Should You Rent Your Entire Wardrobe?

When her fiancé moved into her tiny apartment, this clotheshorse proudly downsized her closet by half. Then she found a smart way to feed her shopaholic appetite. Or was it?

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When my fiancé moved into my 350-square-foot studio apartment, I got rid of half my clothing. I was cutthroat but meticulous, reducing the number of hangers until I was taking up just half of the closet I had to walk through to get to the bathroom. Next were the drawers, scooping out kickball league T-shirts and ratty underwear until I had cleared half the space for him. I said good-bye to shoes, too. Not a lot of shoes, but some.

A newly minimized closet was one step toward spatial and financial sanity while living together in a small space. Trust me, I’m not down to three black v-necks and a pair of jeans. I have plenty. I even have a large bin of off-season clothing that I drag out of the depths of the closet twice per year. It’s like seeing old friends again.

My lack of space keeps me from wanting more things. I’ve unsubscribed to most of the online shopping emails that I used to flip through every morning. I tried to block out the sales. I am comfortable in my skin and the clothing I have chosen to keep.

But the internet found me, and told me I wanted more. Clothing rental companies want to feed the shopping beast that lies quietly within me. The rental companies of last decade, like the Sex and the City-famous Bag, Borrow, or Steal, were designed as aspirational outlets. A major business meeting, a social gathering with upwardly mobile acquaintances, or a weekend in the Hamptons: all solved with a rented, big-ticket bag hefted over your shoulder.

Rent the Runway, which launched by renting evening wear by the weekend, found a large market—those who need an evening gown approximately once a year—by reminding potential customers that they wouldn’t want to be caught dead in a cheap dress they found even cheaper on the clearance rack from the Bon Ton.

Today, clothing rental companies make the same promises, but with a much larger array of goodies. “Clothing without commitment,” they shout from their websites, or “access is the new ownership.” Shoppers want to have it all, a month at a time. And they’re getting it.

Rent the Runway has expanded to include an “Unlimited” service, which for $99 per month sends three pieces of desired casual or office-appropriate attire from top designers.

Le Tote is growing and sneaking up on Rent the Runway’s territory, offering subscriptions of three garments and two accessories for $49 per month. Gwynnie Bee has gained popularity for catering solely to women sized 10 through 32, with packages ranging from one to ten items per month (and corresponding monthly subscription costs ranging from $35 to $159).

Some clothing rental companies seem to be talking us out of shopping altogether. The Ms. Collection reminds customers that regular shopping causes you to waste money on clothing that will be out “of style almost the moment you bought it.” Most clothing rental companies offer the chance to buy an item once you’ve tried it, at a reduced price. The clothing you rent can be yours forever, but most likely, it will be yours for a few weeks, until shiny new pieces arrive by mail.

“The idea of never wanting to be seen in the same thing twice is a legacy of fast fashion,” said Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. A great deal of Overdressed chronicles Cline coming to terms with her own piles of inexpensive, shoddily constructed clothing that was easy to purchase on the slightest of whims, but hard to maintain over time. “Rational people feel comfortable being seen in the same thing,” Cline said.

But by proclaiming, in a big, bold font, that we can have a neverending wardrobe, clothing rental websites are trying to talk us out of being rational people. These companies are so focused on telling us how frequently we should be able to have new things in our closet, but may not have seen their business plans through far enough to consider environmental impacts. The planet is already struggling in the wake of shoppers relying on Forever21 and other notorious fast-fashion retailers for their cheap thrills.

One clothing rental company I contacted couldn’t tell me how quickly it cycles through garments before the ones that aren’t sellable are sent to charity. Nor were they ready to tell me how long a garment is typically rented before it’s taken out of rotation, or how many seasons a garment might be available for rental before being retired.

For special occasions in the age of Facebook and Instagram, renting is a very reasonable option. But for everyday wear, the need to magically receive new clothing in the mail every month is a chief example of America’s insatiable desire to consume. Even when we can’t afford the expensive new dress, we want to be able to try it on. Just for one night.

Clothing rental role models do exist. One of them is Alison Gary, who has blogged at Wardrobe Oxygen since 2005, frequently shares Gwynnie Bee rentals in her outfit photos that are highlighted in almost-daily blog posts.

Gary’s experience renting clothing seems far from frivolous. She said that renting from Gwynnie Bee has helped her explore how different plus-size-friendly designers fit, and noted that those pieces are often of better quality than she might be able to find in stores. “I can rent an expensive well-made dress from them for the cost of an ill-fitting one I found at a cheaper retailer’s clearance rack,” she said, “And I don’t even have to foot the dry cleaning bill after wearing it.” The service also helps fill gaps in her wardrobe that result from a size that can fluctuate with the season or life changes. But Gary is the exception.

Otherwise, clothing rental seems to be designed for the shopper who can’t commit to having a certain style in her closet for more than a season. Instead of choosing clothing that she loves and wants to wear for years to come, she chooses to pay for an endless rotation. Those of us who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books know that getting a new dress was a big deal for Laura—it happened about once a year. Fabric was expensive. Clothing was an investment. Anyone who had a grandmother who lived through World War II knows that you wore your clothes until they were threadbare because wartime looked down on excess. And while we are far from the days of covered wagons and ration cards, we now live in a time where 10.5 million tons of clothing end up in landfills every year. Most of us can buy a new dress more than once a year. But we don’t need a new dress every month.

“Renting clothing is hopefully one component of a slow-fashion future,” Cline said. “People aren’t just going out and buying new. The rental theory is a good one, and in theory, very sustainable.” But she has concerns that the marketing around such endeavors is focused on the temporary thrill and has yet to explore the long-term impact. When a customer tosses a once-worn dress into a bag to send back to the rental company, she doesn’t have to think twice about how she would have to clean or care for that garment if she were to wear it for years to come. She sends the garment away and forgets about it. And on to the next one.

That’s not a life I’m comfortable with. Until clothing rental comes with a healthy dose of transparency, I’m not going to let them win. At least, not in my own closet.


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