to the kitchen to share food and conversation for a while, waiting til everyone arrives and lays out their offerings. Each swap is a totally different experience, with guest numbers ranging from about six up to 40. I missed the 40-person event, but Camille says it got pretty crazy and was hard to get near the clothes.
Often we are strangers to one another and every time there is at least one new person.
“I like that we’re all sort of different, but this thing that brings us together is these heaps of clothing,” Camille says, estimating that about 60 percent of her current wardrobe has come from the swaps. “There’s always so much for everybody to explore usually and I find people get into conversations with each other spontaneously – and I really like that.”
Camille says the topic of clothing swaps was featured in a Georgia Straight article published around 2000 – and it sounds like other gals’ swaps can get pretty mean.
“I read all sorts of things – horror stories about people who had a large number go in and pick fights with each other and there was this really weird nastiness and I’m not sure what that’s about. I’ve never seen that,” she says.
I agree that every swap at Camille's has been friendly, welcoming, and civilized; otherwise, I would get scared and bolt away, never to return! At Camille’s swaps, we sift through the clothes quite gently - no elbows nor fists assisting our selection process. Often we’ll find a particularly charming item and try to find someone who will fit it. With the blinds drawn, we strip down to our underwear and try on outfits, often suggesting items to each other: “Hey! Maybe you'll fit this!”
Now 39, Camille says it’s become more difficult to get people together for the swaps – and for all social events generally – because these days we tend to get busy with projects and those of us with kids often have family events on the weekends. In most cases, our incomes are higher than they were in the past and we have less need to rely on free clothes. Even so, the clothing swaps give us a chance to socialize, thanks to Camille’s unending hospitality.
"I'm at this place where I can't stop now - even though we're at a place where people have more money and less time," says Camille, who is one busy woman herself.
She's working on a PhD in Networked Performance Media at the SmartLab Digital Media Institute in the University of East London, using “all kinds of crazy technology.” Camille also plays in an industrial-electro-disco three-piece known as Ultrapuss, and she's the executive director of her own non-profit, The Escape Artists Society, that promotes live and web-based art and performance events. But no matter how much she has on the go, Camille remains true to her roots as a social animal.
“I think it’s really important to do social activities somewhat regularly because I think it’s just like other things: you’ve got to debrief or decompress – in ways other than watching TV,” says Camille, pausing thoughtfully when I ask why she's enjoyed hosting the swaps for so many years. “I’m into community-building and social activities. I like to have excuses to socialize and I like to create opportunities for other people to socialize – whatever those opportunities may be, whether they’re clothing swaps, dinners, parties, band, whatever. I guess I have some bizarre need to put on events."
Camille’s website is at: http://www.swampgirl67.net