Clothes rental services won’t break our fashion addiction
My relationship with fashion is that of a long-term couple who frequently argue at a pitch that worries the neighbours. It contains passion, guilt, sorrow and frequent spot-cleaning.
I still enjoy the vinegar perfume of glossy magazines and even (as I peer at the price of a coat or boot) the familiar internal screech. I still enjoy a leisurely stroll around the shops, gently fingering a silky sleeve, noting the newer skirt length or ugly shoe index. At its best, getting dressed is an existential pleasure akin to the jolt upon meeting a stranger’s eye across a crowded room; at its worst, like lowering oneself into a cold bath of beans without a single name on your sponsor sheet. I love my clothes, each thing embedded with the sweat of memory, each old dress a welcome surprise.
And yet, when papers started running stories about people not unlike me who were “giving up” clothes shopping, discussing the struggle as if jeans were heroin or shops were sirens, Asos calling to them from the rocks, I was left cold. Did you read them? You couldn’t miss them. Did you try it, too? Did you take a deep breath one January and vow not to step into either Primark or Prada, not to add another going-out top to your heaving drawer, to save the world by wearing the jacket you have? I mean, good on you. Thank you for your service. But what I have always found absent from these stories is why that seemingly simple choice – an apparently passive act – is so incredibly difficult for so many.
One solution for those who wanted to buy less was to rent more. Fashion-rental businesses popped up like sequined moles, promoted by people like Carrie Symonds (who married Boris Johnson in a rented gown) and Gwyneth Paltrow (who is on the US board of an American firm called Rent the Runway – they claim that 20% of the retail market will be rental by 2025). In the UK, the clothes-rental market is predicted to reach almost GBP3bn by 2029. The argument for it is twofold – : it’s a more sustainable choice than buying new clothes, and it allows people to wear clothes they’d never usually be able to afford. Again though, there seems to be an important chapter to this story missing, a whole level skipped. The lift didn’t stop at the 13th floor.
I enjoy the thrill of finding something glorious in a shop but am keenly aware, too, when the excitement comes not from the thing but from the buying itself. A year of not buying new clothes is not a hardship for me, a person who has always worn almost exclusively secondhand clothes and rarely thrown anything away, resulting in outfits that are worn until they fall apart (once, memorably, during an interview with a male TV star, who kindly offered a safety pin). And yet the appeal of renting clothes, to me, is minimal to none. Not for the reason of ickiness that some people share – I don’t mind a dress I wear having a history. And not because I don’t care about dressing up – I insist, in fact, on looking fabulous 40-60% of the time. And not even because a recent study revealed that renting clothes (which involves a large amount of transportation and dry cleaning) is worse for the planet than throwing them away. No, the problem for me is that renting an outfit would erase much of the rare delight of choosing something to keep.
A large part of the thrill of dressing up comes from the risk. The risk of investing in a new jigsaw piece in your aesthetic identity. And that means engaging with a piece of clothing beyond just wearing it to your ex’s wedding. It means washing it, possibly saving up for it; it definitely means wearing it more than once, otherwise what distinguishes this from fancy dress? It means embracing it, and forcing it into the family of your older clothes, into the awkward patchwork of your life.
The thing missing from those stories about people struggling not to buy new clothes is an interrogation into why so many feel that need, into how capitalism turns people into addicts. If fashion brands really cared about the environment they would either overhaul their businesses entirely, meaning massive inevitable losses, or simply close up shop, shutting down a system that runs on production and consumption. And fashion rental feeds that same compulsion, cultivating addictive behaviour for profit. Nobody needs a GBP1,000 handbag, even for a weekend – renting it for GBP50 doesn’t neutralise the insanity. Which is not to say there can’t be joy in fashion, or even in shopping, but why must we kid ourselves that we’re saving the world by babysitting someone else’s dress?
Clothes-rental businesses are as much of a solution to the problem of fast-fashion consumption as a tea towel is when faced with a flood – if we’re serious about real change, somebody needs to try to turn off the tap.