Ellen Freeman Roth                      

January 17, 2008

Love your outfit! Can I borrow it?

Would two teens wear the identical dress to a party? Never. But would they borrow a friend's dress and happily wear it? More and more, the answer seems to be: absolutely.

"You get more variety," explains Sarah Driscoll of Braintree, a sophomore at Northeastern University who has borrowed shirts, pants, and shoes from girlfriends. "It's a fashion trend."

Several factors are fueling the borrowing trend among young women, according to Margaret Rucker, a professor in the division of textiles and clothing at the University of California at Davis. For one, fashion fads cycle so quickly and feel so disposable, there's less emotional investment in clothing, she says. Meanwhile, even kids affluent enough to buy a piece of pricey designer clothing are reluctant to wear it over and over and over again. Add in the recent taste for vintage (translation: used) clothing and suddenly any friend's wardrobe is fair game.

"My girls are constantly borrowing and lending clothes," says Susan Rosenberg, a mother in Berlin Borough, N.J. "It started around eighth grade and has continued into college, when [girls] borrow from guys as well - sweats, flannel bottoms, shorts. Throughout high school, the borrowing included every kind of item. And I mean every. It's like one big communal closet."

Living in a dorm or sorority only increases the opportunities to trade clothing. Emily Neger, a student at Tufts University, says that with a friend's closet just a few feet away, borrowing clothes, especially for themed parties, is convenient, cheaper, and better for the environment.

"In addition to not buying consumer goods," she says, "we don't have to drive anywhere."

So, do pals who wear Prada have more coveted wardrobes?

"There are definitely 'better' closets," Neger continues, "but I wouldn't say that it's based as much on brand name here as on someone's personal style."

While boys may just rifle through a buddy's laundry to find a pair of clean sweats, girls typically ask if they can borrow clothing, sometimes dropping hints ("Oh, I have nothing to wear"), other times asking directly.

"Sometimes you see something on a friend and say, 'That's completely adorable! Can I borrow it?' " says Dara Levitan, a Weston High School sophomore. While being spotted in the same outfit as someone else is embarrassing, she says, someone who borrows your clothes is endorsing your good taste.

Beyond temporarily expanding one's wardrobe, there is an element of social ritual in borrowing, says Rucker, who specializes in consumer psychology and decision-making. "You get some of the positive vibes from a person you respect and admire."

She suggests that borrowing provides "positive contamination," much like buying a celebrity's auctioned garment creates a link for the buyer. Swapping clothing with friends can build, strengthen, or maintain bonds.

Every borrower needs a lender, and while some borrowers are vigilant about returning things quickly and in good condition, others are more complacent. Stephanie Solomont, a Weston High School junior, lends frequently but says there are instances when reclaiming can be tricky.

"There are times when half my wardrobe is out," she says. "They'll have [an item] for a long time and if you're not talking to them as much or you have a fight, it's hard to get it back."

While kids may take it all in stride, some parents aren't fans.

"I get annoyed just thinking about the subject," says Lisa Heller, a New Orleans mother of two teenage girls. "I've tried to set parameters but am ignored. I do not hear about the condition of items when they come back because the girls know they would get no sympathy from me."

Some borrowed items are kept for so long that both parties consider the situation permanent. But those who hope to get a beloved article of clothing back should beware of borrowers with poor memories.

"My daughter had some items 'borrowed without permission' at camp, and she asked for them back," Heller says. "The borrower claimed not to have them, but my daughter saw her wearing them in a Facebook photo. The items were retrieved in a rescue mission one weekend."